Thoughts on Madonna’s Art for Freedom

Madonna has teamed up with photographer Steven Klein to release artforfreedom.com — a project that witnessed its wide release Wednesday night in a 17 minute video available for free download through Bit Torrent.

The project has been in the works for quite some time- initially hinted at by Madonna in a Reddit AMA before it was it further teased in three separate online videos.

The short film is an incredible visual ride. Alternating between images of dancers contorting their bodies every which way and images of Madonna in a lengthy metaphor that spans the length of the film.  In the initial sequence Madonna is seen casually shooting her dancers as a voice over wonders:

What happens when people are afraid? They become intolerant.  They start pointing the finger at other people.  They say you’re the reason, you’re the problem, you’re to blame.  Get out.

Before concluding:

The enemy is not out there.  The enemy is within.

In a statement following the film’s launch she expands:

My goal is to show by the example of secretprojectrevolution my creative commitment to inspire change in the world through artistic expression. I hope my film and other submissions to Art for Freedom will be a call to action and give people a place to voice their own creative expression to help fight oppression, intolerance and complacency.

The film certainly accomplishes her first objective.  There is no question– this is Madonna’s project and she wants you to express yourself.  At one point she states:

I keep telling everyone that I want to start a revolution but no one is taking me seriously.  If I had black skin and an afro would you take me seriously? If I was an arab waving a hand grenade would you take me seriously? If I was wearing combat gear and I had an AK47 strapped to my back would you take me seriously?

She acknowledges that people want to her to show them her ass and to that she responds:

“Okay. But I still want to start a revolution.  Somebody’s got to.

She later clarifies that hers is a revolution of love.  As she delves into the specifics advocating against uniformity and conformity the camera depicts her continuing to shoot her dancers.  Before the video’s end, she “unshoots” them and arms them.

This film is really beautiful – and honestly I was moved at points -  but there’s a lot to unpackage.

While there may be a temptation to dismiss it outright as a disingenuous marketing ploy – I think doing so ends the conversation prematurely.

I don’t think a revolution of love is Madonna’s to start.  She’s certainly built a platform and I think that’s great- amazing in fact!- but I also worry that it reinforces this notion that we’re at a loss for leaders and as a result we need to wait around until the right person comes around and points us to the promise land.

Leaders are really, really flawed human beings.  That being the case, there’s nothing stopping any of us from leading.

In my view, one of the most revolutionary things you can do is to simply love yourself, to treat yourself with respect and kindness and to extend that to other people.  It’s not as simple or as corny as it sounds.  Our culture breeds self-loathing.  Whether it’s through media depictions that attempt to pigeonhole us, policies that ultimately impede us, or the resulting statistics that give us reason to believe the hype; this world gives us ample reason to hate ourselves.  Our ego interjects and sometimes that hate manifests outwardly– we blame other people, even subconsciously.   I think Madonna’s right about that and I would argue that the act of simply being kind to yourself, and by extension being kind to others, is a radical one.

It’s a really hard thing to do.  Our default is to critique.  Our default is to see a piece of art and to question the motivation- the artist- the point.  Everything isn’t radical enough- nothing goes far enough, or worse (!) it goes too far- there’s a million ways each of us would do it differently.  We’ve become a culture of commentators.  Everything is wrong, and in everything there’s inspiration to say something snarky in 140 characters.

We get nowhere. We find ourselves being called to action – being called to love and hope- by politicians and rock stars and humanitarians.

Yet the truth is that they’re all as human as the rest of us.

If I view Madonna’s secret project as her own “awakening” then, yeah, something about it resonates with me.  If I view consciousness as the act of being aware, actively striving to think about what lands outside of one’s peripheral vision, then I do believe that this project and others like it serve a very real and important purpose.

But at the end of the day it’s not up to Madonna to arm anyone else.  It’s up to each and every individual to wake up to the nuances of this crazy thing we call life.  To decide to see other people and if we’re so bold to listen to them.  Not to respond but to try to understand and relate to their experience.

During the video Madonna wonders out loud “are you with me?”

I wonder if we see her.

Not for the Pop Star but for the person who’s traveled and seen things and is trying to show them to us.

Deciding to see other people’s humanity is a solitary act.

If you embrace that then who the fuck cares if anyone is paying attention or taking you seriously.

One Response to "Thoughts on Madonna’s Art for Freedom"
Matthew Detroit | Sunday September 29, 2013 01:26 pm 1

When she starts to identify capitalism–the military-industrial complex, etc.–rather than our (vague) ideological leanings as the problem, let us know. This is unfocused hoohoo. And the answer to her sophistic question about whether we’d notice if she were black is an emphatic no: black people suffer in crazily high proportion to white people, economically and under the heel of the police in this country, and almost no one notices at all. You’ve got to be a martyr to have a prayer.


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