In his most shocking work to-date, Kanye West has yet again created heated discourse surrounding the intentionality of his polarizing art.
Highly controversial, sinister, pornographic, extremely NSFW, transcendent, genius. These are a few words associated with Kanye West’s recent music video for Famous. Released on June 24th to a live crowd in LA and via TIDAL for audiences around the world, the visuals have caused a visceral and polarizing reaction amongst viewers – something West is known for.
Best described as shocking, Famous is a music video you certainly need to view for yourself. Inspired by Vincent Desiderio’s 2008 painting Sleep, the music video is essentially a 3D copycat. The primary difference being that West replaced the painting’s subjects with some of the most recognizable figures in the world right now – who have all been connected to him in some way. In a dimly lit and zoomed in view, the viewer feels privy to a private moment as the camera pans over George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Anna Wintour, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian West, Ray J., Amber Rose, Caitlyn Jenner, and Bill Cosby respectively – all in a peaceful, naked slumber.
Without the context of the original inspiration, West’s rendering is a bit disturbing. At first glance, it easily could be assumed that the contorted subjects are corpses in some type of warped cemetery. Once the snoring and heavy breathing sounds of slumber become audible, new questions emerge. Most commonly, the viewer begins to wonder if the celebrities actually posed for this themselves or if this is a digitally composed, waxy-looking imitation. Not only do you wonder whose depiction is real or fake but the theme extends to their body parts, personas, and talent. Between implants, gender reassignment, tattoos and public image, the visuals comment on society’s obsession with every aspect of celebrity life and the facade of Hollywood.
The intent behind his vision is layered and deliberate. Stripping the public figures of clothes humanizes them from exalted demigod status while dually portraying the overexposure of celebrities. The heavy makeup, lighting, bravado and overall circus associated with celebrity are peeled back to reveal average humans at the most basic level – flesh and blood in a vulnerable sleeping state. If you look at the original painting, your reaction isn’t as strong due to the subject’s anonymity. They could be anyone; they could be your neighbour, second cousin, a priest or even a serial killer. The only difference in West’s depiction is the replacement of familiar faces who we know everything about. Switching the medium from canvas to a close-up, night vision perspective privy to a vulnerable unconscious state creates an uneasy, intrusive and creepy feeling. West wants to make you feel this way; it’s how celebrities including himself must feel every day about their fame.
All of this sounds great but there are a lot of contradictions and ethical questions surrounding the rapper’s work that simply cannot be ignored. In classic Kanye West style, he is placed at the center of the visuals where he conveniently is the most covered of the bunch. There are no zoomed in, lingering shots of the men’s bodies but there certainly is a visual focus on the women’s. Is West doing this on purpose to expose the media’s compulsion to hyper-sexualize women, or is he sexist and further perpetuating the same notion? Even if he meant the former, impressionable youth will be watching this video and probably not understand his intentions, which again promotes what he’s trying to expose. Perhaps he doesn’t realize this infinite loop or perhaps he’s aware of the contradiction, simply providing a medium for social commentary.
Second, there is a complicated ethical issue here – consent. These visuals are purely exploitative, which West is well aware of. If he is trying to illuminate the lunacy of celebrity culture, he is further adding fuel to the fire. It’s not clear whether any of the celebrities gave permission to use their physical likeness, but you can be sure not all of them did. By not receiving consent, he’s forgetting a legal right to all humans – which he was trying to prove that celebrities are. Again, West directly contradicts his intent here. He strips the celebrities down to average people but takes away their choice to display their naked likeness in an extremely public forum. Lena Dunham released a statement going as far to criticize the rapper as promoting rape culture.
Lastly, West’s selection of celebrities is troublesome. While it’s obvious why people like Kardashian and Bush are chosen, it isn’t so clear as to West’s reasoning behind including Cosby in the mix. Now infamous for getting away with raping women his entire life while people turned a blind eye and his career flourished, it’s baffling as to why West would give that man any more publicity. He also places Rihanna next to her abuser, Chris Brown. It would be interesting to know how she feels about her friend, Kanye West, further exploiting her painful memories. It’s one thing to provide social commentary on celebrity culture but there may be an expense to these public figures.
Interviewed by The NY Times, Desiderio responded to a question about the consequences of West’s Famous saying, “Artists are not saints. They’re not people whose first obligation is moral correctness.” He further added, “…[A]rt goes to dangerous places. And this is not to sound like Donald Trump, whom I loathe, but if you want to make it amenable to a certain political class or agenda, what a disaster that would be. It’s like saying, ‘Hitchcock, that guy must’ve really loved killing women.’ Or Dostoyevsky — ‘I don’t like that guy very much.’ It’s horrible to look at, horrible to hear, but there’s also the kernel of salvation. That tension between those two things is where art functions.”
West’s goal is always to make a strong statement, get people talking and expose whatever “truths” he thinks he’s privy to. He makes his work shocking on purpose. He knows what he’s getting himself into and disregards the consequences anyways. Some may take that as West being a bonafide badass who pushes the boundaries of art. Contrastingly, some may understand him to be a delusional narcissist, addicted to publicity. In order to appreciate West’s vision, you have to do a little digging beyond face value, but not without frustration. Ultimately, this leads you down a convoluted and confusing path which seems to loop around in endless contradiction – but that just may be the point.