Bartenders are kind of super heroes. Behind a bar at any one time, I’m probably taking someone’s order while making someone else’s order, ringing a third person up, and mentally counting the seconds until last-call. The most interesting part is that even though all of this is happening in a bar where people are packed shoulder-to-shoulder and the music is playing so loud I can feel it in my teeth, I still force myself to eavesdrop. I tell people that I eavesdrop so that I can be aware of everything going on and thwart any potential crimes in progress. The truth is that I eavesdrop because it’s fun, and anyone who claims otherwise has never been in a room full of drunk students. At some point during every shift I have ever worked, I get the pleasure of hearing a pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-sober discussion about Kantian ethics or Faulkner’s writing.
Recently, I heard two young men arguing over which of Kendrick Lamar’s albums is “actually art:” To Pimp a Butterfly or good kid, m.A.A.d city. The specifics of this argument were unintelligible due to the aforementioned teeth-chattering volume of the music playing, but I can outline the discussion for the benefit of the reader:
Professor One: “Nah nah nah nah nah nah dude, listen—”
Professor Two: “Nah, dude YOU listen. good kid, m.A.A.d city can’t be art. It’s too *burp* vulgar.”
Professor One: “But To Pimp a Butterfly is harder to get ya know? Like … I dunno it’s just tough.”
Professor Two: “Yeah whatever, wanna do some shots?”
Their conversation and decorum got progressively less academic at that point. Still, I was bothered by the short bit of the debate that I did hear. The question of “which album is actually art” made me ask a few questions of my own. Why can’t both be art? Why does vulgarity necessarily disqualify something from being art? And what does “it’s just tough” mean? Even though these two were far from being teachers in that particular moment, they did help me realize something: I’ve heard this conversation before. Not always about Lamar, but definitely always about rap, and that pisses me off. I’ve never heard an argument about Coldplay’s artistic merits or someone deriding The Rolling Stones’ vulgarity.
As an aspiring English teacher, I would hope that people learned the simple fact that literature comes in all forms, in high school. A novel (or poem, or play, or short story, or pop-up book, or even song) doesn’t have to be written in lofty Shakespearean English or taught by every high school in the nation to be literature. In fact, to some, The Beatles are as “tough” as Lamar is to one of our inebriated intellectuals. At the risk of being reductive, I think the problem here is perspective. Lamar is simply making art—yes, art—that comes from a different perspective than some listeners. This doesn’t mean that it can only be enjoyed by one kind of person, I just think that when we’re discussing capital “A” Art or capital “L” Literature, we should be careful not to discount other people’s art just because we don’t understand it completely.