It’s okay if people don’t want to listen to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” anymore; it is vaguely totalitarian to require this nobody you can listen to it more.
The debate over whether to abandon the West is an inevitable result of the clash between two important ideas in contemporary pop culture consumption.
First, there is “optimism.” This concept began as an argument that pop music deserves serious criticism and analysis just as much as forms like rock or jazz; the same idea now underpins efforts to take Marvel movies as seriously as those of Jean-Luc Godard or Martin Scorsese. Then there is “ethical consumerism.” The term once meant things like visiting farmers markets. It expanded to include the requirement that those buying art ensure that the artist’s ideals match their own. Putting even $0.004 in someone like West’s pocket is a sin.
In his recent book, Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change, W. David Marks traces how cultural tastes have evolved in recent years. Long gone are the pundits whose esoteric tastes helped shape what was considered “good” and “worthy of attention.” Today’s consumers are now omnivores, sampling styles from cultures around the world, dipping in and out of genres with the assumption that all styles have something to offer.
“If the old taste was a silent instrument of the power of the elite,” wrote Marx, “the omnivorous taste can be a loud cry of rebellion.” From Taylor Swift to Lil Nas X to the rise of trap music, it’s all on the table for appreciation.
Yet the thirst for status accolades remains. But if art is passed off as good or bad on merit, consumers and critics need a different way to decide what’s in and what’s out. Introduce the new standards.
“Disgust can be noble,” wrote Marx, “when it is used against the power structure, the unrepentant snobs, and the unreformed fanatics.”
The new rules are relatively simple. Artists should support progressive ideals. Guardians should elevate minority artists. Consumers should buy liberal products from liberal artists, even though “liberal” is usually reduced to mean “conventionally diverse” or “supports Democrat politicians.” Cultural appropriation is prohibited. And critics must banish from the canon those that offend modern sensibilities.
“In this way, hypermodern liberalism and cosmopolitanism lead to omnivory and populism—and even a rapprochement with capitalism, as long as the spoils flow to the right people,” Marx wrote. This is a bit verbose; Marx summed it up this way with a rather crude dose of philistinism: “Art must avoid being for the art when social equality is at stake.” (Emphasis in the original.)
Rejecting art for art’s sake is something of a horseshoe idea that unites the far left — autocrats from Joseph Stalin to Mao Zedong dismiss art as anything but a tool to indoctrinate the masses — and the consumerist right, which thinks art is only as valuable as the dollars it produces.
So what happens to art created by people deemed unworthy in our own system? The answer might best be called the Omnivore’s Knot, after the Gordian Knot that so puzzled Alexander the Great.
Both he and modern mutts seem to have arrived at the same decision: to completely cut off the unpleasant creatures. For Alexander, this meant literally cutting the knot instead of trying to untie it. Today’s censors say the works of artists who spew anti-Semitic rants or stupid covid-19 policies should disappear.
It is not enough for people to deprive themselves of these products as a moral position; all others must also be deprived. This is the only way to ensure that no one anywhere can put even a penny in the offender’s pocket.
Spotify has rejected calls to pull West’s music — but only did so by saying it wasn’t really up to them, but his label. Label power also played some role in ensuring artists couldn’t have their work removed when the streaming service sparked controversy by paying Joe Rogan big bucks for an exclusive deal.
If West’s music suddenly becomes unavailable, it will serve as yet another reminder that if you can’t hold a cultural object, you don’t really own it. But hopefully it will make an omnivore or two stop and think about what we lose when art becomes just another front in the socio-political death struggle that many seem to be itching for.