Beyond Good & Bad In Art

Curiosity instead of criticism

Hello friend,

Right around this time eleven years ago, two of my then-favorite rappers, Jay-Z and Kanye West, released the collaborative album Watch The Throne. I remember it being a particularly hot New York City summer, and the music, which was probably the last really inventive music either artists would make, was thrilling and exciting and felt like a heat wave. I had been living in a Park Slope loft with three other people I’d met on Craigslist. There was a single air conditioner in the loft, in the window of the common area. I slept on the couch hot nights. I rode my bike all over Brooklyn and Manhattan, listening to Watch The Throne and feeling the sun pulse on my skin.

Kanye’s now-famous collapse into mental illness and artistic stagnation was a few years in the future, but even at the time, I found myself frustrated with the lyrics of the album. Except for the opening track “No Church In The Wild,” pretty much every song was a bragging session between Jay-Z and Kanye about how rich they are. When they weren’t bragging about their wealth, they were bragging about how great they are at sex. There’s some of that in “No Church In The Wild” from Kanye, but it is at least in a provocative verse in which he dissects cultural contradictions about monogamy. Jay-Z’s verse is much more inventive and insightful, though; it may be the only verse in hip-hop history to invoke Plato’s Phaedo and grapple with that dialogue’s central question, which is about the nature of piety and, in the process, poses the problem of identity, namely, that some characteristics are intrinsic to an entity (like an apple’s redness) and some are the result of something happening to the entity (like that an apple is eaten.) Jay-Z, once a drug dealer raised in poverty, was now a very wealthy man, and before he and Kanye launched into over an hour of bragging about it, he wonders, with the vulnerability that makes his most moving work so moving, whether he is still the same Jay-Z, and most importantly whether that is a good thing. On the one hand, he is no longer a drug dealer. On the other hand, he has moved far from his roots.

Ultimately, the album’s lyrical content is much less innovative and interesting than the music. Kanye would end a decade run of producing genre-defining hits with this album. For me, most importantly, the album lacked something I look for in hip-hop, which is incisive cultural observation and deep personal introspection. “It’s technically brilliant,” I told a friend at the time, “and the beats are delicious. But I get weary listening to Jay-Z and Kanye brag about how rich they are for an hour.”

I’m thinking about Watch The Throne because I’ve been thinking about the way people tend to talk about art. You’ll notice that I didn’t make the claim that Watch The Throne was bad, and I didn’t even make that claim about Kanye’s post-WTT catalogue, even though I pretty much stopped enjoying his music after that (there are some interesting and darkly funny moments on 2012’s Yeezus, but they are few and far between on an album that is probably the bleakest thing Kanye’s ever made). That’s because I don’t think good and bad are particularly useful descriptions of art (and, I’m going to say, but leave detailed exploration for another newsletter, of anything really). In fact, I think, more often than not, those descriptions cloud matters more than they illuminate.

To put it another way, I don’t think there is such a thing as a universal quality called “good” which we can meaningfully apply to created work, because “good” is always a product of human conversation, as is “bad.” (even if you and everyone you know agree on what is “good” and what is “bad,” you have no objective way of verifying it. All you’ve got for sure is agreement. If you decide on criteria for “good” and “bad” and measure something against those, all you’ve done is moved the agreement back a step to the stage where you decide what the criteria are. It’s agreement turtles all the way down.)
Instead, I find it much more useful to think about art in terms of whether or not I (or someone else) finds it useful in some way. Watch The Throne, for example, was very popular, a huge hit for the duo, and in talking to folks about it, one thing I learned was that a great many people who were fans, felt a vicarious thrill at Jay-Z and Kanye’s monetary successes because it meant such success might also be possible for them. Many of these people grew up, like me, in poverty or near-poverty, and what upward class mobility they had experienced in their lives, small as it may have been, felt to them as big as Jay-Z’s billionaire status.

In other words, they had a use for the lyrics that I did not. That a lucky few people get to enter the 1% is not a comfort to me, and the fact that that’s how our system works - that most of us will work really hard all our lives to get out of and stay out of poverty while a few fortunate people will join the ranks of the wealthy is a sign of how diseased our culture is, not a source of joy.

I didn’t always look at art this way; when I was younger I was quite judgmental and was convinced that some created work was objectively good and other work was bad, and it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized that, among other things, that attitude was making me unhappy, and it was also keeping me closed off from other people. About 15 years ago, I decided I was going to stop describing things as “good” or “bad” and instead work to describe them in terms of whether or not I had a use for them - whether or not they could be tools for one of my various projects. Furthermore, instead of assuming art that I personally wasn’t moved by, or which I didn’t enjoy was “bad” I was going to be curious about who was moved by it, and why - what projects might it be useful for.

There is, of course the matter of craft; that is, a particular created work might be made by someone whose technical skills are still beginner-level. But does that mean it’s bad? Here I think about open mics, which are a way a community gathers to hear artists of all skill levels present new work. Open mics are also one of the last venues of learning that are “education.” Open mics are how I learned to write poetry. I didn’t go to graduate school for writing poetry. In my entire college career I took a total of two poetry workshop classes, and one of them was so frustrating that I’m not sure I learned anything.

This way of learning - basically by being unskilled at something in front of one’s elders and peers - is dying out as more and more art forms get professionalized and co-opted by entertainment and publishing industries. Open mics and community jam sessions for musicians are places where people learn without being educated, and some of the most interesting, powerful art has come from such “scenes.” Jazz was basically that for the first 60 years of its existence. Rock and roll was that in its early days. Poetry was that up until the advent of MFA programs. Hip-hop was that until very recently.

Art by unskilled, beginner creators, is essential, I think, to the health of a practice, and community between artists with lots of experience and artists with less experience is also important. Right before I made the decision to stop thinking about art in terms of “good” and “bad” I was pretty sour inside about open mics. I would roll my eyes are the clumsy metaphors; I would wince at the cringey concepts. But I also missed out on what the rest of the people in the room were experiencing. And I missed the opportunity to connect with those writers and learn from them, or offer them the change to learn from me.

There’s a poem by William Matthews I’ve loved for years called “Mingus At The Showplace,” in which he describes the gatekeepers of the poetry world:

“If they were baseball executives they’d plot

to destroy sandlots everywhere so that the game

could be saved from children.”

The game does not need saving, except perhaps from those who would save it. And in any case, “the game,” the poetry business, is already a lost cause. Having been professionalized, it is now a bureaucracy and like all bureaucracies, its main goal is the perpetuation and expansion of the bureaucratic apparatus. Poetry is just the fuel it consumes. Open mics don’t serve very well as fuel because they’re presented in and remain in the commons. The deep irony of phenomenons like the poetry slam and shows like Def Poetry Jam is that they were a way of colonizing and appropriating something in the commons and capturing it for markets. Luckily, there are still plenty of open mics out there, even after COVID lockdowns. And thankfully, the kids keep writing poems.

So do I! A couple new poems this week. Fresh out of the oven!

Rise Of The Machines

Turns out they didn’t need to be conscious

or aware

they were taking over to take control. Like ants.

They told us other people

who liked the song we liked

liked these other songs

& told the political operatives & marketing strategists

most people with heart disease

who bought blue khaki shorts with hems above

the knee who also watched

all three seasons of that mediocre dramedy

while microwaving

that particular frozen meal were likely

to vote against party lines

in the midterm elections. They trained

us to expect the poor

to deliver everything to our doors

even ourselves,

trained us to treat everyone

like a robot

even ourselves. Turned society

into a video game.

Turned video gaming into an identity.

Made identity into a currency.

The world was burning. Mass shootings. Police

misconduct. Attempted coups. Bots

got the hot topic trending. Bots got Presidents elected.

Got that guy fired. Made that woman

feel small. Got the speech cancelled. The book

banned. We danced like robots. Took

the test to prove to the robots

we weren’t robots.

Thought like robots

Out-robot the robots.

Tore each other apart. They were in charge

& didn’t even know.

Nine Algorithms Wish Me Happy Birthday

& my father does not. I never asked

for these emails. I don’t believe the dentist

or the eye doctor or the streaming television

website care about me. Maybe he forgot,

I said five years ago, the first time no wishes

came from the man who heard my first breath

& distress echo off a hospital ceiling.

The staff of the cardiologist I stopped seeing

because he was a prick & his office nickel

& dimed me constantly also said they’re looking

forward to seeing me soon, a damned lie.

The local coffee shop didn’t even give a discount

on coffee, just a sentence assembled

by PHP from several variables, the program

not even understanding what a birthday

is, completely incapable of remembering

me. To it, I’m just another row in a spreadsheet.

Maybe he doesn’t like me & doesn’t know

how to admit it. I’d prefer

he just said so. Nor did I opt-in to texts

from the bookstore, as much I love books.

I know they don’t love me back. Possibly

he has dementia. Or I’m a disappointment,

having abandoned the fundamentalism

he ground into me like gravel

into a cheek for something less abrading,

for a god who doesn’t pretend to know my name

& is not asking to live in my heart,

where my blood belongs. My health

insurance has nothing but contempt

for me, but I have their well-wishes

a copy-writer composed which some focus

group approved & management needlessly tweaked

because they wanted to feel like their opinions

mattered. Even one from a politician

I’ll never vote for again. Pretending to know

or care I was born on this day decades

ago is forgivable; their stance

on climate change is not. Once I timed

myself dashing off a quick

little message. Two words. 11.87 seconds.

Really, I’m mostly used to it. I’ve had a lot of practice.

All these robot messages

empty as the one from an auto insurance company

I’ve never heard of offering me a deal

for coverage on the car I don’t own because I was born

forty-odd Julys ago. It’s ok that they don’t really care.

They don’t have the subroutines.

It’s just not something they were built to do.


My former housemate and current friend Emily Rose Kahn Shaehan writes a Substack called Eat Well Enough which is a food column that approaches food writing from a unique angle, in which she combines recipes with reflections on the emotional and social aspects of food. I have eaten Emily Rose’s cooking many times and trust me when I say if you like food, and have feelings, you’ll enjoy this newsletter.

The writer and nurse Rebekah Burndt has been writing on her departure from activist and social justice circles and her observations remind me so much of my own departure from evangelical Christianity decades ago. Despite sharing many of their political goals, I’ve always been wary of social justice and leftist activist spaces because often so many of the behaviors I experience there remind me of the unhealthiness I experienced in evangelical churches.

Here’s a link to my own poem, “20 Questions For Jay-Z,” (scroll down) published in Freeze Ray Poetry, which is a sort of response to Jay-Z’s verse in “No Church In The Wild.”

For the curious, here are the lyrics to “No Church In The Wild.” Jay-Z’s verse here is really brilliant, because he’s asking two questions from opposing points of view simultaneously using the same words. He wants to know, on the one hand, if, because he’s now rich and a legitimate businessman, has he lost the “street cred” he earned from his days as a drug dealer. On the other hand, he wants to know if the fact that he was a drug dealer taints his status as a legitimate businessman, because of its foundations in his drug-dealing days. His image of his Rolls-Royce, something he could afford because of his legitimate career, includes the all-white “cocaine seats” - here “seat” means the literal seat but also the other meaning of “seat” as that on which everything else rests. He cannot untangle his past from his present, and rather than try to, he presents the dilemma from Phaedo - is an action pious because it has an innate nature of piety, or is it pious only because it’s the kind of thing the gods like? Is Jay-Z a “thug” (his term) because he has the innate nature of being a thug or because of thuggish circumstances? Is he legitimate innately, or is that also just circumstance?

Kanye’s verse is alright, I guess.


I’m a big jazz fan, and two albums from the past were recently released I’m really enjoying.

First, there’s the reissue of pianist Bill Evans’s You Must Believe In Spring. This was his final studio album with his longtime trio and it includes a beautiful rendition of the theme from M*A*S*H*, which was always one of my favorite television themes.

Secondly a previously-unreleased concert of Ella Fitzgerald’s, Live At The Hollywood Bowl, captures the singer performing only songs by Irving Berlin. A must-listen if you’re an Ella fan.

Subscribe to Bigger On The Inside

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.