Beyoncé & Great Art

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of watching Lemonade, Beyoncé’s latest visual album. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Since its release on April 23rd, it’s stirred up plenty of gossip, memes, articles, and mild controversy. What fun! I’ll try not to be more of the same here. By the way, if you haven’t already, definitely try to find the time to watch the album and read some of the media’s commentary.

Maybe a few minutes into Lemonade, I got that feeling that you have when you know that you’re about to witness something particularly profound. On one hand, this is an extremely well-executed work: the cinematography, lighting, settings, costumes, hair!, poetry, allusions to myth and folklore, tradition and politics. And of course, Beyoncé’s stellar voice and startling lyrics. It’s all very thoughtful and captivating. Art that entertains us, and that looks nice, and is technically impressive is good. There’s a place for that in our society and our lives. That’s the role that Beyoncé’s previous albums have filled, and that’s totally fine. But Lemonade is great. I suspect that this is a piece that could last, that our grandkids could hear about, see, and be moved by.

So then, what is great art? And why would I count Beyoncé amongst the modern West’s great artists?

Through the ages, art has reflected the people who made it – their hopes and fears, their society’s hopes and fears. It feels very pedestrian to say, but great art is distinctly human. Even the artifacts we’ve worked hard to preserve, the things we revere and keep in museums are, in some way, actually quite down to earth. A fun example of this is how in ancient Greek architecture, things like pillars and their capitals were designed to reflect different human body types. A more fun example of this is Lemonade. In a world of cute, mechanically reproduced tchotchkes, Beyoncé delved into aspects of her human experience which, though difficult and sad, aren’t 100% unique. She speaks and sings about things that are real, honest, and at times, not very sexy or impressive. And yes, some of those real and honest things involve the juicy details of her marriage with Jay Z. But some of it is just about marriage. Or motherhood. Or womanhood. Or black womanhood. Or what it’s like to be a person, here and now. Yes, Lemonade is about Beyoncé, Serena Williams, and Sybrina Fulton, but it’s also about you and me, and the experience of loving, trusting, and living alongside other broken people.

Lemonade, insofar as it’s great and humane art, exists for everyone. Now, in the weeks following this album’s release, several commentators and articles made basically the opposite claim: Lemonade is not for you (where “you” is usually white people). I get where those claims are coming from. Many of them were simply a response to complaints about Beyoncé’s use of the term “Becky” or the (stunning) image of police surrendering to a break dancing child. And yes, people who complain about these things should be told to shut up. But, pushback like this is just an indicator that this album is challenging people to feel uncomfortable and rethink paradigms. And art that challenges people is maybe especially for those people. To be clear: it’s so exciting that art like this now exists in the commonplace to serve and empower black women. This society needs more of that. But as a white woman, I’m also excited that something beautiful exists which calls out and challenges all the Beckys of the world. It’s so easy at this point in history to surround ourselves with ideas and artifacts that look nice and make us feel good. While there’s a place and time for that, the art that we study – the things preserved in books and museums – did not get where they are by merely looking nice. Great art is innovative, provocative, and challenges the status quo.

Art ought to speak to something beyond itself. This particular argument that I’m about to make is distinctly Christian and not necessarily a classic cultural commentary. Nonetheless, I’ve come to believe that great art should truthfully represent the human condition as it is – painful, broken, and sometimes exceptionally ordinary. And this is what Beyoncé does for most of Lemonade. But, for many of us (and this is a non-negotiable for Christians), we need our art to also speak to something bigger, beyond, and hopeful. A difficult human experience is real and true, but so is the hope that we proclaim. So I was glad to see that Lemonade does this: its final scenes portray redemption and new life.

Another point, along these lines: after the credits, Lemonade concludes by re-showing “Formation,” which originally debuted in February. “Formation” is a pretty overt anthem of black female empowerment, structured around a call-to-action. Something that struck me while watching it again is that while we (white people, mainstream media, those in power, etc.) tend to frame Black Lives Matter, racial tension/reconciliation, and I guess anything Beyoncé does now as a shift away from peace, or norms, or stability, that’s simply not the case. This movement is not an interruption – it’s our chance at redemption. Lemonade is so hopeful and resurrection-esque because it serves as an artifact of and a rallying point for the people who are saving America from its past.

Finally, great art is not something that is just passively consumed. We study and feel the meaning of paintings and statues. We enter into and absorb cathedrals and palaces. Lemonade is not merely watched or listened to – it’s experienced. Great art provokes and inspires. It breeds more art and ideas. I can’t wait to see what becomes of this.

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