Art confuses me. When I visited MoMA I spent more time in awe of the people who stood in awe of a giant blank canvas with a black square in the center than the art itself. My friend who attends the School of the Art Institute of Chicago didn’t think much of a guy in her class who made a video of himself essentially making love to a sandwich, although I wanted to vomit just hearing about it.
When M.I.A.’s new, extremely disturbing video “Born Free” debuted recently, I immediately passed it off as another obnoxious form of “shock” art. In the video, armed thugs raid Los Angeles and round up a group of redheaded young men and boys who are forcibly boarded onto a bus to a death camp. The violence is absolutely repulsive. The boys are beaten mercilessly, shot and blown up with landmines. I initially sided with those who thought the video was more about shock factor and fuel for belligerent Internet forums than meaning. But after a couple more viewings, things became a little clearer.
It’s safe to say that the video is a metaphor for genocide. Given M.I.A.’s outspoken, if controversial, political background, it’s not surprising that she would come out with a video with such an overpowering message. But it’s still jarring to have this message evoked in such a graphic way. So is it annoying or empowering to make such a sensationalized statement?
I know I’m not the only naïve Medill student who came to Northwestern with a dream to change the world through journalism. People may not like what I have to say, but everything that I write of my own free will is backed by my wholehearted passion for the subject. It’s doubtful that whatever message I have will go directly to Congress or the United Nations, but writing is always something I do partly for myself. M.I.A. is driven by her political activism which comes in many forms, from songs like “Bird Flu” to her charity work in Liberia.
Sophomore RTVF major Olivia Curry wasn’t blown away by the video. “I wasn’t a huge fan of it not necessarily because I thought it was shocking,” she said. ”I just thought it was pretty blatant. I feel like it could have been more subtle and it could have made a more defined point instead of just going for that shock value.”
However, she sees the value in unsettling images as long as they are portrayed in a meaningful, eloquent fashion. “Sometimes shocking people can be a good way to get your message across, but if you’re going to do that you have to do it in a way that’s original and in a way where the message is clear,” she said. “Otherwise I feel like people will just pay attention to the shock factor, not the message.”
There were certainly aspects of “Born Free” that I found gratuitous, such as the full-frontal nudity and ten-minute length. But that’s M.I.A.’s vision, and she can’t be judged for it, especially when her focus is on something that most people could never fathom. Genocide is such a horrific, abstract concept for most people that perhaps the only way to make sense of it is to put in into a more relatable format.
The brilliance of the video lies in its parallels to modern-day discrimination. The redheads could be substituted by any disadvantaged group of people, and the video would make just as much sense. No matter the race or ethnicity, it’s still arbitrary mass slaughter. As silly as it may seem on the surface to use people with a certain color of hair as an example of hatred and mass killing, this artistic choice highlights how ludicrous the situation truly is. It wouldn’t be nearly as ridiculous to replace them with Jews or Tutsis. I don’t agree with all of M.I.A.’s political views, especially since the Tamil Tigers have their own history of civil rights abuses. But the general theme of the horrors of genocide transcend all peoples.
So it sends a powerful message. So what? The answer isn’t black and white. Art is a weirdly wonderful thing that can rarely be judged on its immediate impact or reception. But just as M.I.A. wants you to know where she stands, everyone genuinely passionate about an issue works by the same creed. One can only hope that a message will be interpreted correctly, or that everyone will love what one has to say, or that it will affect someone somewhere. It’s highly unlikely, but if the intentions are genuine and backed by action, taking a creative, unconventional stand can be incredibly brave.
One commenter on her video wrote “art is not meant to be ‘helpful’ or ‘constructive’ — it just needs to be engaging.” M.I.A. isn’t changing the world with “Born Free,” but she’s undoubtedly ignited a discussion.