Friday, November 23, 2007

Conceptual rap and urinals

As promised, I've finally posted my paper on conceptual art and rap music. I can't say that it is an enjoyable read, but the similarities are surprising.

“This Guy’s a Big Phony”

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. This is something I’ve believed for most of my life and quite often experienced on a very personal level. There are times when the fiction becomes more entertaining than the truth, which is why we have tabloids and politicians. As entertaining and far fetched as fiction may be, there is usually some method behind that madness. In the cases of Duchamp’s Fountain the line between fact and fiction was blurred when he presented a urinal to the public and called it a fountain in 1917. That line was blurred again by a different kind of artist known as a rapper, or MC, in the late 20th century when stories about trials of poverty became glorified tales of drive-bys and non-stop coke parties. The transformation of fact to fiction, or representational to conceptual, was possible because of changes made in context and content through the different methods of presentation and re-interpretation.

The method in which an audience is presented with art has an effect on how the artwork is interpreted. In the case of Fountain, Duchamp chose “an institutional setting” to make his statement protesting the constraints of painting and traditional arts in1917. While other members of the exhibiting jury found it insulting to display manufactured plumbing as art simply because it was deemed art by the artist, those who came to view Fountain found it to be beautiful and full of aesthetic value. Of course this was not the response Duchamp had hoped for, but not an unusual reaction of “high society.” It is quite possible that the patrons of the arts had become just a bored with painting as Duchamp was, and were waiting for something new to happen. It is also possible these same people were willing to accept anything that was given to them by an artist, fearful that speaking out against art could cause negative criticism from their peers. It is not unusual for works of art that protest the popular movements of the time, be celebrated later by the same people who shunned them, as evident with John Latham’s Art and Culture which “now resides in the collection of Museum of Modern Art.” With this in mind, the chance that something intended as a protest can be misinterpreted as a positive statement for the arts. It is doubtful that someone viewing Fountain at the time of its presentation in 1917 would accept is as fine art, and moments later view that same Fountain in the men’s room and accept it as art as well, only to then urinate in it, simply because of the manner in which these urinals are displayed. Another contributing factor in the matter of display is the cleanliness of the urinal Duchamp submitted to the show. Fountain is void of any human waste making it inoffensive to at least two of the senses, while a urinal taken from its natural setting would emit a distinct odor and stains from usage, two things which societies, high and low find unappealing.
The removal, or omission of dirt is what makes the transformation of a urinal to Fountain more conceivable. Fountains and urinals are both items associated with plumbing because they each move water from point a to point b. If someone had decided to drink water from a new urinal, the result may be seen as abnormal, but not unsanitary. Likewise, if that person were to urinate in a water fountain, or any fountain, so long was it were used in the same fashion by everyone else, that would also be so bizarre, but plausible. The link between a clean urinal and Fountain is understood with some logical thought, but that connection would be more difficult if the fountain smelled of urine. What makes the urinal believable as Fountain is the exclusion of what makes a urinal a urinal, the urine.
What Duchamp attempted to do, and ultimately achieved with the Fountain, was expand the boundaries of visual art by introducing something unconventional in an submissive setting. What makes the readymade Fountain less credible as revolutionary art, and more like journalistic spinning is the manipulation of the audience by controlling context in which the art is viewed, and the omission of characteristics true to a urinal, a method used by rappers throughout the late 20th century. When rap music began getting airplay in the 1980s, songs by Grand Master Flash told stories of hardships and daily struggles associated with poverty and the lure of illegal activities which brought financial gains, but mortal risk as well. In “Message” one would get the impression that living in poverty with no way out could “push someone over the edge.” Nine years later another group named Geto Boys released “My Mind’s Playin Tricks on Me,” telling the story of paranoia brought on by dealing drugs and seeing no way out of the situation. These songs are the equivalent to representational art because they portray a picture based in reality with little, to no room for misinterpretations, which often occurs by glorifying one aspect, or failing to mention the less attractive consequences.
The manner in which rap, and art in general is presented has a direct impact on how the work is processed, which applies to fine art as well. Before radio airplay, or MTV, one of the only ways to hear hip-hop was through mix tapes that were copied and distributed by those participating in the underground scene, or listening to a radio station in an urban area. Anyone having access to this recorded material was typically familiar with elements that made a story credible leaving little room for fabrication. As the tapes spread, so did the dynamics of the audience. Songs about the reality of poverty became less desirable because consumers buying the music were not confined to the ghetto, and the concept of listening to a paranoid drug dealer was not appealing. The consumer needed something they could relate to, or at least something they wish they could. The mid 80’s reflected this change in hip-hop with the rising popularity of Ganster rap groups like N.W.A. which glorified violence, as if it was a means to survive. The rise in Ganster rap sales was a reflection the audience’s desire, as well as negative press, for change rather than the artist’s need for change to push the boundaries as Duchamp did in the 1917. For hip-hop it was the consumer that made 2Pac and Notorious BIG millionaires for their talents and creating fiction from other people’s non-fiction, and ironically it was the non-fiction left out of their albums that brought each of them to their early deaths.
This separation of consequence and action for hip-hop music is comparable to the removal of urine from Duchamp’s Fountain. In terms of representational and conceptual art, a representational rapper would tell a story, or scenario, from start to finish making whole references to paint a clear picture with their words. A conceptual rapper would collage bits and pieces a story in a “schizophrenic fragmentation” to create fiction from fact. On a topic like drug use, a representational rapper would talk about the pros and cons of using, how that behavior affects those around the user, and the consequences of drug use as told in Grand Master Flash’s “White Lines.” A conceptual, or abstract interpretation of that same situation would concentrate on the financial and social gains of such unlawful behavior with the attitude that ill consequences are just bad luck and not the fault of the user, a message littered throughout the discography of Notorious BIG, specifically on “Ten Crack Commandments” which tell the viewer how to successfully sell crack cocaine.
I have listened to rap music for most of my life, and I have found that with each passing year, the public wants more and more fictitious story telling less and less about real life. It is apparent that the masses have become bored, or simply grown tired of hearing about how bad things are, but sooner of later you have to come to the realization that you cannot escape reality. Likewise, anyone looking at Fountain for hours could become hypnotized by its graceful lines, and shinny surface, but sooner or later they will encounter that same urinal, in the restroom, in its real glory scented and stained by the previous user, and will find it harder to accept it as high art, or even entertainment. If nothing else, Duchamp and 2Pac share one thing in common, the suspension of belief.


Conceptual Art by Paul Wood. New York: Delano Greenridge Editions, 2002.
ISBN 0-929-44516-3
Performing Live Aesthetic Alternatives for the End of Art by Richard Shusterman.
Ithaca, Cornell University Press. 2000 ISBN 0-8014-8650-5
“The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five from The Message 1982
“White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash from Greatest Mixes 1983
“My Mind’s Playin Tricks On Me” by The Geto Boys from We Can’t Be Stopped 1991
“Ten Crack Commandments” by Notorious BIG from Life After Death 1997