Kanye West Teaches Us Fame Begets Fame, In Perpetuity

Illustration for article titled Kanye West Teaches Us Fame Begets Fame, In Perpetuity

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



“a video in which no one is being physically violated”

I have to disagree. Amber Rose is a confident black woman who stood up to her ex for slut-shaming her publicly by clapping back, and he responded with revenge porn. I don’t know which of these women gave consent and which did not, if Rihanna, Kim, and Caitlyn consented, their use is fine, but Amber Rose and Taylor Swift, likely did not. The women, with the exception of Anna Wintour, are being sexually objectified, and the camera lingers over them really creepily (and in an obvious male gaze framing that the men featured don’t share). Using anyone’s nude body without consent is obvious harassment, doing that to women and clearly objectifying them in the process, is obviously rape culture.

What a lot of people don’t realize about Domestic Violence is that it often doesn’t end when the relationship ends. In fact, when the person is leaving, and after, the relationship, are the most dangerous times for the survivor (and often the times when they no longer survive- yet people ask “why don’t you just leave?”). He’s punishing Amber Rose for clapping back at him. This is revenge porn, against Amber and against Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift set a clear boundary and said she wasn’t okay with Kanye’s song. Even if she had given consent, and then withdrew it, that is her right. Since it’s his song, he had every right to release it anyway, but freedom of speech goes both ways, and she’s allowed to say that she thinks it’s shitty for him to take credit for her success. Now he’s punishing her. Taylor Swift has openly shared many times how terrified she is of hidden cameras, hackers, and false friends trying to take and sell nude pictures of her, she is obsessively private about her naked body, and it’s likely the one of the only parts of her life she has been able to keep private- until now. It’s such an obvious attack on the one part of herself she has kept hidden, that even though it’s likely not accurate, it’s still been sent across the globe not just by his video, but by the screenshots shared on every gossip website the world over.

This isn’t just misogyny, it’s misogynoir, people forget because she is light-skinned and multiracial, but Amber Rose is a black woman, and just because she has been a stripper and has been less private with her body than Taylor Swift doesn’t make it any less of a horrible violation. The difference between her stripping or sharing sexy pictures is that those were her choices, under her control, this was Kanye trying to take that control away, from both of these women.

I think Taylor Swift and Amber Rose will both be fine and come back from this, but this doesn’t make it any less of a gendered violation. It really does not exist in a vacuum. Women (and people of all genders) are victims of revenge porn and sexual harassment every single day, even more often, women of color. I’m not okay with these facts being dismissed just because the women featured have wealth and power, because this is part of a larger cultural problem that normalizes abuse and exploitation, and there are a hell of a lot more people than Taylor and Amber, with a hell of a lot less money, power, and support, who are being harmed by this.