Here it comes. Another goddamn epiphany about Kanye West. I know what you’re thinking, but there’s no way around it. The man continually demands our attention. That’s actually what this whole thing is about. Micah and I reviewed The Life of Pablo earlier this year, and my feelings regarding the album haven’t really changed–I still think it’s all over the place, and doesn’t really function holistically as a piece of music.
But here’s the epiphany: Kanye is no longer even a musician. It’s possible that he never was. He is, however, a composer, and I mean that not in the strictly musical sense, but in the broader sense of a person whose creations are based on the arrangements of elements which are themselves independent entities. We might examine his career simply as an expansion in the scale of these elements, progressing from the sonic bricolage of the sample-based beatmaker into his current form, which is the art of orchestrating the images of his fellow celebrities, reiterated by the now-infamous assertion on ‘Famous,’
For all my southside niggas that know me best
I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex
Why? I made that bitch famous (god damn)
I made that bitch famous
There’s been an ongoing debate between the Yeezy and Swift camps over whether or not Taylor approved the line before the release of the song, but the argument is beside the point, or rather, the argument is the point. The line itself is born out of contention, a reference to the also infamous 2009 VMA’s, where Kanye interrupted Taylor’s acceptance speech to say that Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time. Controversy abounded. Lines were drawn. The video was memed and re-memed into inevitable dankness. Taylor Swift saw a massive sales increase on her next album.
How much of that sales boost was Kanye’s doing is up for debate, but again, the fact that it’s up for debate is precisely the point. Pop culture thrives on cursory disagreements and wild speculation, classically evidenced by tabloid news, and now by much of Twitter, which is basically a swarm of petty arguments being had by everybody simultaneously, and the platform on which much of the Yeezy-Swift beef has taken place. The 140-character limit functions as a hard cap on the depth of rhetoric in these arguments, enforcing a quantity-over-quality rule which serves simply to compound the beefs, stringing them along for maximum effect. It’s beautiful in its perpetual regression.
All of this is essentially just an affirmation of that old ad-man’s adage that all publicity is good publicity, which is true, but with the caveat that proper positioning is also required in order to capitalize on said publicity. Donald Trump knows this better than most. His campaign so far is a triumph of positioning, asserting himself as anti-establishment, such that all attacks on him only reinforce his foundation, demonstrating just how outside the system he is. Of course this is all a fallacy. There is no “outside the system,” there is simply the system and one’s position in relation to its overall structure. Trump understands this, and it accounts for his success, and also for the failure of the other anti-establishment candidate, Bernie Sanders. Bernie seemed to genuinely want to change things, but he ended up shackled to their stark reality. Trump’s calculated self-contradictions and refusals to acknowledge various political realities allow him to be everywhere and nowhere at once, airy and unassailable as a dream.
And that’s why Trump gets a spot in Yeezy’s bed, along with Kim Kardashian, Ray J, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Amber Rose, Caitlyn Jenner, Anna Wintour, Bill Cosby, and George W. Bush in the Visual accompaniment to ‘Famous,’ which Kanye released to the public in a live-streaming premier event last Friday. As seemingly incongruous as the lineup is, all of the figures are united in their fame, and most of that fame has been fueled by some sort of controversy–The Kanye-Talyor beef, the Kim and Ray-J sex tape, the Chris Brown and Rihanna domestic violence charges, Amber Rose and Kanye’s implosive relationship, Caitlyn Jenner’s high-profile sex change and subsequent reality show, Bill Cosby’s recently revealed history of abuses, Anna Wintour’s role as the Devil who wears Prada, Bush’s legacy as our greatest presidential buffoon, who, in Kanye’s words, doesn’t care about black people. It’s a who’s-who of the day’s greatest polarizers.
But all of that is somewhere else. The bed is a place of quiet respiration, of vulnerable, de-sexualized nudity and the abstracted forms of the body. Many have been quick to point out that the image Kanye has recreated here is of Vincent Desiderio’s ‘Sleep,’ an eight-by-twenty-four-foot tableau depicting a line of sleeping figures, which sold at a gallery show in 2004, though Desiderio continued work on the piece for almost four years afterwards.
In a fascinating 2005 essay by Lawrence Weschler, titled Unfinished: On Vincent Desiderio’s ‘Sleep,’ the painter describes the process of conceptualizing the image while undergoing treatment for pharyngeal cancer:
“And I began being visited,” he recalled, “by this image of a continuous band of sleepers…Initially I was thinking I might try to realize that vision by way of a giant video loop, something one might project, say, onto the vaulted ceiling of Grand Central, stretched out in real time…I mean it’s not all that mysterious how such a notion might have originated for me, all alone like that, feeling so terribly vulnerable and separated from the world of healthy people, this primitive longing for company, the fantasy affording me a sort of comfort. But rather quickly I began to turn the idea around in my mind, and it started filling up with more and more associations…”
Kanye’s rendition is a return to Desiderio’s original vision for ‘Sleep’ as a piece of film, alluding to a painting which examines loneliness in order to make a statement about celebrity, which, as much of Kanye’s work asserts, is its own kind of isolation. The painting itself is highly allusive as well–Weschler’s essay mentions Van Eyck’s ‘Last Judgement,’ Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement,’ Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper,’ and Pollock’s ‘Mural,’ just to name a few.
But the main difference between Kanye and Desiderio is the level on which the association happens. In the painting, the figures are anonymous, and their resonance works on a symbological level: the row of bodies and their positions, the ways in which the light strikes them, the dimensions of the canvas, a series of formal allusions as a commentary on the nature of a particular image–a lineup of bodies, (or more abstractly, of forms)–as it passes through history.
As much as the presentation of the figures in ‘Famous’ strives toward abstraction, none of them can escape a definable identity. We can’t help but see these bodies in the context of their celebrity. The human forms here are inseparable from their cultural significance as individuals, making Kanye’s version of the image almost the functional opposite of its predecessor. It becomes distinct in its specificity, distanced from its previous associations by the identities of people it includes.
This is Kanye’s primary artistic mode, a brand of negative allusion which serves to free the image from the weight of its original significance, creating an empty vessel which Kanye can then fill, usually either with the likeness of himself, or with some ass. ‘Famous’ uses the imagery of ‘Sleep’ in the same way that ‘Blood on the Leaves,’ reworks Nina Simone’s ‘Strange Fruit,’ or Kim Kardashian’s Paper Magazine cover recreates Jean-Paul Goude’s 1976 photograph of Carolina Beaumont, from his collection entitled Jungle Fever.
There is an argument to be made about the re-appropriation of the black body in the latter two examples, but the reworkings themselves don’t fully articulate this argument. They simply make the allusion and leave it up to thinkpiecers like myself to fill in the blanks. This is the other fundamental aspect of Kanye’s success as a composer–the refusal to outright explain the significance of this or that reference, because to do so would effectively neuter the work. Ambiguity breeds debate, and debate powers the whole thing.
Central to all of this is the understanding that the resonance of a piece of art is as broad as we let it be, that the bond between signifier and signified is ultimately arbitrary, and that the meaning of an image is defined relationally, in terms of how it’s positioned against its surroundings. This is how Kanye sleeps, amidst an arrangement of figures that all mean something, their interrelations a tangle of limbs beneath the sheets, obscured but undeniably present. The important thing, though, is that he always remains central, the focal point to which our eyes return, and return again.