Kanye West has been on my mind a great deal recently. This essay has been germinating for a number of years but its realisation is down to two key points.
The first is the sad death of David Bowie. Like many people I spent some time after Bowie's death trying to fill the gap, trying to identify who, right now, held the same cultural significance and subversive approach to music and art that he so charismatically wielded. Before I get lampooned by die‐hard Bowie fans for trying to position Kanye as 'the new Bowie', I have to state that's not what I'm trying to do. The second was the seemingly ubiquitous negative reactions on social media to news articles concerning West's new album, The Life of Pablo. This has typically manifested as a tirade of derision from tweeters and facebookers who'd just about had their fill of West's troll‐tastic antics ("Bill Cosby innocent!!!", anyone?). I have written this essay, not in an attempt to defend West on these counts, but in an attempt to outline a perception of this artist as one that is misunderstood and, in my opinion, groundbreakingly interesting.
"West...(is)an indication of our postmodern capitalist culture reaching its limits: an endgame situation."
I believe Kanye West is one of the most important and interesting artists we have today. This is not my attempt at a Kanye‐style troll, this is an observation based on identifying what is truly relevant and contemporary in a digital, postmodern age that is asking 'what next?'. My argument is that in order for someone to now express and critique our contemporaneity in any relevant way it feels like we are (and have been for a while) at the point where they must actually become that very thing themselves. This is postmodernism at critical mass, its composite forms and systems i.e. the abstract, the palimpsestic, the collaged, the decentralised and 'networked' structures, all functioning at the fringes of their limits. The artist in this case is not disinterested, commenting or 'framing',1 but becoming.2 It sounds like what I'm talking about is a transcendence in/of culture but it isn't. I'm also not positioning West as the answer to the question 'what comes next?'. Rather, I see him as an indication of our postmodern, capitalist culture reaching its limits: an endgame situation.
For those not familiar with his work,3 Kanye West is a super‐sized, often controversial global pop star with an enormous sense of self-belief and an ambitious streak to match. In his raps, West self‐consciously rails against fame, money, oppression, commercial culture, and superficiality, yet he is also completely ensnared by it. Confusingly, West also shows a great deal of awareness of his plight and of contemporary culture: often using postmodern aesthetics and techniques in music and art, discussing critical theory in interviews and acknowledging his position as both someone tired of consumerist culture but one that is also dedicated to building it to obscene proportions. West has many times referred to himself as 'the new Disney'. As such, West comes to represent contemporary culture in an embodied sense ‐ he is a meta prosumer: producing highly consumable, on‐trend artefacts, satirising them, tearing them apart, playing with their forms, and then consuming them ‐ consuming himself, as he becomes a product too. In watching interviews with West he comes across as a mind plagued by contradictions and conflict. In one moment he is a critical thinker, a spokesman for equality and a gifted artist manipulating and crafting postmodern pop forms. In in the next, he is a raving madman, staking claims to God‐like genius and concocting false histories and futures before our eyes ‐ not always in the most convincing way.
West's art demonstrates that he is clearly no stranger to the postmodern: his videos, production style, use of sampling and visual references all acknowledge and actively engage with postmodernism as a fundamental, defining characteristic of his creative output. However, I believe West is interesting on a level that exceeds his artistic output, almost to the point that his music becomes a byproduct of a greater manifestation. The way West addresses postmodern art best is not through his videos, lyrical rants or sampling techniques but in the way in which he, as a global pop megastar, has come to embody this concept at its most critical, hyper‐realised state. West is aware of his postmodern environment and attacks it, critiques it, biting pieces off, seeking to disrupt its flow and push beyond its trappings. Yet, he is also inevitably swallowed up by it, only to become part of the machinery: himself becoming a product.
West is the most postmodern, contemporary artist of all...because he is one of the most starkly postmodern, hyper-capitalist people of all time...what we are seeing in Kanye West is culture as artwork."
Culture has always produced, regurgitated and re‐consumed, however, what we are seeing in Kanye West is culture as artwork. I believe this is something he could have never intended, and something that could never be achieved by a contemporary artist as we might typically imagine them: Emin, Warhol, Koons etc. This manifestation is only possible via one who is, at least in popular consciousness, the cultural construct, the product, a celebrity par excellence; essentially, capitalist property. This is why West is so important and so fascinating, and it actually makes little difference whether he intended it, or has any kind of awareness of it at all.
In my view, West is the most postmodern/contemporary artist of all, not because he uses techniques like cut-ups, collage, or exhibits fragmentation and decentralisation in his artistry (he does) but because he is one of the most starkly postmodern, hyper-capitalist people of all time. He is at once the artist, the commentator, the satirist, the producer, but he too is the subject of his art (often both literally and more conceptually). He is a global pop celebrity in the most contemporary, hyper-capitalist, postmodern sense, and one that, I believe, is currently unparalleled. His marriage to Kim Kardashian ‐ the ultimate zeitgeist for our time of reality TV, instafamous‐ness and hyper-consumption ‐ has been one that almost directly serves a feeling of public ownership. Whether they want to or not, people feel privy to this union, witness to a collision of powers that affects us all (almost like a political partnership). Whether or not West knows this startling duality happens to make him one of the most interesting artists we have today is anyone's guess. I'm sure he'd love for us all to think it was his intention all along. The idea that West has concocted such a cynical, deep-seated artistic conceit whereby he has manipulated his way to becoming the thing most representative of contemporary popular culture in order to most effectively play with, and subvert, its forms and essence is hugely appealing, yet exceedingly unlikely.
"The idea that West has manipulated his way to becoming the thing most representative of contemporary popular culture in order to most effectively play with its forms and essence is appealing, yet unlikely."
While it seems clear that West has not consciously engineered his current situation, he is, at least to some degree, seemingly aware of it but helpless to break the cycle. He is both creator and product, both cause and effect at the same time ‐ artwork and culture realised as one. This is, however, a state of being that West, contemporaneity and culture cannot sustain forever. It is a conflict and this conflict manifests in West visibly. You can see this in interviews where he exemplifies the Jackal and Hyde character described earlier: often lucid and insightful at one moment, and suddenly nonsensical the next moment, ranting and raving incoherently ‐ thoughts spilling off in hundreds of different directions at once. I feel the interview below captures this particularly well, the pain and frustration are very real. You can almost see him tasting the invisible, reaching out for the critical red thread which will tie his whole raison d'etre together and pull the seams away at the cultural trappings he continues to fight against. But it slips through his fingers. I find it incredibly difficult to watch ‐ not because he says embarrassing things, or makes ridiculous statements or claims, but because he is so close to figuring it all out.
West, I believe quite innocently, has found himself in a position where he now comes to represent culture to such a degree that he has, as one of the larger, more public‐facing and visible cogs in the machine, a uniquely privileged position in order to critique, attack, and unravel it. By 'culture' I specifically refer to hyper‐capitalist, consumerist culture ‐ the pillars of which are media (old and 'new'), the rapid, global exchange of goods and information, and the increasing commodification of human experience. It is worth noting that this position, one of extreme proximity and embodiment, is one in stark contrast to those who we so often look to for such critiques and readings of our culture e.g. art critics, cultural/contemporary philosophers and theorists. This position is one not of the outside looking in (as in the latter group) but of the inside trying to break out. However, with proximity comes a lack of critical distance and the danger of being swallowed by culture altogether.
"West has found himself in a position where he now comes to represent culture to such a degree that he has, as one of the larger more and visible cogs in the machine, a uniquely privileged position in order to critique, attack, and unravel it."
It may well be asked, how is this any different from artists such as Warhol, or, for example, those among the Young British Artists collective? In some way, this notion of 'culture as artwork' seems like the next logical step to Warhol's oeuvre of reflecting contemporary consumerist culture back at itself during his pop art high fame. Warhol would celebrate the banal, crass and disposable as worthy art. Not only that but Warhol was a celebrity obsessive, casting himself in the image of fame, even going as far as feigning the vapid and airheaded discourse of pop celebrities in his TV interviews ‐ much to the amusement of those in on the joke. Similarly with Damian Hirst, the maniacal YBA mad‐professor took on the media spotlight from his early career and embraced the notion of artist as celebrity as a point of blurring the notion of popular culture and celebrity against high art. However, in the examples of Warhol and Hirst, both, in different ways, played with the notion of becoming 'artist as celebrity'.4 This concept is markedly different from what we see in Kanye West, however, because Hirst never (intentionally or otherwise) became his own artwork. Realising this would have been impossible for Hirst or Warhol as it would have likely been perceived as an expression of their artistry: intended and executed as art, and as such elevated from the 'machinery' and produce of popular, capitalist culture to the realms of art proper, laden with implications of satire, 'comment' or analysis. Essentially, it would have been imbued with critical distance. The world these artists showed us was always through their lenses ‐ they were always the author, the curator. In the case of West, he is celebrity as artist, or more accurately celebrity/artist as artwork. In West's art, we do not simply see the world through his lens, we see a jarring, bifocal vision of his art and ourselves, unmediated by signifiers. As I said, I don't feel this is due to any intended action on West's part, but due to his position and circumstances both as an artist tackling postmodern popular culture and hyper‐capitalism and one who is mired as a significant proponent and a product of it too.
From a more objective perspective, you could argue that West is a signpost for this time and embodies what it means to be relevant on a mass, populist scale. His marriage to Kim, his mile a minute provocations and outbursts (which in many ways mirror the mechanics of our now digitally‐driven culture and social media‐based daily realities), his super pop stardom and cliched trappings of fame, I believe, constitute an expression of a man as one defining moment: now.
It's these things that serve to position West as the only relevant pop star we currently have. He embodies culture to the point of it becoming artistry ‐ don't get me wrong others have recently come close but in almost all cases it has been consciously constructed or fabricated. Lady Gaga is the most obvious comparison, but she never carried West's authentic naivety. In my view artists like Gaga have only aped former constructs, Bowie for instance. As I mentioned in the introduction to this essay, Bowie's death was the inspiration for me put these thoughts together. This sad event threw these differences into relief for me, especially when West received such a backlash for proposing (allegedly) that he would do an album of Bowie covers only to be met with a petition from Bowie fans to cease this in its tracks before production. I have to admit this made me a little sad. Not because I'd like to hear it, it may well be dreadful, but because I felt people again failed to see West for what he is. Bowie's spirit of change, disruption, and cutting edge nous of cultural trends (past and present) lies not in the familiar, re‐imagined ghosts of Ziggy Stardust and those contemporary acts who habitually costume and reinvent themselves as a means to 'push boundaries'. The essence of Bowie was that which stirred consternation, challenged people's ingrained beliefs systems and prejudices (musically and more broadly), realigned their value systems and, in the most charming way, coaxed people to become more open to a world of possibilities unfettered by fixed understandings of taste (even their own).
"...West better embodies (for better or worse) contemporary Western popular culture than any other current pop figure, and is more relevant as an artist (as art) than any current name, or work, you could care to mention."
It's possibly an understatement to say many people don't find West that likeable (although I do feel that the things people dislike the most are the same things that make him so interesting), and, as I said earlier, I am not trying to position him as the 'new Bowie'. What I am saying is that West better embodies (for better or worse) contemporary Western popular culture than any other current pop figure, and is more relevant as an artist (as art, actually) than any current name, or work, you could care to mention. An artist such as Hirst can provide you with affecting, visceral windows on our contemporaneity, a theorist such as Nicolas Bourriaud or Claire Bishop can articulate beautiful new perspectives, or topologies of what lies beyond it ‐ and these things are hugely valuable. I believe what West offers is different but equally fascinating: he has come to represent culture itself as it's own artwork, one that is breaking down and super inflating all at once.
Earlier in this essay I made reference to interviews in which we can observe West 'reaching out for the critical red thread which will tie his whole raison d'etre together', or seemingly being on the brink of 'figuring it all out'. This may seem like I'm writing from a position of omniscience, an ivory tower even ‐ I'm not. I have no idea what it is ‐ just like Kanye. Is it a way into a new aesthetic, a very real understanding of what it is to be post‐postmodern? I don't know how the story ends. The most likely situation is that, like so many others, Kanye will be swallowed up by culture, right at the tipping point, imploding him into the realms of being just another controversial pop star, a victim and product of his own culture. It is, however, appealing to think that Kanye could breach the membrane, break the cycle and finally find, and sink his jaws into, the thing that has so often been on the tip of his tongue, the periphery of his senses, intangible in every real sense but there without question.
"West is an indicator that we are reaching something beyond this cultural epoch...I believe he will come to represent a time at the fringes of a new age."
Whether or not Kanye will make this breach and break the cyclical bondage of our postmodern, hyper‐capitalist culture is unclear, and probably unlikely. What I do think is likely is that in fifty years we will look back at this time in popular culture and we'll identify this one man as representing, more clearly than anyone else at this time, an endgame scenario for our contemporaneity as we know it: postmodernism at critical mass. He is an indicator that we are reaching something beyond this cultural epoch, and I believe he will come to represent a time at the fringes of a new age, one where postmodernism is supplanted by the version of itself that broke free from the wheel spinning too fast, or imploding under its own weight.
- 1. As per de rigueur postmodern practice.↩
- 2. And not in any way 'becoming' in the Deleuzian sense.↩
- 3. Apparently these people exist...↩
- 4. Possibly with the notion of this itself becoming a work of art too.↩
DEADBEAR is English-born, Berlin-based electronic artist Nick Donovan. He has released records on Cascine and Art Is Hard records and is currently announcing summer festival dates while working on a new record set for release in Autumn 2016.
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