Many societal trends annoy me nowadays. Among them is our rejection of the ugly, the dark, and the messy aspects of life.
I suspect this is a result of needing to identify with everything we consume. We like things packaged into perfect “goals,” “moods,” and “aesthetics” that tell the world who we are when we choose to “support” them.
It is easy to conflate art with its little cousin, “content,” but the elder isn’t meant to be an instruction guide to “your best life.” Art is creators bringing forth the raw material of their lives and carving out something that moves you. Sometimes that movement feels good; sometimes it’s uncomfortable.
When we expect existence to serve as our personal mood boards, there’s no room for anything but shiny, empowering, and affirming. In real life, we stumble, we fall, we tip-toe through darkness guided by nothing but an instinct that says “go this way.”
Unlike content, art is not for you. It’s presented to you.
Example: not long ago in a conversation about Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor” not aging well, I heard “We don’t put up with that kind of stuff anymore. You leave.”
“Oh, no. I still love ‘Ex-Factor,'” I countered. It’s gut-wrenching. That I’ve not been in that type of relationship for quite some time doesn’t make me enjoy it any less than I did in 1999.
This phenomenon is present in reactions to Beyoncé’s Lemonade and the On the Run II tour. Lemonade is not an easy listen. It’s so visceral, I have to intentionally be in the mood to hear it, but I wouldn’t want that album any other way. Its power is in it rawest, most vulnerable lines:
Perhaps the idea of a woman of Beyoncé’s stature choosing to work through the messiness of spousal infidelity isn’t what you aspire to, but why does it need to be? I don’t want to live in a world where we lose art that takes us on journeys through the underworld because “we have to stop romanticizing suffering.”
Technology makes us think we can curate a world that only reflects our highest goals and best selves. But real life is not a perpetual blissed-out glow up. Sometimes we live in the mud. In the darkness. Sometimes we burn out and have to find ourselves in the ashes. And sometimes, the phoenixes that arise don’t possess universal, easy-to-swallow brands of beauty.
I want art brave enough to go there.