In 2008, when the artist Vincent Desiderio finally put down the brushes on an 8' x 24' painting he’d been working on for five years, the stock markets were in decline but his cancer was in remission. He’d first shown “Sleep” four years earlier in a solo show at Marlborough, the New York gallery that represents him, and it had sold to Seven Bridges, a foundation in Connecticut, but he’d since taken it back to his studio in Ossining, thinking it was incomplete.
“Sleep” depicted 12 naked figures side by side in a bed (eventually he’d add more); he’d meant for it to represent the nights he lay awake with insomnia during his treatment for nasal cancer, with which he’d been diagnosed in 2000. Upon its initial viewing, critics found it especially breathtaking amid his acclaimed catalogue of slit-throat classical ladies and eyeballs in ring boxes; one favorably compared it to both Jose Saramego’s Blindness and The Last Supper. Another critic evaluated Desiderio’s work as “sharply critical of excesses in contemporary culture, notably the glut of images that people compulsively consume, only to be left hungering for more.”
As you surely know by now, Kanye West views this hunger from the other side of the mirror in the video for “Famous,” which riffs on Desiderio’s masterwork but replaces the peaceful anons in the painting with wax approximations of some of the world’s best-known political and cultural figures. In casting his friends and enemies as “nude” participants peacefully sleeping in a bed—really, there’s an interlude in which everyone is snoring, the type of video installation you’d have seen in a super edgy gallery in 1984—West suggests they’re both impervious to their own renown and united in their innocence, sleeping avatars strung up in the Matrix.
And in attaching himself to Desiderio, who’s considered a master at his craft, West is trying to convince us that this artistic gesture holds some deeper meaning, rather than simply being a sample or a remix of a famous painting.
A remix is fine! It’s a cornerstone of hip-hop! But his depiction is, at once, both noble in its efforts and total bullshit. We’re forever glued to West’s stone-faced visage because of his clear brilliance, cyclical overemphasis of his own persecution, and never-ending success—just today, he announced an industry-upheaving deal with Adidas that will expand his design aspirations and place Yeezy-branded brick-and-mortar shops; his ability to sell namesake items has boosted Adidas’s income and there’s a future in that. But with the “Famous” visuals, he seems to imply that his sleeping beauties are not complicit in their own celebrity, an ironic thesis in a video that imagines his ex-girlfriend in bed with Bill Cosby and George W. Bush. “It’s a comment on fame,” he told Vanity Fair, cannily. Just as, perhaps, Genesis’s 1986 video “Land of Confusion” was a similar comment on fame.
“Famous” debuted on E! Tuesday, the home to his wife’s reality show empire, where she ostensibly bares more than the ass so prominently depicted in the video. The nude parts, breasts and pubes and more butts, were blurred out, too scandalous for a station that built an empire out of drama. That day, Desiderio provided his own take in W, explaining that West flew him to Los Angeles to view a screening of the video at The Forum, where Kanye supposedly teared up when Desiderio guessed that The Life of Pablo referred to Picasso and Escobar and the Apostle. “Slumbering gods, they were,” Desiderio wrote, “but also like babies or small children at the height of vulnerability.” In “Famous,” though, Desiderio’s critique on consumption and mortality is making him famous himself, a self-perpetuating cycle masterminded by Kanye.
One core question in this scenario is why artist statements tend to be so purposely esoteric, with an implied philosophical bent that often seems as composed a word-salad as a Sarah Palin speech. Everything’s a “comment on” something, the opposite of the interviews West seems to abhor. But his less lofty motives were plain. He believes that the figures in his giant bed are equalized by their mutual notoriety, but he also clearly just meant to stir shit up. (On Saturday after the video debuted on Tidal uncensored, he tweeted, “Can somebody sue me already #I’llwait,” then deleted it.)
The main source of this controversy, yet again, has originated with Taylor Swift (and not with Donald Trump, though I still believe making an artist visualize his bare ass has got to be some kind of OSHA violation). Fans are still angry with West for his tongue-in-cheek assertion that he made her famous in the song, a line Kim Kardashian says Swift knew about and approved before its release. Swift’s friend Lena Dunham accused West of, among other things, both participating in rape culture and mimicking a snuff film, in a lengthy Facebook post, a specious conclusion to reach from a video in which no one is being physically violated and no one dies. (One presumes Dunham wasn’t aware of West’s work in 2010.)
Desiderio likens the chasm between his own work and Kanye’s simulacra as a type of flattening of high and low culture, and some sort of midpoint where they’d met on their respective artistic planes. What’s most interesting about this meeting is not West’s “comment on fame,” nor is it Desiderio’s analysis of his interpretation of his work, which strikes me as lightly cloying. The true endgame here is that Kanye is famous, he loves other famous people, and he will continue being famous by imitating high art as long as he possibly can. And that’s fine!
Image via Tidal