Some two years back I found myself traipsing through Italy in search of the Renaissance and its origins. Rome. Milan. Florence. Pisa. I fondly remember wondering how is it that the fashion of 16th century Italy, had become canonised as the wellspring of universal aspiration. Today I sit here and wonder, how will the fashion that is Beyoncé, endure eternity. Will it too, become canonised as the wellspring of universal aspiration much like the Mona Lisa, Sistine Chapel and the Madonna?
The artistry of the Renaissance is often cast in the mould of universal themes – e.g. love, spirituality, beauty, etc. Such universals are said to be what has made these Renaissance works endure and continue to have broad appeal beyond cult fascination of few onlooker peoples. It is after all, the veneration of the universal, that sets standards for what was, what is and what should be. The focus on universals, it is argued, is unlike contemporary works which are preoccupied with race, black feminism and visibility of all peoples.
However, where one only sees universal themes of spirituality in the frescos of the Sistine Chapel, I also see a colouring of God and the assertion of his supposed special relationship with a certain type of man. Where one only sees universal themes of beauty in the Mona Lisa, I also see an assertion of what is the skin tone and proportion of beauty. Where one only sees universal themes of motherhood in the Madonna, I also see an assertion of the puritanical standards to which a woman and mother should hold herself.
In other words, artistic manifestations of universal themes are always pregnant with the contemporary politics of when the works were created. Often, what has been thought universal has in fact just been a curated and canonised version of the specific and particular. The demographic specificity and cultural particularity of Lemonade, is too, pregnant with contemporary politics. However, I contend, that rather than make Lemonade a parochial affair, the politics of Lemonade aspires it to the universal.
The arc of post-modernist philosophy has been preoccupied with constructing an inclusive politics – where all people are worthy of life. An inclusive politics, where a plurality of voices and ways of being is celebrated. This inclusive politics is a universal aspiration. Lemonade, in its demographic specificity and cultural particularity is a singular expression of such a plurality and inclusive politics. This is precisely why, contrary to its appearance, Lemonade constitutes the very universal themes on which the canonisation of these Renaissance works has found basis.
Angela Davis in her Steve Biko lecture in South Africa spoke of the tyranny of the universal. The sentiment this phrase highlights is that, it is when we recognise the particular and peculiar, acknowledge the specific and singular, center the periphery and marginalised that we can truly speak of being universal. It is such universality which Lemonade pursues and attains.
So say we agree that the demographic specificity and cultural particularity of Lemonade does constitute the universal of the classics, the question still remains: is Lemonade as a work any good?
Walking through the Vatican in Rome, I found many rooms which had ceiling frescos. These other frescoes had the same aesthetic impact on me as those in the Sistine. To be more direct, the Sistine was neither singular nor exceptional. I found the Sistine frescoes to resemble a Renaissance comic strip painted – at great effort and pain – on a ceiling. At no point did I feel such a visceral impact on sight of the Sistine chapel that it made me wonder after its genius. This is in contrast to Michelangelo’s David in Florence. Perhaps I was a little annoyed that the Sistine chapel guards forbade us from lying on the ground to better view the ceiling but rather insisted on an experience occasioned by a hyper-extended neck. David is something which arrests one’s sense of wonder. You stand there literally speechless wondering what Goliath artistry is this.
Lemonade, the audio-visual film, is a multimedia feast. It contains morsels of history reduced in a rich blend of contemporary pop art. Lemonade, the music album, is just bland. The songs lacked the flavoursome punch which makes for classics.
On an anecdotal basis, I have not heard the songs in Lemonade save for when I explicitly go out and search for them. This is in contrast to Adele’s Hello which stands around each corner indefatigably waiting to greet you – you cannot escape it. This common popularity of Hello speaks to why Adele pipped Beyonce for the Grammy – the quality, tenor and visceral impact of Hello is without question.
However much like stans of the Sistine chapel fresco swear the depiction of God and man extending their index fingers to within a touch as being for the ages, so too Beyonce’s stans swear by Lemonade songs. In both cases I differ. I feel that the fame that Michelangelo had garnered with earlier works (specifically David), created a fame which canonised whatever else came thereafter. I feel that the capitalist framework within which Beyonce’s talent has found expression has endowed her a fame which now canonises her work. Like the Sistine, the songs of Lemonade are one such product of fame borne canonisation.
Watching Beyonce at the Grammy awards I could not escape that she was subliminally channeling the Madonna yet simultaneously reimagining the Renaissance Madonna. She was imposing her black feminist imprint on the Madonna. The specificity and particularity of her imprint aspired to the universal. From a visual perspective, Beyonce’s Grammy presentation, her Superbowl performance, and Lemonade audio-visual film are works of inspired art. However, from a pure music perspective the Hive will have to forgive me.