Eminem is back.
He has a new album out. Once again, the critics are in a tizzy, swooning with admiration, and deeply ambivalent about the content of his work.
I must confess that I am not a fan. I will freely admit that my lack of enthusiasm is more a matter of taste than of aesthetic judgment. I'm a 51 year old fart, and this is just not my cup of tea. I'm hardly in any position to be pointing fingers of moral condemnation. Some of the stuff I love listening to from the Velvet Underground to MC5 to the Sex Pistols is every bit as violently nihilistic as Eminem's music.
And yet, Eminem's stuff is really disturbing, which may be an indication of its power. It has none of the winking humor of earlier punk or underground music. Eminiem is in deadly earnest. The really disturbing aspect of his music is that he appears to articulate the anger and frustration of a whole generation of discarded young men, black and white; the ones who didn't finish high school, who will never go to college, who will always struggle to make a living, and who are ripe fodder for the military. Eminem's audience is the young men we expect to clean up our messy offices, fix our cars, and clean up the mess we made in the Middle East. Like him or not, his music is authentic, true to his own experience, his own vision formed out of that experience, and true to that of a generation of young men like himself.
His music raises in very brutal fashion the old question, is art required to be morally good in order to be deemed successful? Old Dr. Norris K. Smith, a former art history professor of mine, always insisted that we should ask the question "where does the goodness lie?" with all art. And yet, goodness is frequently not very aesthetically interesting or attractive. As often as not, goodness can be dull and painfully clumsy. Works of art and music with the best of intentions sometimes end up as earnest embarrassing train wrecks; or worse, as dull hectoring sermons. Let's face it, despite the burgeoning of "Christian rock" over the last 40 years, Satan's Commandos still make the superior product. And the reason why they make the superior product is because they are truer to the origins, the whole raison d'etre of rock; adolescent male angst and breakout.
It seems to me that comparing moral goodness and aesthetic success is a false comparison. The two things have nothing to do with each other. What makes a work of art compelling and authentic has nothing to do with whether or not it is morally good. By the same token, should we be evaluating moral acts on the basis aesthetic merit? I certainly hope not. All the same, moral questions always form part of the conversation that grows up around works of art, and that should be encouraged. We are entitled to ask if this or that piece of music or building or painting does anyone any good beyond being beautiful.
However, morally questionable and repugnant works of art do perform a service. They bear witness as all art does, presenting concepts incarnated into beings that cannot be ignored. Eminem does that service, presenting us with our own society's predatory violent nihilism in lucid compelling form. It forces us to confront what so much of our public rhetoric and rituals seek to conceal, the forces of greed, fear, and boredom that drive so much of our enterprise whether on the street corner or in the boardroom.
The same could be said of someone else's work I find even more distasteful, Quentin Tarantino's movies. That combination of geeky cinema/ pop cultural quotation and nihilism is even more morally revolting to me than Eminem's violent testosterone tantrums. The revolting part for me is the self-protective distancing Tarantino puts between himself and the crime he clearly relishes. It is precisely that self-protective distancing, that false assurance that nothing is really at stake, that really repels me about his movies, and about that whole contemporary cultural context out of which Tarantino comes. It is the direct heir to the 19th century bourgeois aesthetic that prized scenes of rape and slaughter in works of art so long as they were set in a remote mythologized past or a falsified "orient." That his movies are so successful critically and commercially says probably as much about us as it does him, and perhaps that's where his witness works.
Works of art that truly are aesthetically great and morally good are very exceptional, and are usually made by people who are themselves deeply flawed. Rembrandt comes to mind. Walking that razor's edge balancing the good with the authentic is the hardest of all acts to pull off. What makes art valuable is not sanctity, but humanity.