“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.” ~ Tim Blum.
When aspiring art demigods boldly declared that anything is art and anyone can be an artist, they were really only talking about themselves and their personal legacies. A select few revolutionary artists presumed to possess the radical vision to transform art and civilization along with it. In a room full of Duchamp’s the only revolutionary is the homeless figurative painter stumbling along outside on his way to crash on the cold cement in the subway where he’ll slowly perish [this happened to a figurative painter in real life]. Somewhere along the way the techniques and rhetoric of the most “radical” artists were taken up by commodities brokers, and finally pop celebrities with enormous disposable incomes. We’d thought that anyone could make a painting, but only a true revolutionary could make the mental leap of producing conceptual art. Now it’s reversed. Anyone with the money and connections can be a conceptual artist, and the harder challenge is making something with your own hands and own vision, by yourself.
Kanye’s seismic eruption onto the fine art scene came in the form of an elongated bed with a dozen choice celebrities asleep on it, featuring Kim Kardashian’s bare ass as the second most important thing after Kanye’s immortal status at the center of the image [the precise center is inches away from his member]. The inclusion of George W. Bush, Donald Trump, and Bill Cosby adds a welcome element of repugnance, even if the social commentary is unfathomable because non-existent. Why this selection of people? Why Trump and Bush, rather than Bernie and Julian Assange? The latter two might draw our attention to real politics, while the others are celebrities primarily for their notoriety. I don’t think one should spend too much time thinking about who is included other than to realize not much thought went into it. Kanye included himself, his wife, former lovers, and then seemingly the first famous people that came to mind. Personally, I’d have squoze Kim Jong-un in there somewhere, just for fun.
Kanye made a statement about the content of the piece during the MTV Video Music Awards, and perhaps you will find this more enlightening than I did.
“It was an expression of our now, our fame right now, us on the inside of the TV…This is fame, bro… We all came over in the same boat and now we all ended up in the same bed.”
I can’t figure out how he and Donald Trump came over on the same boat. Nope. Can’t make sense out of it.
What really interests me though is not the politics, or the work itself, but how it reflects on the contemporary art world.
Tim Blum, co-founder of the gallery which exhibited “Famous” argued that West’s sculpture would be celebrated as the highest art if it had been produced by a famous visual artist. This I rather think is true.
Apparently members of the team (DONDA) that created the sculpture also worked on some of Paul McCarthy’s pieces. No surprise there, either.
Blum additionally stated that those who are opposed to the sculpture because Kanye didn’t make it with his own two hands don’t know art:
“Those are people who don’t have a lot of historical background on art… I can name you the top 20 artists in the world who don’t actually touch the sculptures being produced, or even the paintings.
This all seems rather obvious to me, but there’s another angle to it. These arguments presume Kanye is on par as a visual artist with artists such as Koons, McCarthy, or Damien Hirst. Another way to look at it is that Koons, McCarthy and Damien Hirst are on par as visual artists with Kanye.
You probably guessed by now that I’m not a huge fan of outsourcing the production of ones art, or appropriation. You were right. To me it’s a bit like paying someone to write a song for you, and sing it. And here’s a bit of a shocker: coming up with the idea is not the hard part, it’s making the art. And in this instance, a team of artists (DONDA) spent four months crafting the sculpture, from animation modeling and 3-D scanning to sculpting the minutest details by hand [they even used real hair]. I’d be more inclined to give DONDA the credit than Kanye. I’m reminded of an old episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Ricky got the idea of teaming up with Fred to open a restaurant called, “A Little Bit of Cuba”. Ricky had the “name” and Fred had the “know how”. DONDA just needed the celebrity status to make the work. Throw the money at them and let them do whatever they want and my guess is they’ll come up with something better.
If having an idea and hiring special effects artists to create it makes you an artist, we really have a lot of film directors/producers who we can retroactively crown as conceptual sculptors. Typically we give H.R. Giger credit for designing the alien in “Alien”, but perhaps Ridley Scott was the real artist, and Giger just a hired artisan executing someone else’s vision.
My opinion is not fashionable in the art world. I mean, shit, even Peter Paul Rubens had assistants, and nobody is getting worked up over that. Well, there’s a critical difference. Ruben’s assistants did things like grind pigment and work on inconsequential parts of images. Paintings that they worked on were valued less, and they ONLY worked in the style of the “master”. They were not capable of doing artistically what he was not. This is entirely different from hiring someone to make something that you yourself couldn’t possibly achieve on your own. It’s pretty much the opposite phenomenon. Still, my stance is unpopular. Y’know, I rather think that only through knowing how to make something yourself can you really express yourself in the medium. Of course, if you are doing appropriation, you are not so much expressing yourself within a medium, but using the medium to replicate something completely external to yourself. Someone else could make the art without you (ex., someone else could conceivably come up with making a giant balloon dog if Koons hadn’t, and it would look the same).
Really, there’s a lot of thinly veiled heaping bullshit surrounding the legitimizing of this piece (as a Kanye creation, and not as one by DONDA).
Los Angeles artist Aaron Axelrod defended Famous with this argument:
“Art is really just an idea… It’s follow through and direction. What makes a great artist nowadays is being able to put together a team. And he was willing to give up money to put his ideas to life.”
Apparently, what makes great artists today is celebrity and money, but, this kind of pseudo-conceptual art is just one kind of art-making, no matter how great Aaron Axelrod sees himself for working in the same vein. Imagine if we flipped this back on Kanye and declared that music is “really just an idea” and what makes a great musician is putting “together a team” (which, mind you, does not include the primary “musician” performing at all). I think Kanye is unintentionally calling into question whether funding a project and hiring a team to produce an idea really is such great art.
There’s more bullshit, and it’s coming conveyor belt style, in heaping, steaming piles.
Here’s the conclusion of an article in the NYTimes by
Maybe the greatest quality an artist can possess today isn’t skill or talent — it’s commitment to making a vision real. That means money and time. To create something to make the masses remember your name. What else is fame for?
I gather the purpose of art is to make oneself famous among the masses, and rather than needing skill or talent what one needs is money. Sorry all you people out there struggling to express your own inner vision, striving to manifest something of your particular lived experience, and to do it in your own way. You suuuuuuuuuuuck! Today’s artist is rich enough to pay other people to copy something by someone else! That’s the real art. The great stuff. The rest of you don’t even think about quitting your day jobs. In fact, you need evening jobs.
West’s sculpture is based on a painting by the figurative painter, Vincent Desiderio. I just discovered Desiderio a few days ago in a panel discussion on the future of figurative art. Man, that panel was not happy or upbeat. Desiderio lamented that while some of his paintings are in major collections, they are all in storage, and not visible to the public. He said he didn’t care about the monetary aspect of art (fuck yeah!), and that he’d “clean toilets” to continue doing what he wants. Apparently some of his new work doesn’t sell. It’s too big, and too figurative and narrative… These artists, and critic Donald Kuspit, considered themselves something like the beleaguered survivors of a noble, dying breed. The last of the pterodactyls. Thus, Kanye’s instantly infamous work is based on a painting by an artist frustrated by decades of underappreciated hard work.
Above is Desiderio’s “Sleep”, and below is the center section which most resembles the version Kanye paid his assembled team to reproduce as a sculpture including celebrities (cause everything is better with celebrities in it). That’s the real idea there. Put celebrities in it. It’s like putting Oreos in ice-cream. It’s adding value to a commodity within capitalism, by gad!
It’s pretty obvious that “Famous” is indebted to “Sleep”. Oh, shit, check out the woman second from the right. There’s something about her which I can’t quite put my finger on, but which reminds me of how Kim Kardashian was posed. You don’t think Kanye saw this painting and got the ingenious idea of putting Kim in it, do you? Probably just a coincidence.
For the record, I generally think making a sculpture out of a painting is not plagiarism. It’s a very different medium, and I don’t have a problem with the appropriation going on here. On the other hand, the arguments defending “Famous” in this regard are ludicrous. Here’sagain:
The cliché rings true that all art is imitation, and “Famous” was heavily inspired by Vincent Desiderio’s “Sleep,” which was based on Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” painting. And though “Famous” wasn’t built by Mr. West’s own hand, the concept and direction were his own. Ask others who borrow liberally — such as Werner Herzog or Mr. Desiderio — all are steadfast that this work is art. Michelangelo, Quentin Tarantino and Chuck Close, have each had assistance to make their ideas come to life. Why should this be any different?
First off the cliche doesn’t ring true. Art that is imitation isn’t really worth doing. If you don’t have something unique to say, why bother? No, really, what’s the point of regurgitating something that’s already been done. As an artist myself (to the degree someone can still be considered an artist without disposable income or a team to make ones art) I am only motivated to make things I haven’t seen before. So, that first bit is a load of crap.
Next we get that Desiderio’s painting is based on the Jackson Pollock painting of 1943, “mural”. Let’s have a look at that painting. Are you ready?
You can see the connection. Both paintings are very horizontal, and contain curvalinear shapes. The similarity ends there. The Pollock painting is F’ing ABSTRACT! Sure, Desiderio might have been inspired by Pollock to attempt a mural-sized, strongly horizontal painting, but nobody could accuse him of ripping off Pollock. It’s more like Vincent claimed inspiration from Pollock in order to make his comparatively academic painting style seem more relevant in an art-world obsessed with stylistic innovations, even if they are mere fodder for “ism’s” going nowhere. Incidentally, that’s a great Pollock! “Famous” is not to “Sleep” what “Sleep” is to “Mural”. There’s no comparison, no equivalence.
Then we get to how Chuck Close has used assistants. This is painful. It’s just the worst possible example anyone could come up with to justify using assistants. Close suffered a collapsed spinal artery that left him nearly paralyzed in 1988. After his injury, the artist insisted on doing his own work with a brush strapped onto his wrist. For Close, the execution of the art is more significant than the idea behind it, and hence has to be performed by the artist himself.
Yeah, but he probably used assistants to help him prop up his canvases and whatnot. Not the same thing as hiring a team of experts to create something in its entirety. Nope.
I will agree that “Famous” is art. It’s an amazingly rendered, derivative, flippant idea. What makes it really pop is the expertise of the exacting detail. Yeah, you COULD put Kim Jong-un in there, Bernie Sanders, Julian Assange, Manny Pacquiao, uuuh, Fairuza Balk, PJ Harvey, Cornel West, Nicki Minaj, Ozzy Osborne, and Justin Bierber (first famous people to pop into my head), and it’d pretty much br the same thing. Maybe better. It’s the craft that pulls it off. Imagine if Kanye tried to make this himself. It’d be as gawd-awful as if Koons made his own sculptures.
Let’s go back to this Vincent Desiderio character. I’m not really a fan of figurative, narrative painting using models, and rendered in a style reminiscent of the old masters. Just a matter of tastes, like how I’m a sucker for 70’s synthesizer prog, but not a fan of the Ramones. But Vincent did some really captivating paintings of his son, who suffered a critical illness after an operation, and needs indefinite extensive daily care. He talked about the effect this had on his art during that lecture. He couldn’t be an ironic postmodernist because he had to recognize priorities and inescapable realities. In the series of paintings of his son, his son in not a model posing for a narrative scene, but simply himself.
and one more.
There are still more of these, but you probably get the idea. If you put these paintings in one room, and “Famous” in another, I’d probably initially be attracted to “Famous”. I mean, the people breath, so, you just have to go and check THAT out. But on subsequent visits I might spend all my time with Desiderio’s paintings, and none with “Famous”. The reason is that the paintings are one person’s unique vantage on the world, a singular vision, you might say a portal into someone else’s inner world. The other work doesn’t allow me to see through someone else’s eyes. There’s no real individual vision, nothing transcendent, nothing transportive, or even really personal. We have a slick production within consensual reality. There is no style, no imperfections, no distortion, no exaggeration, no real emotion. Really, we just have a bitchin’ object. It could be dogs playing poker and if it was done well enough, it wouldn’t matter how big of a hackneyed idea was behind it.
Art means different things to different people, just like music (and who the hell chooses the Stones over the Beatles anyway?). I prefer a world with all types of art in it. “Famous” is an impressive accomplishment, but not exceptional among similar products by McCarthy and others, perhaps because some of the same people do the hands-on work.
I’d much rather look at it than spend an equal amount of time sitting across from Marina Abromovic, or gazing into one of Koons’ blue-balled abominations. But the idea behind it is not only uninteresting, it’s nullifying. Some serious narcissism and self-aggrandizement, mixed in with Donald Trump’s backside, and George W. Bush in a fetal position. They all came over on the same boat and ended up in the same bed?!
I’d rather own Desiderio’s “Sleep” or even Pollock’s “Mural”. But the most interesting thing to me is the degree that “Famous” puts Koons, Hirst and McCarthy on par with Kanye as visual artists. If you have the money to hire a “team” than anyone can be an artist, including Trump. Right, we can imagine him saying, “I’ll hire the best people. Believe me. The results will be tremendous. I guarantee it”. The skill with which such works would be realized would rival any art Koons, McCarthy, Hirst or Kanye have produced. Perhaps Trump will be not only our next president, but our next greatest artist. He has all the qualifications mentioned above: no talent; no skill; shitloads of money; fame; the commitment to realize a project, and the ability to make the masses know his name. Yeah, he didn’t need to be an architect to take credit for those buildings emblazoned with his name. The art of the deal is the greatest new art. And if he doesn’t have any ideas of his own, he can just insert himself, Ivanka, and Melania into a Lucien Freud tableaux, but make it sculptural!
[Note: I don’t know Kanye’s music. I never listen to pop music outlets. I get most my music from WFMU, which is a really eclectic independent radio station. So, I don’t know if Kanye is any good or not. I think I heard one song a friend liked and it was pretty good. Maybe he’s a good musician. I don’t know.]
To sum up, what I’ve learned from this confluence of events and ideas is:
The great artist of today steals someone’s idea, pays someone else to recreate it, and then sells it for a profit.
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