Swift Strokes and Dope Beats: Is Rap the New Impressionism?

“Men like ourselves need a woman of little breeding and education who is nothing but gaiety and natural wit, because a woman of that sort can charm and please us like an agreeable animal to which we may become quite attached. But if a mistress has acquired a veneer of breeding, art, or literature, and tries to talk to us on an equal footing about our thoughts and our feeling for beauty; if she wants to be a companion and partner in the cultivation of our tastes or the writing of our books, then she becomes for us as unbearable as a piano out of tune — and very soon an object of dislike.”

- Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, The Goncourt Brothers Journal, May 25, 1857

“Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks
Lick on these nuts and suck the dick
Gets the fuck out after you’re done
Then I hops in my ride to make a quick run”

-Snoop Dogg, “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” The Chronic, 1993

One of my earliest memories is approaching and staring in awe at Auguste Renoir’s (1859–1891) masterpiece, Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880–1881). My mother and grandmother had taken me to an exhibition at a local art museum and I was fascinated by the explosion of color, the fluidity of detail that seems so effortless in the figures and so contrived in the background, and the liveliness of the scene. Later, in college, I learned the history of Impressionism. I learned of the movement’s relationship to politics and its conscious break with traditions espoused by the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Artists like Renoir, Edgar Degas (1834–1917), and Édouard Manet (1832–1883) no longer wanted to continue in the traditional veins of genre, historical, or still life painting as their predecessors had done. Instead, they longed to depict the modern experience, experiment with brushstroke, and practice their craft outside or on-site, interacting with their subjects and the world around them. The version of history I was presented with was largely whitewashed. It was explained that these great and noble artists were radicals in their own time who broke down barriers for the pursuit of beauty and truth and helped progress the teleological arc toward Modernism with a capital “M”. It seemed natural that Impressionist paintings, rendered in richly saturated brushstrokes, are heavily featured in local, national, and international exhibitions and sell for millions of dollars. I have no comparable memories about formative experiences with rap music, either from childhood or during my undergraduate years.

As I moved into graduate school and acquired new skills — critical thinking and researching — I was taught to question these narratives of accepted grandiosity. I read works written by their contemporaries: Marcel Proust (1871–1922), Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880), Èmile Zola (1840–1902), and finally, the journals of Edmond (1822–1896) and Jules de Goncourt (1830–1870), brothers who wrote about their circle of friends including many of those same, now-famous painters and intellectuals such as Edgar Degas, Flaubert, and Zola. I learned to position these art works within their contemporary contexts. I learned about the rapid regime changes in 19th century France, the extreme corruption that flourished under the process of Haussmannization and the rule of a few Napoleons with some others mixed in, and the deeply troubling and common mistreatment of women who had little-to-no agency of their own. The beautiful women in my beloved Impressionist paintings were largely prostitutes or were looked down on as such by the painters and audience of these pieces at the time of their creation. Not all of the females depicted were sex workers, of course, but most “respectable” women at the time would not have dared to display themselves to an artist, let alone the public at large through an exhibition. Degas’ elegant dancers occupied a small social space — a few degrees above whores, though a whole separate chart away from respectable married women. Men of the middle- and upper- classes could traverse both worlds, largely without censure, but the roles and rules for women were rigidly enforced by peers and family members of both genders. Prostitutes and performers were the subjects of these masterpieces for two reasons: they were accessible models who did not have to worry about their reputations as theirs were already ruined, and they were members of the company most of these artists were already keeping. Some of the backlash against these artists was due to their racy subjects, and it could be argued that people were affronted because the paintings called attention to the seedier side of Parisian life. Paintings like Èdouard Manet’s Olympia showcased an unflinching portrayal of prostitution, and fiction by contemporary Realist and Naturalist writers such as Balzac (Cousin Bette, 1846), Zola (La Curée, 1871 or Nana, 1880), or the Goncourt Brothers (Renée Mauperin, 1864 and Germinie Lacerteux, 1865) are full of hypocritical double standards, extramarital affairs, courtesans, addiction to absinthe and alcohol, and political corruption. These paintings and novels were initially scorned yet soon praised for their unique viewpoint and for presenting their consumers with an unprecedented level of reality, a reality that was promptly glossed over. Left out of the blockbuster exhibitions and seemingly overlooked are Degas’ much more realistic monotypes depicting life in brothels (although this tide is beginning to turn with MoMA’s 2016 show Degas: A Strange New Beauty, the 2019 New York Times article asking, “Is it Time Gaugin Got Cancelled?”, and the Clark Art show, Renoir: The Body, the Senses). Art Historians are in on the secret and have written eruditely on the history of Impressionist works at length, but in our current public memory, the subjects and their salacious history are often divorced from the elegant lines, brilliant hues, and sophisticated portraits chosen to represent the movement — and the problems underlying that movement have yet to be resolved.

Currently, in my job as a curator and archivist for the company Inveniem, I work with some of the best collections of archival material in American music history. This position gives me the privilege of exploring the chronicles of artistic and cultural history through things, and when we began to work with Wiz Khalifa, I dove into the history of hip-hop and rap. I’m a middle-class white woman who had not previously been a fan of this genre — the snatches of rap music I had heard often featured derogatory and violent lyrics, commonly directed toward women, which [somewhat naturally] distanced me. My ignorance of these genres was an undeniable perk of my privileged existence — the lyrics made me uncomfortable, so I turned the music off. Rap music did not reflect my habitus, either lived or constructed. In a way, my experience with this art form was blackwashed. Scorned by Tipper Gore and marked with subsequent “Parental Advisory” labels, my family had never handed me rap CDs, they took me to see exhibitions about Impressionism. Those felt like divergent paths until it became my job to understand hip-hop and rap as cultural phenomena. Once it became a professional priority, I plunged into this history with documentaries, playlists, interviews, articles, and anything else I could get my hands on.

For those who may be similarly unfamiliar, hip-hop was invented in the Bronx in opposition to the glamor of disco. People in the outer boroughs could not afford to get into hot clubs in Manhattan, and they did not identify with the pop and bright rock music on the radio. There was a disconnect between the songs they heard and the life they were living. DJ Cool Herc (born 1955), Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five (formed 1979), Afrika Bambaata (born 1957) and a whole host of DJs and emcees rejected mainstream sounds and created a new genre that resonated with the world around them. Hip Hop grew and spawned another genre, rap, which quickly reached from coast-to-coast in earnest with the formation of the label, Def Jam, in 1984. Rap groups developed in urban areas across the US like Miami (2 Live Crew, formed 1985), Atlanta (Outkast, formed 1991), Houston (Geto Boys, formed 1986), and Compton (N.W.A., formed 1986). Sometimes lyrics are uplifting, such as Tupac’s (1971–1996) “Keep Ya Head Up,” and sometimes the subjects reflect a feeling of hopelessness, like Nasty NAS’s (born 1973) “Life’s A Bitch”. This genre reflects the lived experiences of its creators and features themes including drug use, systemic inequality, corruption, and abuse. It made, and still makes, a lot of people uncomfortable. Rap music features the aspects of life large portions of the human populace would like to sweep under a rug. Rap suffered an initial social rebuff then became a multi-billion-dollar industry. The National Museum of African American History and Culture showed the resonance of the genre through their exhibit, “Represent: Hip-Hop Photography,” and the proposed 2020 Smithsonian Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap. Harvard University has started an incredible archive with a corresponding Fellowship to make sure this history is recorded and studied. As the genre gains more mainstream credibility, the form is beginning to, but still has not quite separated from the cultural inequality and the social stigmas that sparked its creation.

As I continue to unravel and attempt to comprehend the complexities and nuances around the inventive nexus that is rap, this art form fashioned in opposition to historical traditions, rife with rhymes about corruption, and often flagrant exploitation of women, I cannot help noticing the similarities with 19th century France. Flaubert’s prose is truly moving, Renoir’s gaslit figures at the theatre are awe inspiring, and Jay-Z’s (born 1969) verses are pure poetry; all beautifully showcase social circumstances that operate on inequality. The creativity of the lyrics and the synthetic beats of the backing tracks are audibly reminiscent of Impressionistic splashes of color (a comparison that has been made before in relation to “mumble-rap”). Of course, rap music, Impressionist paintings, and French novels are inherently different, I would be remiss as a historian if I did not acknowledge the obvious variances. They are distinctive mediums produced centuries apart by particular people in separate countries under unique socio-political and personal circumstances. However, I would like to ask why Impressionism is placed on a pedestal — Renoir, Monet, and Manet taught in classrooms from elementary school to university level courses while hip-hop and rap are still othered? Snoop Dogg, for example, is an incredibly successful commercial crossover with cookbooks, TV shows, and record albums, yet he is often pigeonholed into an “entertainment only,” low culture bracket. In fact, Rolling Stone claims nearly a quarter of all tracks in the US come from rap — why is there still a stigma around the genre? The incredibly strong, multi-disciplinary field of Hip-Hop Studies has been developing over the past twenty-five years and is actively presenting and thinking through this history in powerful ways — I do not want to discount their work. My point, however, is that hip-hop and rap have not been accepted into the canon of approved cultural productions worthy of study at the level of Impressionism by middle- and upper-class white people, with the possible exception of Hamilton as an inchoately hopeful bridge. Why do we create such sharp divisions between high and low culture when they both contain the best and worst of humanity? Why do these separations continue to be racially motivated? Why are women still the subjects of such ingrained misogynism? What would happen if we view Renoir’s Luncheon of The Boating Party, which features his lover, Aline Charigot, in the bottom left corner (who was eighteen years his junior and with whom he had already had one child but not yet married), and Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby” in the same continuum of human experience? What if we learn to be equally critical of all experiences reported in the news, printed in history books, and presented in museum exhibitions? And what if we teach ourselves and each other to look for positives even when they are surrounded by negatives or understand that surface beauty should not mask what is underneath it?

These questions are probably naïve, and it is not my intention to appropriate another’s culture or argue that apples are actually oranges, as some readers may feel this article does, but what if we critique our geniuses and try to understand our rebels as equally viable fruits of culture? After all, history has a way of turning those very same rebels into the noted leaders of paradigmatic shifts centuries, or even a few decades, down the line. To me, the biggest difference between Renoir and Ice Cube is our own temporal and intellectual distance from the political and social strife that spurred participation in their respective movements.

This process has confirmed my belief that artists of all mediums are conduits who reflect, reject, shape, and represent their cultures. However, history is supposed to show us how life was lived in the past, both far and near. It is a chart of where we have been so we can understand where we are today, with the hope of learning from previous mistakes and plotting a better future — shouldn’t that map include the histories of all and better futures for everyone? Being able to draw comparisons between the past and more contemporary practices is a skill that should be developed and used liberally, for similarities are just as important as differences. Instead of filtering creativite outputs into boxes based on class, race, time period, medium, or movement and adding to the pantheon of revered historical figures for whom time often conveniently erases certain aspects of their personality, let us understand context, and that masterpieces are created by very real and fallible humans. After all, their humanness is what makes them both exceptional and deeply problematic, and that combination is something all people share.

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