“We have art in order not to die from the truth.” Friedrich Nietzsche
Madonna started the New Year off with a bang by promoting her newly released album, “RebelHeart,” with a controversial set of Instagram images that (seemingly) compared her with iconic leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, among others.
The day before the offending internet faux pas, she teased her followers with a popular social media graphic: “Dear Haters: I have so much MORE for you to be MAD at… Be patient!” The controversial images in queue were part of a series of cultural icons photo-shopped with black cords restraining their faces. Many (like me) took the artist at her word: The images were meant to represent the spirit of rebelliousness in all of us. Nevertheless, a very vocal contingent expressed their dismay at the comparison by a woman they deemed “pop trash.”
Within 48 hours, Madonna took to Facebook to apologize:
“I’m sorry/I’m not comparing my self to anyone/I’m admiring and acknowledging there Rebel Hearts/This is niether a crime or an insult or racist!/I also did it with Michael jaclson and frida khalo and marilyn Monroe/Am I saying I am them/NO/I’m saying they are Rebel Hearts too. [sic]”
She went on to justify (lol) her decision by citing the fact that the images were originally posted by fans. She concluded her apology by devaluing her accomplishments in relation to these leaders: “I’m very flattered and I hope one day to live up to 1 100th of what those people accomplished.”
(It’s worth noting that the word apology has various connotations: For instance, it’s ironic that Madonna has made the hashtag, #unapologeticbitch, a key point in marketing this album for months. It’s also worth noting that the very word, apology, derives from a Greek word for defense. Indeed, the word “apologist” is defined as a person who stands in defense of a principle or idea.)
Regardless, it was a humbling moment for Madonna—an iconic artist in her own right—and an unfortunate setback for female artists that follow in her footsteps.
On the one hand, it is prudent to point out that Madonna’s achievements are incomparable to those of leaders like MLK, Jr. But who’s to compare? The fact of the matter is that her imprint is simply different. Madonna may not have fought for freedom on the level achieved by the greatest civil rights leaders, but she—in her own way—has fought for freedom of expression by female artists. Her legacy has paved the way for today’s pop, hip-hop, and rock artists to get into their own groove.
As I’ve argued before, women need artistic mentors. I stand by my argument that creativity is key to the advancement of women in society. Madonna’s creative approach to pop music undoubtedly opened up doors for artists like Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga. Whether or not these artists are “trashy,” their influence on female expression is critical. In an age where women are continuously ridiculed and held to absurd standards (most recently, Idina Menzel), powerful women must stand up for themselves and each other.
Independent of gender, artists play a unique role in popular culture: By definition, the artist (whether writer, painter, musician, or other) is responsible for boldly pushing the boundaries of social norms and expectations, and they must do so unapologetically if they are to be effective.
If every artist had to apologize for expressing him or herself (see what I did there), humans would face a bleak future. Popular culture—and more importantly, free society—would not be nearly as free if Steven Spielberg and Chris Rock and Joan Rivers felt the need to apologize for the truths that they express any more than Pablo Picasso or Mark Twain or Tupac Shakur.
My point: Artists may be in a different category than political leaders and activists, but icons like Madonna are no less important to freedom. In the words of Mahatma Ghandi, another iconic leader: “Whatever you do may seem insignificant to you, but it is most important that you do it.”
If Americans’ defiant support for The Interview is any indication, then art is fundamental to freedom. Pressuring artists to apologize is counterproductive to a society that values either.