How Should Art Address Violence?
It’s now been 3 months since Childish Gambino dropped “This is America.” Since its release, the song and video have been the focus of countless hot takes, critiques, analyses, and controversies. No matter what you do you can’t escape this song or the accompanying video. While the song has faced some controversy recently due to rumors of plagiarism, “This is America” is regarded by most critics and fans as an incredible song and video that accurately captures the state of America. Many have expressed praise for Donald Glover due to how they think he accurately described the state of American politics and various social issues.
I say “many” because I’m not in that group. I’m not a fan of the music video for “This is America.” I think that the song alone isn’t bad, but once you pair it with the video, I start to have some problems. My main issue with the video isn’t that I don’t think it accurately captures America - I absolutely think it does. My problem is with 2 moments in the video: the moment when he shoots a man with a pistol while the man has a bag over his head and when he uses a machine gun to kill 9 people in what looks like a gospel choir. I find these 2 moments to ruin the video for me because they are completely unnecessary, and only serve to traumatize people with how graphic the violence is. It feels edgy for the sake of being edgy in my opinion, and for that reason I am not a fan.
Most people are surprised when I express my distaste for the music video. Given my political views, and my enjoyment of some of Glover’s music, why do these 2 moments not sit well with me? For me, it’s how traumatizing and unnecessary they are. In particular, the scene with the choir bothers me the most. It involves 9 people being killed in a church setting, clearly in reference to Dylann Roof. If I were directly connected to one of the people whose life was lost in that shooting, I would be pretty offended by someone appropriating that moment for a music video.
Obviously most people don’t share my opinion - the song is a hit and is one of Donald Glover’s most successful songs ever. Most people love it for the music as well as the politics displayed in the video. I would like to stress again that I don’t disagree with what Donald Glover is showing us in this music video, but as an artist myself I think it could’ve been done better and handled with more care.
This brings up an interesting question, however. If I think it could’ve been done better, how should it have been done? How should artists address extremely traumatic and hard to swallow things such as violence? Is there a way to do it without alienating or triggering people for no good reason?
I don’t think that art addressing heavy topics has to traumatize the people who see it. This doesn’t mean you have to sugarcoat the topic, but if art is inherently about conversation (which it is) then you aren’t making good art if the conversation can only be one-sided. Part of the problem with “This is America” is that some of the topics it is addressing directly involves the black community but simultaneously can be triggering and thus alienating for that community. Things like gun violence, policing, and Dylann Roof (as mentioned earlier) are all addressed in the music video. All of the different dance moves in the music video were popularized by black people. Since so much of this music video is based in blackness, you would expect the video to want to be in conversation with that community. However, many black people took to social media after the video expressing their dislike for the video because of the 2 moments mentioned earlier. One woman that I do organizing work with voiced how hard it is to watch videos of police brutality and how she can be affected by the videos she sees for days at a time. This can be so much for her that most of the time she outright avoids the videos. I once attended an event at my school where Christina Sharpe, the author of In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, was speaking. She voiced how she herself refuses to share videos and graphic photos of black people who are killed for similar reasons. Why make art that recreates these feelings?
The issue is that what Donald Glover is doing in the video isn’t offering anything new to the communities affected, or to any community really. He is showing us that gun control and racism are issues, but we already know this, and so does the black community. The general public has known that gun control, racism, and anti-blackness were serious issues since the Sandy Hook shooting and the murder of Trayvon Martin, both of which occurred in 2012. These were serious issues before 2012, and these aren’t the events that started these problems. However, these more recent events in particular have caused these issues to be skyrocketed into the mainstream in a way that we’ve never seen before. The internet is a big reason for this as well. My point is: the mainstream already knows what Donald Glover is saying, and many in the mainstream already agree with him. So why does he need to remind us in such a traumatic fashion? There doesn’t seem to be any real necessary reason for this. Nobody is learning anything new by watching the video, they are simply reminded of what they already know in a slightly different way. I don’t think the art would’ve been compromised if he didn’t show those murders as explicitly as he did. I really want to drive this home because this is something that I strongly don’t believe should be something you can “agree to disagree” on: there is nothing radical, revolutionary, or new about showing people of color being murdered or showing their dead bodies, regardless of whether it’s in art or not. I would argue that it’s actually very mainstream to do so.
Let me phrase it differently: have you ever seen a white corpse on the news? In all my years, I don’t think I ever have. What I have continued to see being circulated, however, whether it be through the news or on the internet, is images of black and brown people after they have been killed. As a non-black person I can’t speak on the black experience, and I’m not going to pretend like I can. However, I can speak on my own experience. As a an Arab person, I am tired of seeing images of my people being circulated on the internet for white liberals to gawk at. I am tired of the fact that every time you Google “Syrian home,” the only images you see are of destroyed Syrian homes. I am tired of seeing images of the dead bodies of children after bombings and drone strikes. I’m tired because I already know that this is happening. This is happening to my friends and family. This is happening to my community. This is happening to me. White people are not entitled to my body, and they never will be.
Even from a historical perspective, what is shown in Donald Glover’s video is not radical or new. White America, since the founding of this country has been obsessed with black people, and this includes black death. Part of the reason this is clear is because of a very uncomfortable fact: white people used to go to lynchings. Lynchings used to be an entertaining or empowering event for white people and white supremacy. An actual tradition used to be to take a piece of a black person’s body as a souvenir (something that is echoed in the Black Mirror episode, “Black Museum"). There is a very famous photo of a white family smiling for a picture with a man hanging in the background (photo will not be shown here for obvious reasons).
My point with all of this very uncomfortable information is to say that historically white people have always watched black people and other people of color being murdered, and I believe that the spreading of images of black and brown people nowadays on the internet is a continuation of that tradition. Whether it be refugees or people here in America, this tendency to be able to easily view and consume black and brown people’s trauma continues.
Before the summer started, I was enrolled in a class at my university titled “Transformative Justice.” The class was focused around addressing serious issues in our society, but starting with our own community. We discussed various societal and cultural issues at length, and we also discussed solutions to those issues. During one of the class sessions, we did a workshop where we were discussing how to address when harm happens in a classroom setting. We got into groups and remembered a time when something racist, sexist, etc. happened to us or a person we know in the classroom. We then were to act out in the group how we would go about addressing this issue. There was a rule, however: we were not to act out the harm so that we wouldn’t retraumatize anybody. We were only to act out the solution to the problem. We would briefly explain what the harm was before acting.
Thinking about my experience during that class session and how meaningful it was for everyone, it seems to me that Donald Glover’s video actually does the opposite of what we did in that classroom. “This is America” only “acts out” the harm, and provides no solution. Donald Glover doesn’t discuss how we can go about changing America, he only shows us what America is (and as we discussed earlier, we already know what it is). Some may argue that maybe not everybody knows what America is, but the people Donald Glover should be in conversation with (the black community, other people of color, the LGBT community) already do. Some of the issues that were addressed in my classroom session were as violent and traumatizing as sexual assault. However, no one was traumatized because of how we all handled the issues with care and never acted out the harm.
Even if you personally were not traumatized by what you saw in “This is America,” I think that says something even worse. What type of world do we live in if people can easily consume images of black and brown people being killed without feeling any sense of being uncomfortable? If we’ve seen so many images like this that people are beginning to be desensitized, don’t you think that says something even worse? This desensitization, the reality that our empathy is no longer immediately accessible, isn’t radical either.
As an artist, I believe that art is about conversation. Art is supposed to impact. It is the work of one individual a lot of the time, but it is always in conversation with an audience. I also believe that all art is political, whether you want it to be or not. To quote Bell Hooks: “Art is presented as politically neutral, as though it is not shaped by a reality of domination.” I want my art to always be about a conversation, and I want it to be in conversation with the communities that it directly affects. I want to be in conversation with the LGBT community, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, etc. when I am making art that addresses topics such as race, gender, class, war, or numerous other issues. These are the communities I myself come from and these are also the communities that are directly affected by and know the most about the topics I’m trying to unpack.
No meaningful conversation should start by hurting, insulting, or traumatizing one another. If art is supposed to impact, transform, and bring about new ideas in people’s heads, then we need something that can do that without hurting them in the process. If all we do is hurt people with our art, how is that any different then being the oppressor or abuser who hurt the person before? This isn’t to say that the art should be easy to consume or easy to understand, but there’s a difference between tearing people down and letting people grow. This also doesn’t mean that your art needs to “feel good.” If you’re addressing a very serious issue, it’s okay to evoke feelings of sadness or anger especially if you yourself experienced those feelings in connection to that issue. Obviously, I don’t know what Donald Glover is going through on a daily basis. I’m sure many of the issues he addressed in “This is America” are a part of his core identity. I’m sure that Glover himself has experienced issues of racial profiling and racism, but so have many other artists and they didn’t have to hurt other members of their own community to get their point across. I’m not saying don’t show your pain, but at the end of the day, if the art you make ends up traumatizing the very people you want to save, then what is the point?
I don’t want to completely hate on Donald Glover, because again I think what he tried to do is admirable. I also want to emphasize that a lot of what I’m talking about is not an issue I have with Donald Glover specifically, this is a greater issue with our culture. I just don’t think that any art is above criticism and I have my issues with the music video. At the end of the day, “This is America” is just not the type of art I’m interested in anymore and not the type of art that I want to make. Maybe if this song came out when I was younger, I would find the edginess of it appealing. In my current mindset, however, I realize the harm that this can do and I simply need more from artists like Donald Glover, especially since after he dropped this video, everyone was praising him and treating him like the next savior of art. What I’m more interested is art like Lemonade by Beyoncé. In the short film for Lemonade, Beyoncé addressed some extremely horrific and violent things. She makes reference to slavery, police brutality, infidelity, and various other forms of emotional, physical, and structural violence. Despite this, there is not one moment in the Lemonade short film that is horrifically graphic or violent. There’s never a moment where it feels like Beyoncé is avoiding or sugarcoating an issue either. The fact that Beyoncé is able to address these issues without blatantly showing anything extremely graphic is one of the many reasons that makes Lemonade such an interesting project. If we are going to have mainstream artists make art that is supposed to be radical and meaningful, I think it should look more like Lemonade and less like “This is America.”
Where do we go from here?
I realize that I don’t have all the answers either. I guess the question I started with isn’t answered, and I’m okay with that. I don’t know exactly how art should address violence, but I do know when I consume art that I don’t think addressed it properly. I don’t think there’s one simple way to address hard topics, and as an artist myself I hope to continue exploring how to address these topics in different ways What I know for sure is that art is meant to heal, to help people grow, and to help transform people and society. Art is not meant to hurt, retraumatize, or re-establish the norm. The most meaningful art and art movements have always come from the margins and have outright rejected the mainstream. Most importantly, no one should be left behind in the art you make. This is especially true for the marginalized groups and identities who have experienced what you are conveying in your art. Art is part of the reason we live; art is humanity. For if we couldn’t listen to the music we love and be moved by the things on screens, what would be the point in living? With that, why would you want to make art or defend art that hurts people?
I want to end with a short list of different forms of art (paintings, music, films, etc.) that I think addressed violence in a good or constructive way. I hope this list shows people that there are good and constructive ways to go about this. I also hope everyone realizes that I am not the only opinion that matters on this issue. A lot of what I was discussing throughout this article came from conversations with other people. You don’t have to feel the same way, but I hope you realize how important it is to discuss how to properly address the sins of our world. Because if we want the world to change, we have to properly come face-to-face with the evils that we see, and grasp them at the root.
Thank you for reading.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Funny Games (1997), Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition, Logan (2017), Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Children of Men (2006), The Handmaid’s Tale, Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962).