After watching “Straight Outta Compton” and seeing how the rap group NWA was embroiled in controversy, because the acronym stands for “Niggers With Attitude” and for provocative lyrics, I can’t help but think of how other controversial art at other historical times became mainstream. Whether it was music, sculptures, or paintings, many now famous pieces are now treasured by many.
NWA, LL Cool J, Dr. Dre, and further back to “The Sex Pistols”, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, and to controversial jazz musicians, all were once points of public concern for mainstream society. These artists were all at one point deemed inappropriate, socially destructive, and as something that would eat away and damage youth.
But, as time passed each one of these artists, along with countless others were praised for being exactly what they were criticized for. That being a symbol of the outsider, giving a voice to people that had no way of being heard, and for pointing out societal ills in a method that reached a wide audience.
The same can be said for sculptures and paintings. Michelangelo’s “David” was seen as immoral. When it was introduced it was pelted with stones, a bench was thrown at it, and others felt it was a horrendous display of the male body. Yet, today we celebrate it.
The early Impressionist painters, including Monet, Manet, and Renoir at first had to show their paintings at a low-profile gallery because the prestigious Academie des Beaux-Arts and the Paris Salon rejected them, deeming them unacceptable. And yet, much like rap music, hip hop, folk music, and sculptures, Monet, Manet and Renoir are now deemed transformational pieces of art.
The lesson to be learnt is that music and art today that is controversial, like Kanye West, will be seen as tremendously important in 10, 30, or even 100 years from now. We may ask ourselves in a decade or two or three how, or why, we thought that art over the last 30 years was controversial.