To engage certain forms of art, all that's required is a readjustment of our lens: a different perspective, a different thought process, a different experience, one that could be greatly illuminating, for better or for worse.
There is no universally acceptable lens to view, understand or engage art. It remains mostly subjective. Oftentimes, our perception or engagement with art is conditioned by a number of factors: political, social, and cultural backgrounds, coupled with our gender, race amongst other things. Without these varied perceptual conditionings, we wouldn’t have a lens to view art through, regardless of what shape or form it presents itself in. For academics or critics, it is believed to be a little more objective. Promulgated ideas, theories and set parameters coupled with their subconscious conditionings generally make up the framework through which they view art. Anything that tends to stray too far from these ideas, or somewhat challenges them, is mostly chucked up to be bad art.
Paul Cézanne, a post-impressionist painter whose work laid the foundations of the transition from the 19th-century conception of painting to a new and radically different world of art in the 20th century, was highly criticized during his lifetime by contemporaries and critics alike. His works, often repetitive and characterized by exploratory brushstrokes, were severally turned down by the Paris Salon, one of the greatest art exhibitions in the western world and Séverin Faust, famously known by his pseudonym Camille Mauclair, a popular french poet and art critic once noted that “Cézanne never was able to create what can be called a picture.” Today, his art is viewed differently ー positively and he is heralded by many as one of the most influential figures in the art world. Navigating through life, we are sure to encounter new experiences and perspectives, all of which can force us to recalibrate our viewpoint on life and as a result, art.
Cruel Santino, fka Santi, is a polymath; an artist whose most recent body of work was met with polarizing views. Subaru Boys: FINAL HEAVEN, his second studio album and first under his new moniker is a thrilling and vivid sonic universe, one that, for all its buzz and delight, seemed pretty inaccessible, at least to the mainstream Nigerian audience. In my review of Subaru Boys, I opined that while the colourful and fantastical world Santi put together was entrancing, at least sonically, it was largely indecipherable. “It’s clearly an entrancing sonic universe filled with a host of his many influences but then what’s the thread that ties it all together?.” I asked. Weeks after the release of Subaru, Santi, in a bid to further flesh out his world, introduced different digital characters: Sochi, Sion X and Nisaru, all members of the Subaru boys, a special organization created by the sea ministry to oversee special organizations in the sea world and outside of it. Still, this made no sense to me. It was ostentatious at best. How did this improve the overall experience of the album, how did this enhance the listening experience or better still, make his world any more accessible?
These questions spurred a slightly heated ー but largely illuminating ー conversation with a friend, one that would present me with a new perspective on Santi, perhaps his thought process and ultimately the world he’s currently trying to build. My initial stance: the music and whatever world Santi is building seemed pretty disjointed, neither really looked to be in service of the other. I believed that the crux of Santi’s creation is his music and so whatever followed should be embellishments, one that made the overall experience better or more relatable at least. My friend however opined that, in a sense, neither necessarily needed to lend itself to the other, they are two distinct creations and that’s perfectly okay. His argument was that while Santi is a musician, really and truly, he’s much more than that. He’s a visionary, a creator who has looked to pull off pretty grand ideas since he started making a name for himself many years back. Thus, he believes the central feature here is Subaru World itself. The album, the characters, everything is in service to this world he’s slowly unfurling and not the other way round. The music, at best, was just the introduction.
It took me a minute but it eventually made sense. It isn’t unusual. When you’re used to a certain modus operandi, it takes a fair bit of time to recalibrate. When you think about it, this isn’t the path that many artists in the past who have tried their hands at world-building have followed. Think Travis Scott’s Astroworld. The music is what’s principal and every other thing they did was in service to it. However, much like Cézanne, Santi is different, peculiarly in the industry where he primarily operates. He has always been.
He’s never really played by the rules. He’s done things in a pretty unique way; his own way. This uniqueness is why he currently cuts a divisive figure. Since he landed on the mainstream radar, he’s been labelled all sorts: occultic, rich and spoilt, wanna-be genius, pretentious, just to name a few. When it comes to him, you either get it or you don’t: to the ones that get it, the seemingly au courant, he’s the alte Jesus, a genius-level creator that can do no wrong but to the many who don’t, he’s a privileged kid making highfalutin jargon at best.
Countless Twitter spaces, conversations and back-and-forths have been had, different people on both sides of the divide, each trying to convince the other about the quality of Subaru Boys, about Santi’s art in general, about the man himself. Just a couple of weeks ago, he released a short video that sent a section of Twitter into a frenzy again. The short video, which seemed like an ode to his younger days, featured Santi — clad in high school clothing — rapping and singing about a number of juvenile and obscure subjects. As you would expect, many called it all variations of trash: “You fell off” one Twitter user commented. “I don’t understand this music,” another Twitter user said.
Interestingly, I think the latter pretty much sums up Santi and the conundrum that surrounds him. A lot of people don’t understand him or his art — including those who even swear by him. This isn’t a problem, except that, more often than not, when people don’t understand something, when it’s different from what they know, it’s immediately chucked up to be bad. Of course, different can be bad, garbage in fact. But it could also be good, really good. Our preconditioned lenses of viewing art almost urge us to eagerly decide: good or bad, even when we don’t understand it. As I mentioned, different does not mean good or bad, it simply means different. And many times what’s required is a readjustment of our lens: a different perspective, a different thought process, a different experience, one that could be greatly illuminating, for better or for worse.