The following article was published by the Eagle Times on July 23, 2016.
Peddling pornography and misogyny as high art
The postmodern tendency toward deconstructing sociocultural hierarchies, along with remarkable digital technological innovations, has made the rigid nineteenth-century boundaries between highbrow and lowbrow culture less impervious. The resultant freer flow of ideas does not necessitate a conscious degradation of our moral and artistic values.
However, in the post-sexual revolution age, tolerance of obscenity has become widely regarded as synonymous with societal progress. As a consequence, those who lament the ever-increasing vulgarization of popular culture are ridiculed as unsophisticated in aesthetic tastes, and accused of harboring nostalgia for the regressive past. This is unfortunate because the au courant substitution of the truly sublime by rude, crude, and lewd ‘art’ should be confronted with more criticism and condemnation.
The latest artistic production worthy of severe criticism is hip-hop superstar Kanye West’s music video, “Famous” (2016). Inspired by American realist Vincent Desiderio’s “Sleep” (2003-08), a mural of 12 anonymous people sleeping naked in an enormous bed together, the video depicts 12 celebrities in a similar pose. As if filmed by an amateur pornographer, the camera obtrusively lingers over the dormant bare bodies, as creepy snores give way to weird lyrics: “For all the girls that got d*** from Kanye West/ If you see ’em in the streets give ’em Kanye‘s best / Why? They mad they ain’t famous/ They mad they’re still nameless.”
Indeed, the video pays homage to voyeurism rather than Desiderio’s painting — itself inspired by Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” (1943). The artistic praxis is best summed by West’s Orwellian mantra (described in an interview with Complex magazine in June), “Beauty is pornography.”
Even more disturbing than the Peeping Tom ethos is the selection of the individuals in the video, which include West and his wife Kim Kardashian West; musicians Ray J, Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Chris Brown; actors Amber Rose and Bill Cosby, Caitlyn “Bruce” Jenner, Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, Donald Trump, and George W. Bush. The featured bodies, however, are lifelike prosthetic figures. West defended his work as a dispassionate “comment on fame,’ but such an assertion is tentative at best for he shares controversial relationships with each of these personalities.
Since 2009, when West interrupted Swift’s Grammy acceptance speech to insinuate that she did not deserve the award, the two have been embroiled in a long-standing feud. In “Famous,” West positions himself in bed right next to an unclad wax figure of Swift and sings, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that b**** famous.”
Next, in what can only be construed as a sick joke, we see a nude Ray J — notorious for making public a sex tape with his then-girlfriend Kim Kardashian — next to West’s now-wife Kim. Further, Kim’s stepfather Bruce (now transitioned to Caitlyn Jenner) lies topless next to Kanye’s ex-fiancé Amber Rose, and disgraced serial rapist Bill Cosby (though West believes otherwise).
On the other side, Rihanna is shown sleeping by her ex-boyfriend Chris Brown, arrested in 2009 for violently beating her, which raises the important question: “Pray, why are they together?” Also present are West’s fashionista friend Wintour and habitual womanizer Trump, who allegedly inspired him to run for President in 2020. Finally, on the far end, Bush makes a surprise appearance, possibly because Kanye still thinks that he “doesn’t care about black people,” but more likely because his wife finds the 43rd President cute.
In portraying these particular individuals in a post-orgy tableau, Kanye reveals deep narcissism and passive aggression toward them. More disturbingly, the featured personalities share an ugly thread of sexual objectification in that each of them has either objectified/ abused women or has been abused/objectified by others.
In this fashion, the music video apotheosizes misogyny as avant-garde expression. Though youth culture connoisseurs such as Vanity Fair, Complex, and W Magazine lauded West’s bizarre effort, some others like Lena Dunham derided his video as “sickening.” That Dunham (who found fame by creating and starring in the ferociously vulgar and sexist HBO show “Girls”) vehemently objects to it should help put the trashiness of the work in perspective.
It is inconceivable that the creator of “Famous” is the same musician that effortlessly wove compelling social commentary on the blood diamond trade into a haunting, Grammy Award-winning song, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” (2005).
The beautifully shot black-and-white accompanying music video put forth a poignant statement on the crest and trough of human achievement by juxtaposing the imposing and majestic Christian iconography and Gothic architecture of Prague with the abject baseness of child labor in West African diamond mines.
Sadly, obsessive self-aggrandizement, manic drivel, and a steady slouching toward nihilistic decadence have since replaced such moments of exemplary genius. “Famous” represents the nadir of Kanye West’s career, and emblematizes the sad devolution of a once-talented artist into a peddler of pornographic kitsch.