Kanye West’s hyper-realist, breathing, conceptual sculpture, “Famous”.

“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.

Who ever would have thought of focusing on Kim Kardashian’s ass? Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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.

Sleep, 2008, by Vincent Desiderio. Oil on canvas 52 x 252 inches [Click for larger image]
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!

Center section of Desiderio’s “Sleep”.

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’s again:

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?

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943.

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.

Chuck Close still making his own paintings even after a spinal artery collapse left him nearly paralyzed.
Chuck Close still making his own paintings even after a spinal artery collapse left him nearly paralyzed.

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.

“Study of a Hero’s Life” (Vincent Desiderio, 1990)


Vincent Desiderio (10)



and one more.

Vincent Desiderio (4)

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.

~ Ends

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19 replies on “Kanye West’s Sculpture Killed Conceptual Art

  1. I’m not sure whether I want to laugh, cry or bang my head against a wall. As an artist it hurts to see this crap getting attention but most of the best painters works will never be seen by just about anyone. Their are not a lot of professions that I can think of where being the best at it doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s naive, it’s not what you know but who you know in the real world. The problem for a great artist who is unknown is that most people who spend money on art do it as an investment not because they love the piece. I get a lot of enjoyment out of painting so fame has not been something I’ve worried too much about in the past, but 30 years of paintings in the basement and no one ever seeing them is becoming sad to me. At least I know I’m not alone. Your posts are always great and seem to say exactly what I’m thinking. Keep up the great art as well!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You might check out the video I linked to in the first paragraph. It’s about a painter who ended up being homeless and then dying. His work was quite good, too. Unfortunately his “friends” who made the video about him nailed the lid in his artistic coffin by insisting he was a bigot in love with Archie Bunker, apparently not realizing that in today’s climate of political correctness that’s enough to destroy the career of a living artist, let alone a recently deceased one.

      This does seem a particularly tough time to make a living as an artist, or get any real recognition. You have to compete with celebrities who decided to become artists overnight and get shows in prominent galleries for their first fledgling attempts at art. And you have to compete with people who can pay others millions of dollars to make their work for them. Meanwhile the art world in general, from a critical perspective, isn’t supportive of painting.

      And then there’s the prospect of ones work being destroyed as worthless clutter and only having sentimental value, when one can’t afford to store it oneself and family will no longer shoulder the burden.

      I like to think there’s a way of succeeding anyway. I keep trying. I suppose it’s a bit like fishing. Only thing is the lake doesn’t have fish in it anymore, so no matter how good of an angler you are, you may still come up with nothing.

      But at least artists can have limited voices online.

      Glad you like my posts and art!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Huh! I wonder if Kanye thinks his honorary art degree from that Chicago institution (Chicago Institute of Art?) means he is automatically a bona fide visual artist? Dude! That’s not how it works!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I watched the video on Matt McGoff. He had talent and was a good colorist. I agree his friends didn’t do him any favors but, I wouldn’t say he was doing anything “radical” that sets him apart from a lot of other artists. Maybe that’s the problem with painting today. It’s not that a traditional painter couldn’t get the recognition they deserve if they were a great painter and very creative. There just are not a lot of picasso’s around. I say keep fishing, the fish are out there. Even if you don’t catch any it’s still a pretty good day just trying.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I didn’t find him exceptionally original either. I’m not a huge fan of painting from the model, though I am a huge fan of Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach, who painted from models. I was more interested in this guy’s plight, and how people came up with excuses to justify his death (ex., he didn’t know how to market himself…)

      I’m not sure that originality is rewarded. It may be that people can’t process it, and they tend to like what is familiar or that they recognize. Much over what is celebrated as “radical” is overly familiar, because it was “radical” two decades ago when I was in art school. “Radical” has just come to mean a style, like “punk” means a style, and doesn’t actually signify any breakthrough.

      I used to have a rule when I was a teen that I had to listen to a song at least 3 times before I could judge it, because I didn’t really like anything until it was somewhat familiar. Unless, of course, it was right up my alley, or the type of thing I’d really like once I saw it.

      I think when some people see or hear something original, they think it is a failed attempt at something established.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Eric,
    Here are my thought on ‘Famous’ by Kanye West:

    With respect to ‘Famous’; Kanye is what I would call a Project Manager. A PM marshals and manages resources in order to execute work. Many industries use PMs. Depending on the type of work and the industry, the PM might secure a craftsman, an artist, plumbers, an architect, electrician, lawyer, accountant, carpenter, marketer, secretary, safety officer, etc. A PM does not need to, nor often does not, create original work. In case of ‘Famous’, Kayne is a celebrity acting as a PM who has translated Vincent Desiderio ‘Sleep’ into a 3d visual. Does ‘Famous’ make Kayne great artist – no.

    Can artist (who creates fine art) be a PM? Yes, of course. The artist has traditionally been the PM. I would argue that Christo is good example of an artist/PM.

    Can a PM be an artist? In my opinion, if a PM has complete control of the work and is executing his or her own personnel vision using the resources that (s)he has marshaled, then I would be inclined to say yes. But, as you have pointed out, Kanye is essentially copying the work of Vincent Desiderio ‘Sleep’ . For that reason, I place ‘Famous’ in the category of ‘a trick’ and not fine art. For me, Kanye’s ‘Famous’ is like seeing a Star Wars movie; the visual effects are great but once the movie is over there is not much to ponder; and I’m left with an empty feeling.

    On the other hand, for me, work by Vincent Desiderio hits me deeply on many levels. His ‘Study of a Hero’s Life’ really blows me away. After seeing ‘Sleep’, ‘Famous’ is like a light breeze, pleasant but mostly fleeting.

    For me, the terms art and artist are so subjective that making a case that someone is a ‘great artist’ (or not) is tough without the passage of time.

    Still, your point that ‘…artist of today steals someone’s idea, pays someone else to recreate it, and then sells it for a profit’ has truth to it. I don’t like that but it is what it is. I saw this happening years ago and is one reason that I put down my box of paints to become a PM.

    Thanks for your essay on this subject. I enjoy it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with everything you said there. Christo would also be an exception for me, and that has to do with the execution of the project not requiring a kind of skill that the artist himself (or his and herself, because Christo was part of a team) was not incapable of doing himself, there was just too much to do. It’s also the type of thing that wouldn’t be art until it was done in the manner Christo specified. It’s very different to use highly skilled artisans/artists to execute something the success of which depends largely upon the skill of the realization, such as Jeff Koons’ “Bubbles” kitsch porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson produced by some of Italy’s finest artisans in the chosen medium.

      Project Manager is more accurate than what I’ve said in the past, which is that Koons or Hirst are CEOs of art factories, but we’re essentially saying the same thing.

      I see “Famous” as art, without question, but don’t see Kanye as an artist. In the same way I can pay musicians, say an orchestra and singers to produce music in my name. Let’s say my idea is to record 15 minutes of me playing Grand Theft Auto, including stealing different cars with different tunes playing on their radio, and of course all the course dialogue, and then have the orchestra and singers reproduce it with aesthetic embellishments. Technically I could take full credit for the result. But would that make ME a musician? No.

      There’s room in the world for all kinds of art. Lately I rather think what kind people like depends a lot on which paradigms/narratives/beliefs they subscribe to.

      Recently there was an article about how Kanye considers his Instagram feed to be art (he just joined), and the art world eagerly awaits what he will post. It could be worse, uh, uh, uh … … …

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is very good. As a tableau vivant Famous might be interesting or it might be a very expensive version of a wax museum. Hard to tell from the photos. The question I have is will the fake Kanye grow older every year while the rapping Kanye appears to remain young; will Kim’s wax ass start to sag while her actual booty remains bodacious? If so, then I will be impressed indeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Eric, sorry to comment on an old one, but I’ve been reading your posts for a while and thought I’d chime in since I can actually speak a bit to the topic at hand. There’s two versions of the Desiderio “Sleep” painting– the first is much more similar to the Kanye piece and in my opinion, better:

    The story I’ve heard about it is that when he was working on this one, a collector fell in love with it and bought it before Desiderio felt it was done (not sure why he would let it go if that’s the case). I’ve seen it in person and the paint quality is actually quite lovely– not at all tight and controlled like you would expect. Since he felt he never completed it, he then made the second, three-part version that I feel was unnecessary.

    Vince taught at my grad school and overall I have mixed feeling about his work. His early stuff with his son has a earnestness that’s hard not to appreciate, but later it seems like he was seeking to break into the mainstream contemporary art word and it begins to feel like a dissertation in paint. The word of “realist” painting is a bit of a ghetto (I don’t care for that label btw). As a teacher he had some great things to say, but he wasn’t much interested in you as a student unless you happened to have the right biographical details, but that’s not unusual in art school.

    I have a theory about how Kanye might have come across his work. See, another painter who teaches at the school is Will Cotton, whose work was scooped up and utilized for Katy Perry’s big california gurls video/album. I’ll bet Kanye reached out to the people who produced the that stuff and was made aware of the Desiderio piece… Otherwise I just don’t see how he’d come across it, but maybe it’s not that unlikely. Here’s the cotton work…


    In this case Will actually art-directed the video and worked directly with Perry, so at least he was presumably well compensated. By all accounts Desiderio was unaware that his work was being lifted by Kanye, which is unfortunate. At least the Rolling Stones get paid when their work is used in TV and film.

    This situation reminds me of Jay-Z hiring Abramovic to lend some gravitas to his “Picasso Baby” song/performance. It’s just interesting to see high art “slumming” for cash. Abramovic even claimed that Jay-Z stiffed her after the fact (and Jay-Z produced evidence that this was a lie).

    When I was working at an ad firm a few years ago, the top art director was always referencing high art from 25 years ago, asking us (the production team) to rip it off. I loved being the only one on the team who actually knew where he was sourcing his “ideas” and I see this kind of shit everywhere on TV these days. What do you think of this re-consumption of the high culture into mass culture? Does it suggest that high-art has completely collapsed? Should we just be happy that these lucky few like Abramovic are getting paid? If I reached a place where my work was in demand by someone like Kanye, I’m not sure I could say “no” given my financial… insecurity.

    Anyway, continue the thoughtful posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Garrett:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I don’t mind at all if you comment on an old article, but the older it is the more likely I might say, “I like to think I’ve evolved my perspective since then, so don’t nail me too hard in the present for even an exact quote of the past”. True. Even in the last few days I’ve had to reconfigure my map of reality, in what I would positively term un-fucking my mind. But if you have something to contribute that will expand my knowledge, I’m grateful for it.

      Very interesting. I searched and I didn’t see the Desiderio painting you shared or I would have used it in the article.

      What do you mean, “he wasn’t much interested in you as a student unless you happened to have the right biographical details”. Which biographical details. It’s hard for me to conceive an art teacher who actually gives a hoot about that, mostly because I wouldn’t. I’d be looking for students artwork to stand out in a meaningful way, and that’s got nothing to do with biographical details. Standout art is a bit freakish, and I wouldn’t expect it to come from consistently reliable segments of the population, and perhaps more likely the opposite.

      In the “high art” and “pop art” or fashion crossover, or rather appropriation of the former by the latter, it seems to be a certain kind of high art that is used. Recently Koons and Lady Gaga worked together. Fashionable art and fashionable pop music. George Condo did those covers for Kanye. I haven’t really looked into that, but, again, to a degree fashion and fashion.

      I wouldn’t say that “high art” collapsed by collaboration with music, as I consider some popular music “high art”. I’m a huge rock fan since early childhood (my parents played 8-track tapes in the car), and I don’t think Pollock is any better than the Beatles or Zeppelin, or even Sabbath, to give some obvious examples. In fact, I prefer the music of the last 60 years to the art. If I had to ditch one, it would probably be the art.

      I suppose you are talking more about advertising subsuming the avant-garde, in which case it just becomes decoration, or a watered down version of itself reprogrammed to sell a product. The art itself doesn’t collapse, it just gets gutted and turned into packaging. I’m sure Van Gogh has been used to sell all sorts of tripe, but the audacity of his paintings still stagger me even if they are reproduced on boxes of tissue. Caravaggio is still startling sometimes. Rembrandt still probing. Advertising turns lions into rugs, but this does not change what lions quintessentially are. We can use Stravinski’s “Le Sacre du Prentemps” in a commercial for sporting equipment, but even in 2017, if you listen carefully, there’s something that’s still awe-inspiring about it. A few months ago I listened to Beethoven’s “Appassionata” piano sonata. What surprised me was how hard it rocked in some sections. It’s really fucking good, I thought.

      So, yeah, Kanye’s appropriation of Desiderio’s painting doesn’t change the original. Also, I watched a lecture with Desiderio and Donald Kuspit and some others, and Desiderio seemed a bit overbearing. I don’t know if I would have gotten along with him, because I don’t know how narrow his convictions are about art. He was taking a shit on Odd Nerdrum, and while I’m not really a fan of Nerdrum, I’m not really a fan of Desiderio either. I simply haven’t really investigated either artist. But, I would be leary of someone who was strongly opinionated even within the genre of painting. Other than a few early pieces and a very occasional new offering, I don’t myself do realist paintings.



      1. Thanks for your thoughtful response Eric. I completely understand about changing your mind: I do it all the time. Consistency is over-rated, especially if you find you got it wrong the first time out.

        Hope you don’t mind a reluctant ‘realist’ poking around :). I honestly can’t seem to make work any other way, and the reason I don’t care for that label is that it encompasses contemporary neo-classical work that’s really unfortunate. My tastes lie more in observational painters like Cezanne, Euan Uglow, Antonio lopez, Walter Tandy Murch, etc. Honestly I’m not that sophisticated: my first love is matte painting for film… But I’ve stood in awe in front of a Philip Guston painting a time or two, even a Bill Viola piece. Considering your vast range of art and culture appreciation I’m afraid the learning will mostly be going one-way.

        My comment about Vince preferring students with certain biographies was mostly flippant and a bit embarrassing. He gravitated to big work with big ambition, usually from students who had more interesting ethnic or personal backgrounds. Like you say, these are the people who are making stand-out work: they have a biography that engenders provocative content. A middle-class, white, male student who paints relatively boring subject matter just isn’t going to stand out in New York. So it’s a bit of sour grapes from me– I didn’t realize that I needed to sell myself or create an intriguing personal narrative. Beyond learning how to work, art school is a performance.

        I’ll have to find that lecture you mentioned… I can see how Vince would seem over-bearing. He was always talking in terms of Lacan– signs and signifiers and whatever (…I’ve read your feelings on post-modern critique).. Just unnecessarily abstruse crap. It doesn’t surprise me that he would would shit on Nerdrum. It’s kind of like how you reserve your sharpest critiques for those closest to what you are; no one likes to look into the dark mirror. Nerdrum is a fanatic and his beliefs are truly retrograde (Artist as god, grind your own pigments, basic hyper-masculinity).. Can you tell I’m not really a fan? Like Nerdrum, Vince wants to see a re-embrace of painting craftsmanship, but he doesn’t want us to become neoclassicists/traditionalists like Nerdrum. I’m not even much of a Desiderio fan, but I do appreciate his support of the idea of “material narrative,” or that the way the work is created is a forgotten and under-appreciated form of “content.” But like you (I think), I want a “big tent” approach to painting.. I want ‘realism’ to be only a small part of the bigger field– I don’t know enough about Desiderio to say if he feels the same.

        My question about a collapse of “high art” was probably underdeveloped. Actually your mention of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring makes it a bit more clear to me (Thanks btw– just listened to it)… Once a piece of the avant guard is subsumed into the culture at large, it is much more likely to find its way into popular art.. You can basically hear Stravinsky when you watch a Hitchcock thriller, so why shouldn’t you see “high art” from the last 20 years in contemporary music videos? In a way, it just becomes a part of the vernacular at large. It really should be a badge of honor that such a bold work can influence culture at large.

        But what is frustrating in the case of Kanye and others is that it can feel like they’re riding on coat-tails. Others took real risks for the sake of creativity, but these A-list celebrities are actually making a very safe bet by appropriating those who came before them. Vanessa Beecroft becomes Kanye’s fast-pass to fine art and high fashion.. The unaccustomed will be impressed by these excursions, but for those in the know it’s well-trodden territory.

        It might also be that mass culture is becoming more welcome to sophisticated content… More and more people with art degrees in the ad world…

        Ok, I have to get back to the salt mines. Thanks for the discussion!


      2. Just back from the coal mines,.

        Yeah, you nailed it with high art just becoming part of the vernacular.

        I don’t mind if Nerdrum has cooky beliefs. That doesn’t disqualify someone from making interesting paintings. And I like Desiderio’s point that how a painting is made is part of the content. Anyone who loves Van Gogh or Francis Bacion (I’m obsessed with both, and it just keeps growing) knows that without needing to put it into words.

        Is mass culture getting more sophisticated about content? Maybe. Maybe the high art is mostly junk like Koons and Warhol, which comes out of low art to begin with, and maybe it’s both. Why wouldn’t people hunger for higher art?


  7. Hi there, Mr. Wayne! Long story short, I came across this page via a Google Images search for the earlier version of Desiderio’s “Sleep,” which lead me to Garrett’s initial comment from two weeks ago. The Kanye song and video in question are relevant to current headlines (more about that later); I’m not exactly the kind of person who would otherwise be well-acquainted with this kind of art.
    Anyway, it would appear that my cursory understanding of contemporary art is somewhat analogous to your understanding of pop culture, so I wanted to tip you off on one aspect of this story that flew over your head: the subjects of the sculpture may all be famous, but they are definitely not random (nor are their respective proximities to Kanye and to each other). Starting from the left:
    • George Bush
    After Hurricane Katrina, Kanye rather infamously declared on a live telethon that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
    • Anna Wintour
    Wintour is the longtime EIC of Vogue, and was responsible for putting Kim and Kanye on the cover a couple of years ago.
    • Donald Trump
    At the time, Kanye and Trump were mutual admirers. (Kanye changed his tune just a few weeks into the presidency.)
    • Rihanna
    Rihanna is a featured vocalist in the song accompanying the video depicting the sculpture.
    • Chris Brown
    The better part of a decade ago, Chris Brown (a singer in the same vein as Usher) was Rihanna’s boyfriend when a photo was leaked of Rihanna’s severely battered face; since then, his name has become nearly synonymous with intimate partner violence. I’d be very surprised if you didn’t know this already.
    • Taylor Swift
    At the 2009 VMAs, when Taylor Swift was only well-known among teens, Kanye came up onto the stage during her acceptance speech for Best Music Video and said “I’ma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best music videos of all time – OF ALL TIME!” His motivations here were complex (though alcohol-fueled), but he was widely vilified and he became persona non grata for several years; meanwhile, Taylor Swift became a household name practically overnight. Again, I’d be surprised if this was news to you, but there’s another layer you might not be so familiar with:
    The song “Famous” (yes, the same one that goes with the video and the sculpture in question) contains the lines “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” This became an enormous controversy in its own right and it eventually turned out that Kanye had actually run the idea by Taylor beforehand in a phone call that was surreptitiously recorded by Kim, but Taylor maintains that she never knew about (let alone approved of) being referred to as “that bitch,” which made all the difference in her mind. (Taylor’s new single was released only hours ago, which lead me down the rabbit hole to this page. Her upcoming album is titled Reputation, so as you can surely imagine, all this drama is highly relevant to the concept.)
    • Kanye West
    • Kim Kardashian-West
    • Ray J
    Kim was little more than Paris Hilton’s personal assistant who just-so-happened to be the daughter of O.J. Simpson’s lawyer until a sex tape was released of her and ex-boyfriend Ray J, after which she skyrocketed to meta-fame.
    • Amber Rose
    The most significant ex-girlfriend of Kanye West. She’s a model who, like Kim, is known for her voluptuousness and has a hyper-sexualized image. In recent years, she has turned her focus toward feminist advocacy and conducts an annual “SlutWalk,” centered around the idea that women should have the right to walk around in public while scantily-clad without being sexually assaulted.
    • Caitlyn Jenner
    I’m going to go ahead and assume you weren’t born yesterday under a rock with regard to what this woman is famous for, but in case you’ve forgotten what her connection to Kanye is, prior to her transition, Caitlyn was Kim’s step-parent. Oh, and during her transition, Kanye was the first member of the extended family to fully support her.
    • Bill Cosby
    Again, I’m sure you know why this person is culturally relevant. Early last year (after Cosby’s guilt had surpassed any chance of plausible deniability in the public eye), Kanye, without bothering to establish any sort of context (beforehand or afterward), tweeted the following: “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!”
    • • •
    I happen to know of an essay that dives into Kanye’s character, image, and artistic philosophy (mentioning several of these celebrity connections along the way) which I think you will find both fascinating and informative: {http://www.vulture.com/2016/02/kanye-in-common-with-trump-mlk.html}. It’s not much longer than what you’ve just read!
    P.S. “Donda” is the name of Kanye’s late mother, with whom he was very close. I only mention this because you seem to refer to DONDA, the team of artists, as a separate entity from Kanye, and while the individual artists are certainly independent minds, the collective was presumably established by Kanye for the express purpose of creating this particular sculpture. Perhaps they should still get primary credit, but even then, their collective name implicitly indicates that Kanye is the individual behind it all.
    P.P.S. I may not be a high-art junkie, but your writing is interesting enough and I’m curious enough about how art history got Jackson Pollack all wrong and why people hate conceptual art that I’ve bookmarked a couple of your pieces to read later. Keep up the good work!


    1. Hi Anna:

      Thanks for reading, commenting, and the additional information about who Kanye included, and why. I’m persuaded the reasons you gave are probably relatively accurate for why Kanye chose those people.

      It doesn’t change the sculpture for me, though, but does make his list a little more thought out than just picking stars and famous people who are currently in the spotlight.


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