Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); }

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.

"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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies