In this year’s July 23rd issue of the New Yorker, Zadie Smith published her short story, “Now More than Ever.” It depicts a professor in New York City as she navigates a new social order within her life and career. In the first few lines she writes, “There is an urge to be good. To be seen to be good. To be seen. Also to be.” This confluence between one’s individual existence and the desire to be regarded as “good” marks the conflict in the story. The protagonist’s friend Scout, described as being, “on all platforms,” and who, “rarely becomes aware of anything much later than, say, the three-hundredth person,” tries to explain through puppetry what the public is demanding.
You’ve got to reach far, far back, she explained, into the past (hence the arms), and you’ve got to make sure that when you reach back thusly you still understand everything back there in the exact manner in which you understand things presently.
Scout is essentially saying that all behavior in the past has to be judged by the standards of the present, “otherwise you are (and were) in all kinds of trouble.” Throughout the story this trouble is brought about through social consequences, the first of which is to, “hold aloft large signs with black arrows on them,” and point them at offenders from the windows of your apartment; followed by being, “placed beyond the pale,” and thus ostracized from polite society; and finally being, “cancelled.” The first person to be the brunt of apartment sign pointing is an academic colleague, Eastman, who goes against this idea and argues that, “the present, in the future, will be just as crazy-looking to us, in the present, as the past is, presently, to us, right now!” The professor joins the majority of her colleagues in standing in their apartment windows and pointing their signs at Eastman.
The fact that Scout is on all platforms and clues the protagonist into this new orientation is important, as the sign pointing is a (rather translucent) metaphor for the same sort of mob mentality on social media. Pointing the finger at other people from the comfort of one’s home seems comically ineffectual, but, as we see later in the story, being the brunt of this attention has real world impacts. After the professor repeatedly falls short of actualizing the values behind these social norms, it all comes to a head at the end of the story.
How it happened was: one of our poets said something beyond the pale. He is one of the newer poets — the musical kind — and so his words tend to go everywhere, floating between our towers, rising above the city. People were appalled, furious. All arrows pointed to him.
This description of a modern, musical poet already points to this person representing a rapper, especially considering Zadie Smith’s affinity for hip-hop, but it’s made more clear when she adds, “and then he said that he was glad that he-who-shall-not-be-named had come to power, because he admired his energy.” There’s little doubt that the figure referred to in the story as, “the Devil,” or, “the adversary,” or, “so low or evil or contemptible that they barely deserve a name,” represents Donald Trump. The professor, earlier in the story, responds to an email from a high school student as to why she criticized “the Devil” without naming him. After giving her rationale, which references Childish Gambino’s “This is America” video, she ultimately concedes, tongue-in-cheek, that, “The truth is, I didn’t want to be deported.”
And so this musical poet who admires Trump’s energy must represent rapper (and all around multi-hyphenate) Kanye West, who said of Trump a few months before the story’s publication that, “We are both dragon energy,” and has continued to be the focus of social media scorn with similar comments. The professor in the story now fully breaks from public pressure, and comes to the poet’s defense.
And I said, Look, politically you’re absolutely within your rights to be angry, but existentially you’re wrong — existentially this particular poet just wants us all to be free. As a matter of fact, he’s not even a poet at all, he’s a philosopher. Yes, I said it: He’s one of us.
…and soon after that the poet got cancelled and, soon after that, me, too.
And while Kanye still has a platform that seems unlikely to ever dissipate, the case for “cancellation” has been made across Twitter, in cable panels, in op-eds like “The Devolution of Kanye West and the Case for Cancel Culture,” in which the author argues, “Cancellation is an act of catharsis, of rebellion,” and that, “The frictions of our time are constant and many, and we have no choice but to abate them the best way we can.”
This past February, Zadie Smith appeared on the Touré Show podcast to promote her collection of essays, Feel Free, and spoke more directly on the issue. In a wide-ranging conversation, they land on the topic when, in discussing hip-hop, Touré knowingly asks Zadie, “You like Kanye?” To which she replies:
“I do. I love Kanye.”
I’ve condensed her comments and the back-and-forth with Touré for the sake of clarity and readability (I encourage everyone to listen to their full hour-and-half conversation), but she goes on to say:
“I totally understand all objections to Kanye as a person…I really am so uninterested in the Kanye as phenomenon and his wife and all that—I couldn’t care less, but if you just talk about the albums it’s an unbroken run of masterpieces…So that’s all I’m concerned with. Everything else about him I can’t explain…his politics, his attitudes toward women—I can’t explain any of it, but if you’re talking about those albums there’s nothing like it in modern music…I think he’s a man with extraordinary genius in this area, and I don’t understand why that isn’t enough. I don’t need people to be upstanding citizens as well as artistic geniuses. I don’t care. I don’t ask that of Picasso.”
Putting aside her argument for a moment, the last line in particular stood out to me as it expresses the exact opposite of the explosive comedy special Nanette, in which Hannah Gadsby, a former Art History major turned comedian, very much asks that of Picasso.
“Picasso suffered the mental illness of misogyny…He said, ‘Each time I leave a woman, I should burn her. Destroy the woman, you destroy the past she represents.’ Cool guy. The greatest artist of the twentieth century. Let’s make art great again, guys. Picasso fucked an underage girl. And that’s it for me. Not interested.”
I think Nanette was a fantastic work of art, but it wasn’t until I heard Zadie express her conflicting thoughts that I really considered what my own perspective was. Honestly, I never much cared for Picasso’s art in the first place. There are only a few Picasso paintings I’d even consider hanging in my home, so it was easy to laugh and cry and be outraged and say, “Yeah, fuck Picasso.” But now I’m asking myself how would I feel if it was an artist I loved in the way Zadie loves Kanye.
In her special, Gadsby contrasts Picasso with Van Gogh, who happens to be one of my favorite painters. If the roles were reversed, and Van Gogh the misogynist, I honestly don’t think I would give up his Post-Impressionist oil paintings. I don’t have a degree in Art History, I have no real idea of his impact on the medium other than it was big, I just really like Van Gogh’s art. So, if Van Gogh began dating a woman when she was seventeen-years-old and he was forty-five and if throughout his life he was an adulterer, emotionally abusive, and a misogynist, I would think of him as a shitty person but it wouldn’t stop me from loving those paintings. As Zadie said:
“I think he’s a man with extraordinary genius in this area, and I don’t understand why that isn’t enough. I don’t need people to be upstanding citizens as well as artistic geniuses. I don’t care.”
And it sounds harsh to say, “I don’t care,” but we all don’t care, sometimes. We all watch movies starring people as shitty as Picasso or buy products repped by people as shitty as Picasso. The problem with cancel culture is that it’s fueled by standards that are capricious or hard to define. And that is not to say anyone needs to give Picasso a pass and admire or respect his work. Being a misogynist is a good enough reason for Gadsby or anyone else to say, “Not interested.” But it gets trickier for those of us on the fence. Because I want to be good, and seen to be good, and be seen, and be. It’s not a good look to go to bat for Picasso and suggest that, while I find what he did deeply wrong and unsettling, I might still hang one of his paintings if I really liked it.
In one piece titled, “Why hasn’t Kanye West been ‘cancelled’?,” the author gives their take on why, despite angering large swaths of his fans, Kanye continues to largely receive popular support.
Our capacity to hold people accountable for their statements has been compromised in the social media age of apology. Fatigue sets in quickly as factions dig in their heels to debate the case of a given day’s offender.
I think maybe the reason Kanye hasn’t been cancelled is that many of us, like Zadie, don’t care. Kanye for years has revealed himself to be, in my opinion, a shitty person who makes great music. His most recent comments have been among his most inane and, given the political climate, more emotionally salient, but I can’t say my opinion of him as a person has changed much and in the end I’m still going to listen to his music. I don’t know for sure if that’s the right call. The professor in “Now More than Ever” isn’t necessarily right, but she isn’t given the space to be wrong either. Too often these cultural issues are treated as a foregone conclusion. You’re either on the good side or you’re beyond the pale.