Straight Outta Academe

A hip-hop exhibit bridges the gap between the dis and the dissertation


Hip hop has as strong a curatorial impulse to hoard relics as the medieval church. Expect mass genuflection before the squiggly black-and-white rococo sleeve that Basquiat designed for Rammellzee & K-Robb's seminal what-he-say? 12-inch "Beat Bop." As backward-yearning as any GOP back-to-the-futurist, hip hop is ever searching for proof that life was flyer, beats were doper, and style was wilder back in the day.

To its credit, One Nation rarely indulges in such readymade reminisces. But it's still stronger on the old days, good or not, when Haring and Basquiat traded on their dubious street cred. The exhibit slips when it starts to interrogate hip hop's current visual stereotypes. Thug glorification, mo' money problematics, the reduction of women to decorative 'hood ornaments--important subjects, but hard to broach creatively. It's almost enough to make you nostalgic for the way Basquiat's Untitled (Defacement) eulogizes graf writer Michael Stewart, fatally bum-rushed by the NYPD (back before 9/11 endowed the police with retroactive infallibility). Enemies from without are easier to take on than those from within.

Mix master Keith: Haring's "DJ 84"
Mix master Keith: Haring's "DJ 84"

The nadir of the exhibit's moral challenge to hip hop is Susan Smith-Pinelo's split-screen DVD display Cake. On one half, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, and other platinum-selling gynephobes cavort with lip-smacking, rump-shaking cuties. On the other, Snoop Dogg barks through his softcore debut Doggystyle. So y'all mean to say that "Girls, Girls, Girls" objectifies women with the same visual devices as Snoop's porno turn? Well, duh.

Still, it is a universally acknowledged fact that some internal balance has broken down in hip hop. The culture was supposed to be self-policing, a notion tied up in the art of the battling: Used to be that any newcomer could confront the ruler with wit and exuberance. What happened? May as well blame Puffy for Cristal-izing the notion of playa-hatin' into a Calvinist insistence that the most deserving are richly rewarded. Combine this core-thug smugness, rendered impervious to criticism, with a justifiable reluctance on the part of black performers to criticize other blacks publicly, and you've got a closed system resistant to change.

As hip hop spreads over an increasingly broad canvas, it inevitably becomes harder to tell whether you're critiquing hip hop or just global capitalism. Frederic Jameson's old question: Is postmodernism an aesthetic strategy or simply a cultural condition--something you create or something you're born into? Hip hop's answer is both: You can't draw a line between them. Which makes art that could poke around at that intersection crucial. Damn--where is Basquiat when you need him, anyway? Or Roxanne Shante?

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