Not A Piece of Cake: Ethics, Aesthetics, & “Chris Brown & Rihanna” Problem
“It’s too close for comfort…So If you must falter be wise” (Disturbia; written by Brown, performed by Rihanna)
The recent ink (or, more often, binary code) spilled over Chris Brown (sometimes in relation to Rihanna) raises a lot of interesting philosophical problems about aesthetics, ethics, gender, and race. I want to examine some of these problems here. These questions require the tools of both black/WOC feminism, and philosophical aesthetics—two things that aren’t really often combined. But, I’ll try to do some of that below.
I want to emphasize that I’m not going to tell anyone what s/he ought to do. I’m really trying to avoid positioning myself as the omniscient academic who swoops down and saves the day by telling everyone what the correct position/view is. In this case especially, there is no ‘correct’ position. What I do want to accomplish in this post is to trouble what is commonly being offered as the “correct” stance one ought to take re: Breezy & RiRi. One’s moral outrage at this series of incidents is just being used as a performance of one’s own moral superiority: we are [ethical, feminist, etc.] because we recognize theyare not. But, as my wonderful Ethics Bowl students say, ethics is a dirty business: the most fair and philosophically accurate assessments of a situation often refuse resolution into neat and tidy right/wrong or yes/no dichotomies, so the best we can do is distribute the dirt as fairly as possible—including and especially to ourselves as critics/analysts/philosophers/etc. So, let’s get dirty, as Xtina might have said about ten years ago:
Ambiguity, or, The Issues, Theirs and Ours
The outrage over Chris Brown’s performance at the 2012 Grammys, and his subsequently publicized new collaborations with Rihanna, has extended beyond the feminist blogosphere and into the mainstream media (e.g., on Wednesday 2/22, Donnie Deutsch (a rich white dude if there ever was one) was on NBC’s Today Show moralizing about how women should relate to abusive partners). People condemn Brown’s domestic violence against former girlfriend Rihanna, what appears to be a quick temper/anger management problem, and general bad attitude. Middle-class white mainstream audiences take it for granted that Brown is a bad man, that Rihanna should not appear with him on any recordings. The widespread acceptance and taken-for-grantedness Chris Brown as boogeyman-du-jour strikes me as…problematic. Is Breezy sometimes a jerk in public? Sure. Should we condemn his, and all, domestic violence? Absolutely. But should Brown be prohibited from performing on television? Should Rihanna be effectively prohibited from making new work with a former collaborator? Should we never take pleasure in any of Brown’s works or performances? …These questions require more nuanced responses. As music critics such as Ann Powers and John Caramancia have pointed out, the underlying questions refuse reduction to yes/no binaries. These questions undermine all-or-nothing responses, and there’s no morally or politically “pure” position we can, in good faith, take. There’s no uniformly, cohesively “right” or “good” answer, response, or position available here; those responses that attempt pure outrage, uncomplicated judgment, and simple yes/no conclusions misconstrue the issues at best, and are racist and/or sexist at worst. People are so intensely and continuously fascinated with this case because the issues trouble any attempts at self-righteous ascription of blame or prescription of action. To do the issues justice, we critics, fans, observers, and scholars have to implicate ourselves in the same messy, complicitious milieu as Brown and Fenty (Rihanna’s legal name is Robyn Fenty). So we are so attracted to the issues in the case because it begs us to confront our own issues—with racism and sexism, with aesthetics, and with ethics.
In the rest of the post, I’m going to unpack individual issues/questions.
1. Why do mainstream audiences, who are usually mildly to vehemently misogynist, suddenly care so much about domestic violence?
In my Feminist Theory class earlier this week we were talking about how 20th century advances in civil rights are often granted because these “advances” further US national projects otherwise unrelated to civil rights for oppressed groups. For example, at the same time the Irish were beginning to be considered “white,” women were granted the right to vote; these two phenomena coincide nicely with the first world war, when the US is attempting to cast itself as more progressive and democratic than the Kaiser/Germany/Eastern Europe. Similarly, as Nell Painter points out in her book The History of White People, WWII saw significant advances for women and especially African-Americans—all because the US was interested in contrasting itself, as a racially egalitarian democracy, to racist/fascist Nazi Germany. Now, as Jasbir Puar has argued, we treat the project of gay and lesbian civil rights as evidence of our cultural/political superiority over “Muslims” and other “traditional” societies. So, there’s a long tradition of white patriarchy using women and people of color as pawns; so-called “feminist” or “anti-racist” projects are not at all motivated by concern for women or people of color, but are rather about furthering white patriarchy’s projects, about making white (men) look better with respect to other groups, feel better about themselves, etc. This is FINO or ARINO: feminism-/anti-racism-in-name-only. This is not really about Brown or Rihanna, but white people using brown people, and brown women, as instruments or mediums for white moral and political posturing. Critics get to position themselves as morally/politically superior to fans, to black men, to women of color, and to women generally. It’s about white patriarchal paternalism.
(a) So, while there is evidence to suggest that Chris Brown is an immature asshole, “Chris Brown” fills the role of the stereotypically scary, violent black man. “Chris Brown” is the current representation/figurehead of hundreds of years of cultural baggage; he’s the current incarnation of the “black boogeyman” role/figure. He’s not just guilty of one action, but his very being or essence is fixed as “the violent black man.” [Resonances w/Fanon are intentional…] Thus, it’s somewhat inaccurate to try to just talk about Brown himself, and the specificities of his case. Regardless of the individual named Chris Brown’s actual guilt, the adequacy of his penance, etc., “Chris Brown” is the currently fashionable signifier for cultural anxieties about black masculinity.
(b) These anxieties about black masculinity motivate the “saving brown women from brown men” excuse. In other words, white feminists and white patriarchs use this excuse to justify their paternalism towards Rihanna, and their condemnation of Brown. While this excuse claims to be motivated by concern for “brown women,” it isn’t: in reality, it denies brown women’s self determination, and assumes that only whites can adequately save these supposedly poor, ignorant fools. As Yolo Akili puts it:
Let me say this: she is a grown woman. She can make her own choices. Perhaps before we step up to condemn her choice, we might pause to consider the undertones of this discourse that denies Rihanna her right to forgive or engage Chris after his transgressions. It seems to have a strikingly similar undertone to the idea that as a woman, she is not intelligent enough to make up her own mind. And we all know where that logic has led us to, don’t we?
If we actually want to respect Rihanna, and not further deny her agency, we need to recognize that she’s a complex person who has had to make some very fraught and difficult decisions. She chose what she considers to be the least bad or most tolerable options from among a seriously shitty field. These are not one-sided issues, and there is no simple, neatly “good” or “praiseworthy” response to them. Losses will have to be cut, and we shouldn’t begrudge Rihanna her prerogative to decide which compromises she finds least compromising to her. Here’s an example of one such question, where the compromise should be chosen by Rihanna, not for her:
2. Brown and Rihanna were collaborators on their musicprior to the DV incident (e.g., “Disturbia” was written by Brown & performed by Rihanna), and regardless of the status of their romantic relationship, they had a productive working relationship. Should she sever the professional relationship?
There are reasons to sever and not to sever the professional relationship. She might dislike him as a person. She might not want to “damage” her brand by association with his—Breezy’s career needs the boost from RiRi more than the other way around. She is one of the most bankable pop artists today, whereas CB’s career has severely suffered post-DV incedent. She might like his songwriting more than she dislikes him as a person. She might be able to compartmentalize, and have a productive working relationship in spite of any personal feelings towards (or against) him. She may want to earn as much money as she can now, for some future use (retirement, charity, who knows). Or, she may just think Brown is a gifted artist, and working with him expands her artistic chops, which she finds inherently valuable. So, there are numerous pros and cons. But she shouldn’t have to reduce her professional life to her personal life, nor should she have to be a simple, mono-dimensional person. We let male artists get away with lots of bad choices—and cite these “bad choices” as evidence of their genius! We don’t tell Daniel Barenboeim (a renowned Jewish pianist and conductor) that he can’t ever play or program Wagner. Sure, he might get criticized for it, but he’s not scolded and told he ought to know better.
3. But obviously feminists should condemn those women’s claims that they wanted Brown to beat them, right?
There’s at least two things to consider here: (a) the saving brown women from brown men excuse (again); and (b) the limited scope of what counts as “agency” or “resistance.” I’ve talked about (a) above; we need to avoid paternalisms that assume women don’t know what’s best for themselves and need to be rescued by white, middle-class feminists or FINOs. As Gayatri Spivak explains, “Imperialism’s image as the establisher of good society is marked by the espousal of the woman as objectof protection from her own kind.” But (b) is not getting much coverage in any of the discussions I’ve seen online. In the same essay that Gayatri Spivak coins the “saving brown women from brown men” phrase (“Can the Subaltern Speak?”), she argues that mainstream Western feminists have a limited, and culturally-specific conception of what counts as “agency” and “resistance.” (J Halberstam discusses this also in The Queer Art of Failure).
In fact, making “subaltern” women’s agency and resistance fit hegemonic models of agency and resistance in fact further oppresses these women—it further denies their agency and assimilates them to hegemony.It demands that they resist and act in ways “we” hegemonic feminists and FINOs deem appropriate, and that “we” are the only competent judges of this. “Subaltern” women’s resistance to intersecting hegemonies often refuses easy or clear reduction to hegemonic terms—it makes sense that counter-hegemonic practices are unintelligible to hegemonic notions of agency and resistance, right? There are at least “two contending versions of freedom,” as Spivak puts it, and we need to allow that women resisting multiple, interlocking oppressions might need different models of agency and opposition than those derived from single-oppression models. So I’m suggesting that we compare the “Breezy can beat me any day!” tweets to Spivak’s example of bride-burning in colonial India. Rihanna and the tweeters may not be the passive victims mainstream feminist and FINO media portrays them as being. “The oppressed, Spivak argues, “under socialized capital, have no necessarily unmediated access to ‘correct’ resistance.” So let’s at least acknowledge that Rihanna and the tweeters may be exercising complex forms of resistance that hegemonic frameworks don’t even register as such.
4. Should feminists stop listening to (and liking) Breezy’s music (& performances)?
In The Queer Art of Failure, Judith Jack Halberstam observes that most Americans (and maybe Westerners in general) “cannot tolerate the linking of our desires to politics that disturb us” (153). This desire for the purity of our own desires, tastes, and preferences motivates a lot of the discussion about how we ought to deal with the Breezy/RiRi collaborations. The issue is presented in totalizing terms, as though the only two options were “loving it” or “leaving it.” But here I wan tto argue for a complex liking. We can take aesthetic pleasure in works by people we find distasteful. This is different than saying we can take aesthetic pleasure in works whose politics we find distasteful. I would still argue that such complex pleasure is possible and ethically/aesthetically permissible, BUT, it’s a slightly different philosophical problem, and one I won’t address here. I’m limiting my argument to the claim that it is ethically, politically, and aesthetically permissible to enjoy works by artists whose personalpolitics, comportment, etc., we find distasteful. The only source of distaste here would be at the artist, not in the work itself (which we find pleasurable). Ultimately, we need to be able to find use or value in (parts/aspects of) works by artists, writers, and other intellectuals whose personal views or behaviors we dislike, because nobody is perfectly, purely “good”. Adorno was a raving misogynist. Kant was a rabid racist. And let’s not even talk about pop musicians: The Stones? Sexist, and racist. Elvis? At least somewhat racially problematic, in the “Love & Theft” way. Pretty much every 18th and 19th c opera? Full of misogyny, racism, and Eurocentrism. Should we just throw everything out? No. Sometimes we will have to throw everything out because nothing can be salvaged after you take the problematic stuff out (e.g., Kant’s moral theory is, in my relatively expert opinion, unsalvageable…but, uh, I still read and teach his work, if only to point out the limitations…). If we only appreciated the work of purely “good people,” then, uh, we’d have little art, literature, or philosophy (to say nothing of science & technology) to appreciate. More importantly, however, we need to allow ourselves to appreciate works by morally/politically imperfect creators—and even morally and politically problematic works—because this lack of tolerance for ethically problematic aesthetic tastes is really a way to scapegoat others for our own moral/political compromises. We demand this “purity” in our aesthetic liking because it allows us to disavow and avoid admitting our own complicity in systems of oppression, like patriarchy. I was raised in and acculturated to patriarchy, and aesthetic norms grounded in patriarchial structures. People would rather disavow their complicity (and renounce pleasure) than admit both their complicity and some enjoyment. In this instance, it is more morally and politically advantageous to bathe the baby in dirty bathwater, so to speak, because if you throw both out you loose the ability to confront the reason why the bathwater is dirty, and why the baby needs a bath.
5. How do we handle the relationship between an artist’s life and an artist’s work?
This is a tough one. In the early 20th century, Walter Benjamin argued that in industrial mass culture, the “aura” that formerly belonged to artworks had been transferred to artists, i.e., celebrities. So we tend to overlook artworks and focus solely on the artist, because that’s what seems “authentic” and “original.” But, of course, authenticity and originality are very 19th c European aesthetic ideals, and it’s possible to have aesthetics that don’t prize or prioritize authenticity and originality. For example, rock aesthetics are rather 19th c Romantic in nature, and they do value authenticity and originality, but American pop aesthetics tend to give these factors less weight, especially relative to things like sensationality, “groove,” pleasure, accessibility, etc. So there’s a tension here between (a) the empirical fact that artists’ works are not reducible to their lives; and (b) the mass culture aesthetics that invest in celebrity over art object. Pop stars are performers: Breezy is not the same as the private person Chris Brown, just as Rihanna is not Robyn. It’s difficult to tell where the line between Robyn and Rihanna is drawn; I think it’s best to assume that everything released under the name “Rihanna” is the performance, by Robyn, of a character, and not the intimate confessions of her own innermost life. Why do I err on the side of work rather than life?
The reduction-to-biography problem: As Adrian Piper noted, we tend to reduce work by women artists of color to the artists’ biographies. That is: we act as though women of color are incapable of creating art, and are limited to narrating/confessing “truths” about their lives. This follows from the assumption that women of color can’t think abstractly enough to do anything than directly report facts. Obviously, this reduction-to-biography is racist and sexist, because it implies that women of color can’t be artists. So, in trying to reduce Rihanna’s (and Breezy’s) performances to their biographies plays into this longstanding racist/misogynist habit.
In spite of all this, we both must and must not separate the public persona of the artist and his/her work from the private individual. We are morally and politically obligated to both consider the work itself, and, given the current state of pop music production/aesthetics, to consider the life of the artist (both as the “artist,” and as the private individual).
…Which returns me to my original point: there’s no neat, clean answer to any of these questions. This issue demands complexity and compromise. There’s no moral high ground here.