By Sean Willett
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is about math. Written in the mid-1800s as a reaction to new ideas being introduced in the field of mathematics at Oxford University, it was intended to satirize imaginary numbers and other abstract concepts many mathematicians at the time considered ridiculous. Yet if you ask modern fans of the fantasy classic about the story’s true meaning, algebra is the last thing they would mention.
When an artist creates a piece of art, they attempt to send a message to those who will consume it. Sometimes this message is clear, and sometimes, as is the case with Wonderland, it is not. Without proper context, it would be nearly impossible to identify Wonderland’s roots in mathematics, so it was only natural that different interpretations of the work would overshadow the author’s original intent.
People reading a story about strange talking animals and mind-bending substances will undoubtedly associate it with drugs or psychology, and would never know to look on their own for the veiled and subtle references to math. It is not the reader’s fault for being unable to grasp this message, but instead the author’s fault for making the message impossible to grasp.
This isn’t an issue isolated to the realm of classic children’s stories. Canadian hip-hop group ZZBRA presents a more recent example of this type of situation through their music video for the song “Green” off of the album ZZBRA — The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. The video features group members Moka Only and Evil Ebenezer dancing and walking through different settings. Throughout the video, however, are scenes of a black woman dressed in a zebra-pattern cape, her eyes rolled back in her head, using a voodoo doll to control and harass the duo. This woman is the only black person in the video, and shares many of her scenes with men in ape costumes.
Presented without context, it is easy to identify this video as racist, or at the very least incredibly insensitive. The woman is shown as savage and primitive, using a stereotypical voodoo doll to attack Moka Only and Evil Ebenezer for no discernable reason. Men in ape suits and other jungle imagery seem to only reinforce this notion.
When asked about the potentially offensive qualities of the “Green” video, ZZBRA representatives at Camobear Records responded by explaining how the woman is “a lead character in the film ZZBRA and goes on an amazing quest through mystic lands and restores good to the universe.” They also explained how Moka Only is also of African descent, and that the apes are a sort of signature used by director Stuey Kubrick, assuring that it “has nothing to do with some kind of racial undertone.”
After the video is placed in context, many of its qualities that could be deemed as offensive begin to make more sense. If viewed as a part of the fictional film ZZBRA’s album is centred on, with the backgrounds of the people involved taken into account, it is easier to understand why they made the artistic choices they did. However, without this information, much of which is not easily available to viewers, the video can be considered offensive and distasteful.
Although the creators of the video understood its message and purpose, they failed to consider the perspective of a viewer who lacks the background knowledge they possess. They weren’t trying to offend anyone, or appear racist, but unfortunately that isn’t a valid excuse. Artists must look at their work through the eyes of society, asking not only how it makes them feel, but how it will make others feel. This is especially true for something that is intended for a wide audience, like a music video. An artist shouldn’t count on their audience to know a few pieces of trivia that are essential to properly understand their work.
That isn’t to say that art should not be interpreted in different ways. The best art can be approached at various levels and with different perspectives, revealing new meaning every time it is experienced. It doesn’t need to be completely separated from context, either — for example, Animal Farm would lose much of its impact without the knowledge that the book serves as a criticism of Stalin’s regime.
Yet if an artist hides their intended meaning under layers of trivialities and presumed knowledge, they should not be surprised if people choose to create their own erroneous and potentially incriminating interpretations. It’s easy to consume art at surface-level, but it’s much more difficult to see what might be hidden deep beneath it.
After, no one will bother to think about math if a white rabbit is sitting right in front of them.