Kanye West Did Not Create His Visual Identity, He Curated It
Remixing and reassembling is the game, and everyone's work is up for grabs.
BY MATT BECHER | Jul 20, 2016 | Music
Kanye West has crafted a visual aesthetic influenced by contemporary art in every aspect of his output—creative relationships with some of the biggest names in popular music, high fashion, and fine art fuel an evolving style that continues to draw heavily on outside works. But when he goes one step further and incorporates ideas by taking first and asking later, is it still collaboration, or something more self-serving?
West has navigated his way into a position of rarefied status; whether he has done so by genius or aggressive blustering is a matter of contention. He is one of the most awarded artists in music, having won 21 Grammys, to say nothing of his position within his own genre. Even as he vacillates between two extremes—an outspoken self-anointed icon and a broke man appealing to Mark Zuckerberg to pay off his debt—what remains is this: the end product is good. West has changed music by experimenting with different and unconventional styles, moving at the forefront of a shift in musical and visual narratives within hip hop. Breaking from the domination of gangster rap and into renewed genre-blending compositions and a cultural alignment with high fashion and high art, the result is a consumable product for a much wider audience. West is simultaneously scandalous and musically palatable.
From shifted pitch samples in College Dropout, to the minimal drum machine lifeline of 808s and Heartbreak, to the dark acidic marching of Yeezus, the breadth of material West has covered is staggering. Throughout are themes of experimentation and reference—as well as a marriage of musical exploration with a heavy flavour of contemporary art. West's fascination with contemporary art took a more prominent role in his self-presentation with the release of Graduation, which featured cover artwork designed by superflat artist Takashi Murakami. A string of nods to artists spanned his discography, referencing the work of George Condo, Givenchy's Ricardo Tisci, and Le Corbusier. More recently, the works of Peter De Potter and Vincent Desiderio featured in the cover art for The Life of Pablo and the video for the album's first single, "Famous," respectively.
As West's popularity and influence has grown, his playbook of art references has expanded and evolved. A star himself, West has access to the biggest names in the industry—a place at the table with the latest and greatest influencers of our time. When influence and access meets ego (and West has more than enough of that), he seems more inclined to make himself the centre of creativity. The artists around him are merely accessory to his own genius.
Kanye West is a sampler in life and in art. This is reflected in all of his work: his music, his visual identity, and his extended foray into fashion.
Kanye West is a sampler in life and in art. This is reflected in all of his work: his music, his visual identity, and his extended foray into fashion. What makes the video for "Famous" notable is the fact that the visual concept—a near-identical lift of Desiderio's "Sleep" painting—was only brought to Desiderio's attention on the morning of its premiere.
An opportunity to have your work widely publicised by an artist as big as Kanye West is an understandably immense opportunity, but the original creator's consent was sought more or less after the fact (the video was already done). In this context, it's important to ask: If he'd said no, would it have mattered? Photographer Jim Goldberg has recently spoken out about a USD400 jacket in a clothing line by West that was copied from one worn by a homeless man in one of Goldberg's photos. West himself made no mention of the jacket's origins or the tragic story of its owner. The preliminary cover for Yeezus appears to draw directly from a collection of gold busts in George Condo's Mental States exhibition, but whether the artist was actually involved in the album artwork, which was later scrapped for the physical CD release, remains unclear. The consideration of an artist's position on the use of their own work is perhaps, for Kanye, inessential.
The evolution of West's visual identity as a presentation of the work of others reflects a growing trend on social media websites—one of creation by curation.
The evolution of West's visual identity as a presentation of the work of others reflects a growing trend on social media websites like Tumblr, Instagram, and Pinterest—one of creation by curation. Many users create pages that are mostly or wholly composed of the work of others, assembled and presented ("curated," as many will tell you directly) as a composite identity for the assembler. Barring any sort of action by the copyright holders themselves, anyone can manufacture an aesthetic through the lens of other people's creations; personal musings on fashion next to the work of Irving Penn, or an obsession with minimalism through a collection of unauthorised uploads of works by Kusama and Stella. They are mood boards for the social media age—with the mood board presented as the actual finished product. The line is deliberately blurry, and platforms and curators benefit, their status elevated by beautiful images they had no part in making.
Presenting outside work as one's own creation without misgivings requires more than a little narcissism, and here is where we return to Kanye West. For a man who considers his own tweets "a form of contemporary art," the psychological leap to being the centre of creativity is a short one. West believes that incorporating and sampling the work of others is his gift to give: to the public, to the artists themselves, to all art. I Am Warhol, so to speak—but did Warhol lay claim to everything that came out of The Factory? Andy Warhol comes out as a better leader here: outcast, worrisome, and weird, but an artist who elevated his friends as he provided space for their creativity. In Kanye's world, the only authorship that matters is Kanye's.
West's approach as an artist and provocateur can appear to be a breath of fresh air. The depths of his visual creativity seem less vast, though, when its proximity to the work of others becomes clearer. That he flouts the favour of the powerful people that elevate him, some of which are rendered waxy and naked in bed with him in the "Famous" video, is even more interesting. Here is a man of great influence pissing off people in power, taking other people's content, going broke, and losing 500,000 copies of his latest album The Life of Pablo to pirating on the day of its release after claiming it would never be available outside of Tidal.
Kanye West takes what he likes and presents it as his own, and while he takes from others, the public takes from him. Remixing and reassembling is the game, and everyone's work is up for grabs. So too, though, is West's. When you yourself are a creator feeding into this, who's really winning?
From: Esquire US.