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Chris Brown’s torture-porn video is just cliché Add to ...

What’s strange about the sight of a naked babe in bondage, strapped to a machine and surrounded by masked torturers, is only that I’m not getting off on it. For one thing, it’s too stylized a still image. For another, it was taken on the set of a music video for a band called, seriously, U.G.L.Y. And for the final, if-only-it-were-shocking twist, it was tweeted by Red’s director: the solo R&B artist and convicted girlfriend-beater Chris Brown.

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“ALL I SEE IS RED,” said Brown’s tweet, and seeing it, you may well have felt the same. Anger is the obvious, or desired, response to his clueless or callous provocation. We know what he did to Rihanna in 2009. We can’t un-know it. We can’t forgive him, although Rihanna can: The personal is not always the political, and only an immature feminism says so. When it comes to love, sex and porn, nothing occurring between consenting, knowing adults is political. Nor should it be politicized, nor legislated, nor censored.

“He’s an artist” is the easiest defence of anything Brown does to get our attention. Art, however, isn’t just content in context. It’s also intent. That’s why the biographical fallacy “Don’t judge the artist by the art” is sometimes true.

And it’s why our most radical, least responsible proponents of both artistic freedom and free speech are often those men who have the most power and the proclivity to abuse it.

That the woman in Brown’s video is both airbrushed and blood-bathed makes the image less like torture in porn, which can be extraordinarily sexy, and more like torture porn, which is suffocatingly anti-erotic and boring. The latter, once a cult cinematic sub-genre, now intended for mass consumption, forces upon the many the private desires of the few. If torture in porn turns you off, you turn it off. Without risking accusations of prudery or moralism, you can’t always do the same with an Eli Roth movie, or a Michael Haneke film, or a music video.

That this video ho’s torture, however ersatz, is directed by Chris Brown makes it even less like art. If art is a lie that tells the truth, here is a lie that revises it, hyperrealizes it, makes the truth look like a glossy fashion spread or a grindhouse cliché, like something that could never happen. Except it did.

Here is no catharsis, only capitalistic self-image propagation with a known cause and some probable effects. One is the transference of whatever guilt Brown feels about his very real-life brutalization of a woman (“The assault caused [Rihanna’s] mouth to fill with blood,” read the police report, before going on to say that Brown looked at her and said, “Now I’m really going to kill you!”) onto those who enjoy his video.

“There’s a normalizing factor when people are seeing something together, and that pressure makes the filmmaker up the ante, and then the audience is supposed to just take it,” is how Maggie Nelson put it to me in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Then,” said the poet, critic, and author of the greatest post-Sontag book I’ve read on aesthetics and ethics, The Art of Cruelty, when they take it, the filmmaker is allowed to say he only made it because audiences wanted it. In truth, much of the audience will see whatever is in theatres, or whatever’s on TV at prime time. I’m not denying there is a desire for sexualized violence, but it’s a mistake to think mass culture is made by the masses.”

The other effect is one I felt last time Brown was in the news, in September. He got a tattoo inspired, he said, by Mexican Day of the Dead art and a MAC Cosmetics design. The tattoo is certainly of a female face, laced with injuries. It is possibly of Rihanna. For many, the too-likeness provoked outrage. In me it stirred an uneasy abreaction, triggering the flash memory of a star’s – a woman’s – battered face. But the tattoo is so beautiful, and suddenly battery doesn’t look like it hurts.

Brown’s sin is not in directing art that shocks, which certainly has (or had) its uses in the avant-garde. It is in selling images of violence so artless, so clichéd, that they don’t shock when they should.

In 2005, Jon Caramanica – then at the Village Voice, now with TheNew York Times – reviewed Cam’ron’s Purple Haze, a sadistic, machismatic work of rap genius. “The avant-garde need not be moral,” he wrote, extemporizing on Oscar Wilde’s “All art is immoral.” Caramanica added, “Sometimes the most uncompromising art can come from the most reprehensible circumstances.”

True, when the artist didn’t write the circumstances. Rihanna, postbattery, has written her best and fiercest songs – although I’ve seen her live, and she sings them unconvincingly, her tone as cold as cash.

“It seems clear that her S&M character is just that, a character,” Nelson says. “We love to think of [both Chris Brown and Rihanna] as authors of their personal and cultural destiny, but you can feel the structure of their public spectacle vibrating, as though it will crash and burn.”

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