Presentation of morality in art is a tightrope between two skyscrapers and the tightrope has been slicked up with axle grease. In life, it's relatively simple. You have an ethical construct. And you either do or do not do what your ethical/moral belief system tells you is right. That's what ethics/morality is. It's decision making. Art, particularly narrative art, adds the wrinkle of the representation of behavior.
Sometimes, this isn't complicated at all. Jean-Luc Picard (Star Trek: The Next Generation) is one of my favorite TV "heroes" because every action he takes as Captain of the U.S..S. Enterprise is grounded in the question of, "Is this what's best for my crew? Is this what's best for the Federation? Is there a way to resolve this issue without resorting to violence? How can I be more diplomatic? What do these potential antagonists want and would it really be a violation of what I need/want if I gave it to them?"
Or look at Superman. The best Superman stories always hinge on the notion that Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman is, for all intents and purposes, a living God on Earth. His powers aren't simply superhuman. They border on divine (and he is often played as a semi-Messianic archetype). And Clark could solve any of his problems (minus the occasional appearance of Doomsday or Darkseid) through the brute application of force and violence. But he doesn't do that. Clark uses his powers as a vehicle of self-sacrifice and camaraderie for humanity.
But those are tales of heroes. The average person isn't a hero. We do not always do the right thing. We often fail. We often mistreat others because we are misguided or selfish or blind to the realities of our own privilege. We make the easy decision that might cause harm to someone else because the hard choice is that we would have to have less for ourselves. Failure (and learning from those failures) is one of the integral parts of human experience. And art can, should, and does represent humanity in all of its shortcomings. But the sticky part of those human failings is that representation of behavior in art (particularly representation of behavior by a lead character in art) is often seen as endorsement of said behavior in art and with great art, that couldn't be further from the truth.
The Godfather: Part II is one of the most deeply moralistic films of the 1970s but it's about a mob boss whose ruthless consolidation of power culminates in him murdering his own brother in cold blood. How did Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo make audiences recognize the difference between the morality of the film and the eventual amorality of Michael Corleone? They achieved this through tone/plotting/structure/cinematography and a host of other tricks that created a dichotomy between Michael's rise to power with the constant devastation of his spiritual well-being. All of Michael's family is dead except for his sister. His wife leaves him. He has no friends. He has only power. It parallels with the story of his young father who gained similar power and committed acts that are nearly as gruesome as Michael's behavior but he at least maintained his family and loyalties. Michael loses even that. And there's the brilliant scene at the house on the lake before Michael orders Fredo killed. Even though Michael is indoors, his breath is frosting as he speaks. It's like you can see his soul leaving his body as he commits his final, unforgivable sin.
And maybe it's easy to create contrasts with murder and violence. Everyone knows you shouldn't be a murderer or be in the mob and that committing fratricide is probably towards the top of the list of irredeemable actions. But what about behavior that many viewers won't necessarily tag as immoral because society is still wading through these debates (even though your politics land on the progressive side)? The character is jealous in a relationship. The character won't listen to what their romantic partners is telling them. The character is selfish and hurt others. Can you still create art that separates what you believe from how your characters behave? Not only do I think that's doable (and is done regularly) but I think that it's an essential part of storytelling.
Chasing Amy is one of my favorite movies of the 90s. It's problematic in a hell of a lot of ways, but one element of the film that isn't problematic is its decision to have Ben Affleck's "nice guy who is in fact a huge asshole" character as the point of view for the audience. It was an important decision because (besides Affleck being an obvious stand-in for Kevin Smith and his real-life relationship with Joey Lauren Adams) that type of guy represents the average person watching a Kevin Smith movie (white male in his early 20s). And the film is merciless in its deconstruction of his "nice guy" bullshit. He's petty. He's distrusting. He's judgmental. He can't let Alyssa's past go. And he loses everything by the end of the film. And while there are still folks out there who misinterpret Chasing Amy as "lesbian falls in love with Ben Affleck" instead of the more accurate "bisexual who has been exclusively dating women for years dates Ben Affleck and then they break up because he can't get over his insecure masculine fragility," that's not on Kevin Smith. That's on the folks who aren't willing to dive into what he had to say about queer identity and his evisceration of toxic masculinity (though I'm willing to understand why people wouldn't be willing to take Chasing Amy in good faith considering how mind-numbingly stupid some of his other films are...especially Mallrats).
My two favorite films of 2014 featured leads that were by any standard measure sociopathic. Nightcrawler followed Jake Gyllenhaal as a parasitic journalist leeching money and fame away from disaster in the L.A. night as he preached the values of "hard work" and other tenets of the "American Dream" to his unpaid intern. Whiplash looked at the price of ambition before sanity in the world of music and the self-punishing and cruel lengths we will push ourselves in order to be the "best" often past the point where we can still look ourselves in the mirror despite our success. And it's impossible to watch either of those films and think they're meant to be an endorsement of the film's behavior.
This all leads us to Kanye West. Kanye had his big album release party at Madison Square Garden yesterday (which we attempted to live tweet til the hilarious instability of the Tidal stream made us decide to focus on other work instead). One of the new tracks on the album, "Famous," includes the lines "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous." And, per usual with anything Kanye West does, there's a lot to unpack here.
Kanye and Taylor Swift finally settled their longstanding feud after Yeezy apologized for storming the stage during her acceptance speech at the VMAs to proclaim that Beyonce had one of the greatest music videos of all time. Whether you agree with Kanye's beef that Beyonce got snubbed (I can't stand Taylor Swift's music so I'm inclined to say Kanye is right), interrupting a performer's speech at an award show is petty and childlike behavior. Kanye could have aired those grievances in a more professional way. But, he and Taylor had moved past that and had become friends (although I'm pretty sure Kanye isn't part of her squad). And it's very difficult to understand what Kanye hopes to accomplish by putting this line in his song.
Kanye's best album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was a success for a host of reasons. The production is as ambitious, revolutionary, and memorable as anything Radiohead has ever done. It isn't the Kid A of hip-hop, not because it isn't as good as Kid A but because it's a disservice to reduce Kanye's accomplishment like that. It's a maximalist fusion of hip-hop and pop spectacle. But the album is also his masterpiece because, like Chasing Amy, it found an artist confronting his own uncomfortable behavior.
"Runaway" is the most celebrated track on the album, and though "Lost in the World" has my vote for the best song on MBDTF, it's not difficult to understand why "Runaway" got so much attention. It's a man coming to terms with the way he's mistreated women...an honest and in good faith recognition of his failings and how he can do better in the future but he can't deny that part of him exists. Yeah, the song is "a toast to the douchebags" but Kanye is being ironic there. That whole record is built on the dichotomy of how much good Kanye can accomplish and how self-destructive and cruel he can be despite that. It's like an early Bret Easton Ellis novel (read as "good Bret Easton Ellis novel") in its self-aware, self-destructive savagery.
And one of the ways that hip-hop works as a narrative art form is that rappers create characters. Nas gave us a bird's eye view of street life in New York in the early 90s on Illmatic. Every member of Wu Tang has multiple personalities and alter egos that they explore in their tunes. It's how Ghostface Killah can also be Tony Stark. Kendrick Lamar weaved complex, layered narratives into every fiber of both good kid, m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp A Butterfly. I bring characters up because with Kanye West, he's reached a point where, much like Woody Allen, it's hard to distinguish between the characters he plays on his records and who he actually is.
Let's say, in good faith, that Kanye put that Taylor Swift line on the album not to say something he actually believed but because the "problematic Kanye" character is someone he's still exploring in his art. And it's the problematic Kanye saying this and not the real Kanye. Okay. That's believable. What's the pay-off in the song? Does the song raise awareness of how fucked up that line is? That doesn't seem to be the consensus for anyone. It exists in a long line of royally fucked up comments that Kanye West has made about women. When he got into a spat with Wiz Khalifa a couple of weeks back, he referred to Amber Rose (who Wiz Khalifa fathered a child with) as a stripper who had trapped Wiz. This is a woman Kanye West once dated. He proclaimed Bill Cosby's innocence in all caps on Twitter earlier this week.
If this is how Kanye really feels about women (and that's my guess), it seems indefensible. Kanye did not make Taylor Swift famous. I can't stand her music but she worked hard and worked with the right producers and made a name for herself in country music and then pop. Who gives a shit if Amber Rose was a stripper? Sex workers have a right to live. They have a right to love. And you have no right to judge them for what they do because they've done nothing wrong. Bill Cosby has not been proven guilty by a court of law, but Kanye should respect the scores of women who have accused Cosby of sexual misconduct. And if this is all some sort of performance, what's the point? If Kanye is just trolling, that nearly makes me angrier than if he genuinely believes that Bill Cosby is innocent. These are real people with real feelings and he's making a mockery of it for the sake of free press. Fuck that. If it's Kanye in some sort of problematic character Kanye though, we still haven't gotten to the point where Kanye makes the grander point or hits the atmospheric notes that says, "oh hey. maybe none of us should like this dude I'm pretending to be." And considering how long we've known "problematic Kanye," it should have happened a long damn time ago
I'm firmly in the camp that Kanye West is a production genius. The way he weaves wildly inventive production with intimate and personal storytelling was at the forefront of the hip hop renaissance that we're currently living in. There's no room for Kendrick Lamar or Chance the Rapper or Vince Staples in the commercial hip-hop scene if Kanye West hadn't broken through first. They have nothing in common besides an ambition that maybe commercial hip-hop could be better than the shell of itself that it had been for so long. But at some point Kanye needs to recognize that criticizing his dick-ish behavior isn't the same thing as demonizing him. It's not the same thing as trying to destroy his music. We all know how talented Kanye West is and what we want more than anything is for Kanye the man to be as good as Kanye the musician, and I'm increasingly convinced that will never be the case. And if he's going to be an asshole for the sake of art, at least have the decency to be a self-aware one.