Hip-Hop vs. High Art: Notes on Race as Spectacle

By Murray, Derek Conrad | Art Journal, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Hip-Hop vs. High Art: Notes on Race as Spectacle


Murray, Derek Conrad, Art Journal


Even those who hold that art is representative of time and place and people cannot help admitting that the more imitative an art is, the less it represents to us the spirit of its age.

-Oscar Wilde, "The New Aesthetics"

From politicians and television talking heads to cultural critics and exhibition curators, hip-hop is on everyone's lips these days. The music and the culture that it has sparked have gained a lasting foothold in the market economy, and hip-hop has achieved transnational acceptance. This newly acquired legitimacy has spawned an influx of serious, scholarly consideration. Cultural theorist Paul Gilroy's treatise Against Race criticizes hip-hop but more so those who uncritically embrace the art form as a rebel culture, even though hip-hop may not be ideologically indebted to rebellion.

To put it more pointedly, in what sense might hip-hop be described as marginal or revolutionary today? Anyone asserting the continuing marginality of hip-hop should be pressed to say -where he or she imagines the center might now be. I prefer to argue that hip-hop's marginality is now as official and routinized as its overblown defiance, even if the music and its matching life-style are still being presented-marketed-as outlaw forms. The music's persistent association with transgression is a raciological mystery that aches to be solved. '

The question of including hip-hop within art-historical and critical discourses gains a greater currency in light of the rising tensions between art history and visual studies. The emergence of the latter has, in many respects, called into question the relevance of art-historical methodologies and has interrogated art history's exclusionary practices. In response to these attacks, many traditional art historians have rallied to the cry for methodological purity and called for the policing of disciplinary boundaries in an effort to thwart an implied deskilling endemic among the many practitioners of visual studies.2 Mieke BaI, in her recent essay "Visual Essentialism and the Object ofVisual Culture," unpacks the deepseated tensions between these warring methodologies.3 BaI suggests that the apparent inability of visual studies to define its object of study has enabled it to be easily dismissed as a facile engagement with popular culture. Hip-hop would be quickly and summarily dismissed as the capitalistic detritus of a hegemonic consumer culture. Hip-hop's brand of radical black resistance in tandem with its embrace of digitality and aggression in the global marketplace locates it in an ideologically dichotomous position with traditional forms of art-historical praxis.

The serious consideration given hip-hop by commentators such as Gilroy lends it the currency to be legitimately engaged on a critical level, and that legitimation in turn makes it attractive to the art world. Hip-hop may not be transgressive in the traditional banner-waving, fist-raised sense, but what could be more transgressive in American culture than black achievement within the global economic arena? Global capitalism and revolution are like oil and water, but in hip-hop they're akin to Siamese twins. Nonetheless, for many Americans, hiphop has overstayed its welcome; it's a rude guest who refuses to leave.

What the music has become, no one could have anticipated. Its legitimacy is both a site of optimism as well as a symbol of its potential demise. As in no other industry, black ownership and entrepreneurship have been achieved on a massive scale. Rap artists have begun to branch out into other areas of the culture industry and have become global household names. Hip-hop tends to avoid many of the pitfalls of the jazz and Motown eras. For example, moguls like Master E and Sean "P Diddy" Combs have established successful companies that own the rights to their production. Furthermore, hip-hop is a multibillion-dollar industry that has employed people of color in unprecedented numbers. …

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