Entry from July 27, 2006

There was an interesting juxtaposition in the Arts pages of the New York Times today. In the section front feature, a position once reserved for the most important news of high culture, we read of “DMX, A Rapper Who Likes to Let Fans See Him Suffer.” In this, we are told, Mr X (né Earl Simmons) is unusual among rappers. Rock stars have of course been emotional exhibitionists for decades, but rappers tend rather to macho posturing. DMX, writes Kelefa Sanneh, “has built a hugely successful career (all five of his albums have made their debut at No. 1) by highlighting the kind of turmoil that rappers more often hide. Even more than Eminem (who balances his paranoia with a mischievous sense of humor) or Tupac Shakur (who balanced his laments with smooth, swaggering boasts), DMX makes it impossible for listeners to ignore his suffering and desperation.”

Mr Sanneh expresses his frustration at the lack of specifics in the rapper’s soulful verses about this same s. and d. but notes, apparently from independent knowledge, that the desperate sufferer “has been charged with possession of crack cocaine pipes and, on another occasion, cocaine. (Plenty of rappers brag about selling it, but smoking it remains absolutely taboo.) He has also been charged with animal cruelty, reckless driving and, strangest of all, impersonating a federal agent.”

Um, do you think suffering is quite the right word here?

On an inside page, Alan Riding reviews an exhibition at the National Gallery in London titled “Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the 19th Century.” This traces the history, with particular reference to painting, of the Romantic idea of the suffering artist. “The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher,” Mr Riding quotes “the quintessential suffering artist,” Vincent van Gogh, as saying, “so much more am I an artist, a creative artist.” And Mr Riding can’t help noticing that, “to this day, there remains the expectation that the artist — and that covers music, literature and cinema — will be obsessive, moody, insecure, nonconformist. And if he (and, now, also she) behaves badly, forgiveness is assured.”

That parenthesis, “and, now, also she,” is typical of the reflexive political correctness at The New York Times, but we might not want to let it pass as nothing more than the ritual gesture that it is. Elsewhere in the article, Alan Riding writes that “by the late 19th century, while some artists like Manet, Whistler and Audrey Beardsley showed off their importance by dressing as dandies, others were consumed by the sheer martyrdom of being an artist.” I assume that an over-zealous copy editor, eager to get at least one woman into this story, silently emended “Aubrey” to “Audrey” without noticing that there are no more female dandies than there are female suffering artists in the National Gallery’s Romantic chronicle. Is this mere accident or coincidence?

I think not. Being a dandy and being a martyr are complementary if not identical ambitions.What makes both the dandy and the Romantic sufferer so iconic is their androgynous status. Women are expected both to dress splendidly and to allow themselves to be frank and open, even ostentatious, about suffering. When men do either, even today, it still produces a slight shock. The glam rockers of the 1970s were expert at combining the two, but DMX, who is so far from being a dandy that he routinely poses in the wife-beater T-shirt that he wears in the Times photo, displays the new, hip-hop take on the same venerable icon: the thug-hero who can also suffer sweetly.

All such artistic artefacts are ultimately the products of our post-honor society’s celebration of victimhood. In fact, to be celebrated at all nowadays you almost have to be a victim. Mr Riding writes that “whether they are shocking or self-important, antisocial or entertaining, even if they prefer to be celebrities over rebels and martyrs, we still want our artists to be different” — as if there were some disjunction between celebrity and martyrdom. On the contrary, to be a celebrity is now almost by definition to be a martyr — if only a martyr to one’s own celebrity. The daring self-pity of the several artists, including van Gogh and Gaugin, in the “Rebels and Martyrs” exhibition who gave images of the suffering Christ their own features has now become a commonplace of the popular culture, and Mel Gibson’s over-the-top Flagellation scene in The Passion of the Christ is reprised in Superman Returns — where the the Man of Steel also experiences his own resurrection. But I take heart from it all. For if there is any expectation on the part of pop-cultural impresarios like DMX that there is still any juice in such images, their violation of the manly norm suggests that the norm is not quite dead yet.

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