Yeezus: the nature of faith and doubt in contemporary art

 

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Kanye West, Famous, 2016, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Kanye West has made a move into the art world and his first show landed at a big name gallery: Blum & Poe in LA. I don’t begrudge Kanye his 15 minutes in the art world’s sun…but then again, I do. If he wants to make art, more power to him and lord knows he has enough fans to want to see it and consume it. However, it’s statements like the one made by Timothy Blum, the “Blum” in Blum & Poe, which stink of affected ignorance, that frustrate me. Mr. Blum said, and I quote from artnet: “If you didn’t know that this was a work by Kanye West, and instead was the work of a known artist in the art world, the perception of the piece would be completely different—it would be celebrated and universally supported at the highest level” [emphasis added].

I really don’t agree with this. I also don’t think Blum truly believes his statement because a man in such a position in the art world, a co-owner of a major contemporary gallery, cannot believe this is true unless he is blindingly ignorant of the climate in which he operates. Appropriation art is a thing, it is a movement that came about around the late 1960s and flourished between the ‘80s and early ‘00s. The most iconic appropriation artist is Andy Warhol who used quintessentially American imagery in his art to touch upon the topics of consumerism, the American Dream, and the identical repetition inherent in the media and Fordian production systems (a.k.a. the assembly line). The best example is the Campbell’s soup cans. Warhol appropriated an image recognized by everyone (unless they were living under a rock), that had been advertised to the mass market, and was/still is a household name, and raised it up from the low art of advertising to the high art of painting and print making. By doing so, he blurred the line between high and low art, poking fun at the perpetually serious abstract expressionists, and made a statement on brand worshiping consumerism, so perfect in its simplicity as to become its own brand. There are still several successful artists making appropriation art, but the strong majority (and really the only ones being supported both academically and financially, but by no means universally) were around for the beginning of that movement or were a part of its golden days. Richard Prince, Sherry Levine, and Barbara Kruger among many others take images by other artists or from the greater cultural milieu and re-purpose them to create a new meaning, often tongue-in-cheek, that speaks to cultural norms, societal roles, consumer culture, and the society of the spectacle. Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein with their versions of pop art were all precursors to the more contemporary version of appropriation art. The important idea, however, is that the image or meaning that is taken is changed in some way and made to represent something different. Further, as I’ve said before, good art must mean something and it must make us think differently; it should be surprising and empathetic and to some degree revelatory. I also believe that good art must be made by the artist, I don’t agree with the majority of conceptual art, I don’t think that concept is enough. Many professionals in the art world would disagree with me, but many would also agree. However, this is really only part of my issue. When Mr. Blum said “it would be celebrated and universally supported at the highest level,” the fact is that that never happens, there is no such thing as universal support in the art world, it is a society of criticism and disagreement and that is what forces it to grow and improve and keeps it from stagnating. I would support that statement in any art form, popular music included. For him to say something so glossed over and hyperbolic about something that has already gotten a lot of backlash just makes it sound even more like he knows he isn’t speaking the truth. As Shakespeare wrote: “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

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Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) exhibition image, synthetic polymer pain on canvas, image courtesy of Maurizio Pesce

Here I’ll admit, any time I hear of a celebrity from film or theater or music suddenly making art with no professional background in visual art, I grimace. I think it’s presumptuous of them, especially when they ask us to ignore their fame in favor of their art, like Adrien Brody has so recently done. We cannot ignore their fame and they wouldn’t have made it this far this early without it. Art is not a meritocracy. How many talented artists that hold degrees in art have dedicated decades of their lives toiling in anonymity, unrecognized, because of how saturated the art market is with contemporary artists? There are so many that it comes down in large part to luck, networking, and a level of independent wealth that allows them to continue without regular funding. It is terribly unfair that a celebrity would accept being plopped in the middle of an art fair or well-known gallery and then demand that we ignore the very celebrity that brought them there. It is frankly insulting.

Then again, if I’m being entirely honest, the biggest issue I have with Kanye’s art is that it upsets my vision of Art, which has been spurred on by recently reading the depressingly pedantic breakdown of modern art in Tom Wolf’s “The Painted Word,” . Art, like so many things in life, requires faith. For the longest time I had faith in art like I had faith in nothing else, not even my best friends and family. My faith has lately been shaken and I am slogging through a period of doubt as I search for my professional niche. Happenings like Kanye declaring his Twitter feed performance art force me to outline rules and draw lines to quantify my faith. I am confident that anyone who has truly observed the nature of their own faith will tell you that it cannot easily stand up to that kind of delineation, that sometimes you just have to believe. The overly observed faith all too often leads to doubt and the only way that I know of to move past doubt is to become all the more rigidly adherent to the original parameters of your faith. But rigidity is not acceptable to me. I think the best way to flourish, especially with art, is to be fluid and accepting of contradictions because often they herald growth.

So what is one to do? When people fire questions because they themselves don’t share your faith, when they require clear and concise answers and philosophizing just won’t do, when they need firm lines drawn but you require flexibility, when contradictions are acceptable to you but not to your accusers, what can you do? Art like that produced by Kanye, that doesn’t seem to be art to the consuming public or to myself, produces so many uncomfortable questions that I become defensive. But, in order to stand up with something you believe in, you have to accept those questions and that lack of clarity and accept that belief alone is not enough and face it all head on. Mr. Wolf wrote in his book – which I have decided is one sided, bigoted, and a bit snobbish – that one of the main mantras of contemporary art and art theory is that all good art appears ugly at first. Meaning, if you don’t like it at all, it is probably great. That particular line is too rigid for me. Sometimes, you don’t like something because it isn’t good, you don’t feel right about it because it isn’t right. Contemporary art tells us that anything can be art; I disagree. More so, I disagree that this is what contemporary art tells us. Some of the Dadaists literally said that, but they were trying very hard to turn the whole world on its head and that is just one out of many modern and contemporary art movements. Contemporary art does not open the flood gates to everyone and everything being good art. It is true that the art world is full of snobs, prudes, and elitists, but that doesn’t mean that anyone who can get someone to show their work is a good artist. You can find a seller and a buyer for almost anything, that does not make it worthwhile. Therefore, it is not only acceptable but necessary to look at a thing pushed before us, by the sellers especially (because the informal price tag on Kanye’s sculpture is $4 million mind you*), and critique them. Do you like it, how does it make you feel, what does it say about the world it inhabits? Etc, etc. This however does not necessitate the polar reaction of calling all contemporary art shit, which many are all too happy to do. It is not that simple, it has never been that simple, and it will never be that simple because it is created by people to talk about people and why would that ever be simple?

So, ok Kanye, ok Mr. Blum, I’ll take a second and pretend (as much as I can) that Kanye West is not a famous musician and personality of the contemporary social media world. I’ll pretend that he isn’t a household name for a reason other than art, with antics and a family that provide gossip for the entire world and provoke obsession and inspire millions, for better or worse. If Kanye West was already one of the few famous appropriation artists who create work that is included in collections, then yes, this work would probably be celebrated. It’s visually interesting and makes a valid point on fame and the new wave of spectatorship through social media where we aren’t alone even in our most vulnerable hours. However, let us not forget the artist who first painted this image, Vincent Desiderio, who has rarely been mentioned since the original video release, for which he wasn’t even notified, let alone asked for reproduction rights. While Mr. West has changed the medium and the faces, it is still strikingly similar to the original in both image and idea. When questioned, Desiderio was impressed and positive about the whole scenario. Frankly, I believe it was because he felt no threat artistically since music is pretty far removed from painting. He probably also assumed that the link to the famous Mr. West would bring him increased visibility and thus increased prices and shows. But, if it were another artist, would he have been so magnanimous? Probably not. If we look at the many lawsuits surrounding appropriation artists, especially the famous Richard Prince, it is clear that most visual artists are not keen when another visual artist “appropriates” their work. In fact, they tend to use another word entirely. They tend to call it plagiarism and they sue over copyright infringement and reproduction rights. If Mr. West wasn’t Mr. West, he would almost definitely be sued by Desiderio especially if he was already a well-known appropriation artist. If he was not a famous appropriation artist but instead a new artist just breaking onto the scene, it would be even worse. He would be ridiculed or worse, ignored, because appropriation art as a movement is no longer being used by the new young generation of artists. Appropriation art at one point was new, and it was an interesting idea that built off of the past and led to the future, but it is still problematic.

Kanye is not a stranger to appropriation, he has used it in his music often and to great effect. In fact, he did what the appropriation artists were doing for visual art with music. He took segments of well-known, older songs that had influenced his genre of hip hop and rap and shifted them to create a new meaning that simultaneously referenced the past. I just don’t think he is doing this with art. It isn’t the same, and in this instance he isn’t successful. It’s not just that it hasn’t translated well, he has lost the flow that makes the appropriation improve his music. He has also lost the internal reference linking the appropriation with the new work to a deeper meaning. It seems sloppy and poorly thought out. He also didn’t make the actual sculpture and it is unclear how integral he was to both the conceptual and physical creation of Famous.

In the end, if Kanye wasn’t Kanye as we know him and he made this, it wouldn’t have gotten a show at Blum & Poe and he would probably also be in the early stages of an ugly, expensive, and drawn out law suit over copyright issues.

 

*This was falsely reported by the New York Times and later corrected by the Los Angeles Times

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