Is great art automatically less racist?

Just a quick reflection.

Read in the newspaper the other day about the CinemAfrica festival here in Stockholm, where a spokesperson claimed they only showed films by African film-makers to get a "proper inside perspective". Then I watched a film that was clearly done from an outsider's perspective: Colors, Dennis Hopper's film about gang violence in Los Angeles. It wasn't very good. The characters were a bit simplistic (helped a bit by Sean Penn and Robert Duvall in leading roles as two partner cops), the plot thin and disjointed, and the portrayal of street gangs as far as I can tell inaccurate and simplified. I quit watching 2/3 through the film.

Jeff Chang claims most gang films, like The Warriors, Assault on Precinct 13 and Fort Apache, The Bronx, are fundamentally racist. I'm fairly sure he'd attack Colors as well - it's got a similar set up of one-dimensional gangsters, most black and Latino, attacking the protagonists, who are somewhat more fleshed out.

But I was thinking, what about The Wire? Everyone likes The Wire, which is (at least in part) a "gang tv series", and no-one claims it's racist. Sure, you say, in that all the gang members are complex, living and totally not dehumanised. And that's probably the difference. But isn't that quite simply a sign of good art? Could it be that high-quality art is, by virtue of its aesthetic qualities, somehow less racist?

I'm not really up on my classical aesthetics, but there's plenty of angles on The Wire that you can claim makes it a great piece of art. It's complex. It's subtle and refined. It brings out universal themes. It's got a deep humanist heart. Etc. etc. By contrast Colors is not very good art at all. Since by its form it's totally simplistic and one-dimensional, it's no surprise that the black characters are depicted as one-dimensional and defined by their ethnicity, making the film racist. Bad art is way easier to make racist than good art.

I'm sure there's plenty of examples of this kind of think in music, too, stuff that's actually just bad and insensitive and that becomes racist through just not being good art. But the only one I can think of straight off the bat is "Fattig Man Söker Efter Mat" by wonderful kooky eccentric Hans Edler, whose depiction of third-world life is fucking ridiculous, fucking simplistic, bad art, and quite a bit racist no matter how well-intentioned. Unfortunately I've not been able to track down a copy to post a link, but it's in Swedish anyway.

Anyone got any other ones? Or tracks rescued by being very good art indeed?

1 comment:

Mike said...