It’s fine if people don’t want to listen to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” anymore; It’s vaguely totalitarian to demand that no one be able to listen to it any longer.
The debate over whether to ditch West is the inevitable result of a collision between two important ideas in modern pop culture consumption.
First, there’s “poptimism.” That concept began as an argument that pop music deserved serious criticism and analysis just as much as forms such as rock or jazz; The same idea now supports efforts to take Marvel movies as seriously as those by Jean-Luc Godard or Martin Scorsese. Then, there’s “ethical consumerism.” The term once meant things such as visiting farmers markets. It has expanded to include the demand that those who purchase art ensure the artist’s ideals align with their own. Putting even $0.004 into the pocket of someone like West 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 Marx tracks how cultural tastes have evolved in recent years. Long gone are the experts whose esoteric tastes helped shape what was seen as “good” and “worthy of attention.” Modern consumers are now omnivorous, sampling the styles from cultures around the globe, dipping into and out of genres under the assumption that all styles have something to offer.
“If the old taste was a quiet tool of elite power,” Marx writes, “omnivore taste can be a loud cry of insurgency.” From Taylor Swift to Lil Nas X to the rise of trap music, everything’s on the table for appreciation.
And yet, the craving for status distinctions remains. But if it’s passe to declare art good or bad on the merits, consumers and critics need a different way to decide what’s in and out. Enter the new standards.
“Distaste can be noble,” Marx writes, “when wielded against the power structure, unrepentant snobs, and unreformed bigots.”
The new rules are relatively simple. Artists must espouse progressive ideals. Gatekeepers should elevate minority artists. Consumers must buy liberal products from liberal artists, though “liberal” is typically reduced to mean “conventionally diverse” or “supportive of Democratic politicians.” Cultural appropriation is verboten. And critics should strike from the canon those who offend modern sensibilities.
“Hypermodern liberalism and cosmopolitanism thus lead to omnivorism and poptism — and even a detente with capitalism, as long as the spoils flow to the right people,” Marx writes. That’s a little wordy; Marx summarizes it thusly with a rather blunt bit of philistinism: “Art should avoid being for art’s sake when social equity is at stake.” (The emphasis is in the original.)
The rejection of art for art’s sake is a sort of horseshoe idea, one that brings together the far left — autocrats from Joseph Stalin to Mao Zedong have rejected art as anything other than 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 made by people deemed unworthy in our own system? The answer might be best termed the Omnivore’s knot, after the Gordian knot that so puzzled Alexander the Great.
Both he and contemporary scolds seem to have arrived at the same solution: slice troublesome entities out of existence altogether. For Alexander, that meant cutting through the knot literally rather than trying to undo it. Today’s censors argue that work by artists who spew antisemitic bilge or foolish covid-19 policies should disappear.
It’s not enough for individuals to deprive themselves of these products as a moral stand; Everyone else must be deprived as well. It’s the only way to ensure no one anywhere can put even a fraction of a penny into a transgressor’s pocket.
Spotify has rejected calls to pull West’s music — but they’ve done so only by saying it’s not really up to them, but his label. The power of the labels also played some role in ensuring that artists weren’t able to remove their work when the streaming service courted controversy by paying Joe Rogan big bucks for an exclusive deal.
Should West’s music suddenly become unavailable, it’ll serve as yet another reminder that if you can’t hold a cultural object, you don’t really own it. But hopefully it will cause one or two omnivores to stop and think about what we lose when art becomes simply another front in the sociopolitical death struggle so many seem to be itching for.