2018 blurred the lines between art and meme

December 11, 2018

What will this decade be known for? This is the question Nikki Giovanni wrote and answered in her iconic poem “Cotton Candy On a Rainy Day.” In it, she said that the 1970s were to be remembered for loneliness. If I was asked that type of damning question about 2018 and this decade, I wouldn’t veer too far from Giovanni’s response. I’d offer that from the year 2010 until this moment, there has been one theme for the generations living in it: isolation.

It’s dazzling to see through this practice of isolation, just how many things so freely coexist together because there is nobody policing the borders of our imagination, our understanding, or our consumption. This blurring of the line of Black art and celebrity has created some bizarre and thrilling moments. It’s a self-aware and odd Black creative and celebrity space we occupy now, one that relies on the odd person we become when we believe we are alone.

It’s not just writers and tortured artists who are isolated. Even our togetherness in 2018 happens alone because of the nature of the cubicle and work-from-home jobs, with social media and text being our preferred form of interaction. For better and for worse, this isolation informs our Black culture. There has been a rise in depression and anxiety, but also a rise in our willingness and comfort to discuss them. There’s an increased comfort with sexuality, the body, and desire—or at least a large space to talk about it—yet we’re also experiencing what The Atlantic has coined, “The Sex Recession.” Less people are expressing themselves sexually in person, which has led to a drop in teen pregnancy and STD transmissions. It also means more people are expressing themselves sexually through digital means, which recently resulted in Tumblr’s ban of sexual content. There is no polar good or bad about this decade of Black culture. There’s just the truth.

As our generation clings closer and closer to telephones and social media apps, isolation has been more of a regular occurrence. Isolation and loneliness differ because loneliness is romantic. It’s the sensation that takes over one’s body as a response to the absence of touch, of being seen and heard and reminded that although the human experience is, ultimately, a lonely journey, there are moments of togetherness worth craving for. Isolation, on the other hand, is clinical, just the status of your environment. We are isolated, but we are not alone. In fact, an overwhelming majority of us are more connected to our own peers and the global news-feed than ever before, even though we physically find ourselves isolated. I will always remember protesters in the Middle East communicating to protesters in America how to use milk to relieve their eyes from tear gas. That’s an intimacy that can’t be insulted by the legitimacy of the intimacy being measured by physical distances or lack of presence.

The walls of isolation have dissolved in 2018, especially among Millenials and Gen Z. The disbelief of separating things by borders, genres, or gender is a direct product of these generations. Because we feel isolated as if nobody is really watching—despite our surveillance and the consumption of our data on the Internet, and our engagement with social media—our taste for risky, genre-defying, gender-abolishing, and playing between the line of vulgarity and artfulness have thinned, if not disappeared. This appears in our Black celebrity culture too. Breakout mainstream stars like Cardi B’s personal lives are as hypnotizing as their work, and both generate attention; one does not seem to be illegitimate because of the other, as it might have been in past years. Even socialite Kim Kardashian can be both tabloid and viral internet meme fodder and political influencers, resulting in the bizarre moment of Kardashian gaining clemency for formerly imprisoned grandmother, Alice Johnson, alongside the ephemeral scandals of her cultural exploitation and nudity.

Jovan Hill, who reached Internet fame and acclaim through the vulnerability and openness about his mental health, romantic status, and need for money, was transformed into an Internet cult-figure whose serious cultural moment was punctuated by a New York Times profile. It reeks of this decade and 2018 that someone just being honest and vulnerable about all the things that make them miserable and joyful in their room alone while communicating with thousands of strangers, would also be something that generates money, cult celebrity, and even a kind of cultural prestige. It’s a sign ‘o the times, to channel Prince’s 1987 classic.

As I think of the moments that most thrilled me because boundaries I thought were mandatory got pushed or became erased, I must return to Black artists.

Solange Knowles brought fine art to the masses, and inner-city blues to high art world. Knowles paired with affordable fashion brand, Uniqlo, created an extraordinary performance art piece entitled Metronia that is both high-concept and commercial without either being compromised: the fashion and the performance are centered. Kimberly Drew blurred the lines between the exclusive nature of the museum and the casual vulgar nature of the internet by using social media to democratize art in a stint as The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s social media manager, which just ended this year. Black mainstream gold, Beyonce and Jay-Z, danced barefoot in the Louvre as other darlings, like SZA and Donald Glover, provided fantasy-driven surrealism in their new age R&B jams.

Boots Riley created an absurdist, anti-capitalism film called Sorry To Bother You which felt as literary and intellectual as any book. And in the same breath, Boots Riley was also chosen to direct Black male literary greats for The New York Times, almost as if even the Times was forced to recognize the literary gravity of Riley’s work and vision. Among those pictured in the photograph is Jeremy O’Harris, who made the theatre world grab its pearls by introducing ideas of chattel slavery, sexuality, queerness, and class to the stage with Slave Play.

Even in prestigious industries like literature and publishing, one of the best books I read this year felt limitless in a way I think could only happen during this moment in time. Michael Arceneaux’s debut essay collection, “I Can’t Date Jesus,” subverts the Black tragic memoir usually thrust onto Black male writers, and created a tale about Black gay manhood through a humorous lens that kept its cultural sharpness, sense of wit, and a defiance towards what is serious and what is not. Even the comedic title challenges both culture and religion — and why can we laugh at it all

These are the kind of works and celebrity and artistic moments that can only be produced by a generation of creative thinkers who are isolated but fixed on breaking the walls down of what makes us feel lonely, instead of so much focusing on the state of being physically alone. In this decade Black art and culture have attempted to put our devastating reality in both a viral meme and marching down the Guggenheim. This year, and this decade, Blackness is beginning to represent the multitudes that Black life exists in. All we needed was a little time to ourselves.