There are Kanye lovers all around me. I know more than one person who modeled (for free) in the YEEZY Season 3 show, more recently I got into a heated debate about my ‘Ye indifference with an acquaintance who would probably die for him on some Game of Thrones, “I stand with House West,” type shit.
I say this to drive home the point that I do not love Kanye West, but I also don’t hate the guy either. He’s kind of like the black sheep of the family who is so unapologetically contradictory that he can’t help but inspire resentment because it forces others to acknowledge the more embarrassing dualities inherent in their own personalities, but whatever.
That said, normally when someone takes to the internet to share a Kanye gripe I’m all about it. However, Lena Dunham’s recent takedown of his “Famous” music video left me with a feeling of “dis-ease,” to use Dunham’s own verbiage.
Yes, I completely agree with her concerns about our current cultural climate and its painfully obvious lack of concern regarding the safety of women. Dunham is correct in asserting that Brock Turner should absolutely not have received a mere slap on the wrist for violating an unconscious woman just as disgraced comedian Bill Cosby should absolutely not have been able to get away with allegedly drugging and sexually assaulting women over the course of decades.
I agree that the image of, “prone, unconscious, waxy bodies of famous women, twisted like they’ve been drugged and chucked aside at a rager,” as Dunham describes, is deeply, deeply unsettling. It’s also true that the issue of consent has been an important, recurring conversation because, as cases like Brock Turner illustrate, there are more people than we’d like to think who simply don’t care to obtain consent. West using the likeness of 10 celebrities without their permission is rightfully problematic for that reason, but that’s where our thoughts diverge.
Here’s the thing: West exposed both men and women without their consent, much to the chagrin of both genders (just ask Ray J). And yes, it’s true the patriarchal structure that is very much still ingrained in our societal conscious creates vastly differing attitudes about the purpose and acceptability of male versus female nudity and sexuality, nevertheless, it still feels a bit unfair to make West the poster child for misogynistic attitudes, rape culture and the general objectification of women. Particularly because West has been open about the fact that the video’s inspiration came from artist Vincent Desiderio’s 2008 painting, Sleep, and not some inherently chauvinistic desire to reduce women to mere sexual objects, even if he is beefing with Taylor Swift and possibly Amber Rose.
Despite the shock-jock approach, West trying his hand at joining contemporary art with hip-hop isn’t really so different than Jay Z tapping Marina Abramovic for “Picasso Baby” or Drake playing with the visual language of James Turrell in “Hotline Bling.” West has also been known to experiment with new formats in music videos, so the only real difference is that he is an intentional provocateur while Jay Z and Drake are much less so. Many of West’s decisions hinge on inciting a reaction, positive or negative. Shortly after the video dropped he even tweeted and deleted the following…
Despite the fact the inspiration falls outside of Dunham’s immediate gripe, she also takes issue with West’s attempt at artistry, calling the video “one of the more disturbing ‘artistic’ efforts in recent memory.”
Unlike Dunham, who qualifies her right to judge what is and isn’t considered art by her generational links to the art world (her parents are artists), my folks are not. Perhaps that’s why dismissing West’s effort at creating a dialogue about fame through co-opting a particularly orgiastic piece of contemporary art feels a bit elitist. It also feels as though it conveniently clears a pathway to hold him aloft as an example of all that is wrong with a culture that does indeed (as Dunham rightly says) make women feel unsafe.
Dunham goes on to say the following…
“I live for the nude rabble rousing of Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke, for Kathy Acker’s arty porn, for Paul McCarthy’s gnomes with butt plugs and Vito Acconci masturbating under the gallery floor and Carrie Mae Weems shedding a blinding light on the pleasures and terrors of black womanhood. If it’s been banned, I’ll probably love it. Because I know that art’s job is to make us think in ways that aren’t always tidy or comfortable. But this feels different. I’m sure that Bill Cosby doll being in the bed alongside Donald Trump is some kind of statement, that I’m probably being trolled on a super high level. I know that there’s a hipper or cooler reaction to have than the one I’m currently having.”
Has West’s video not incited Dunham to write a lengthy and disjointed (her words) Facebook post about feeling unsafe? Isn’t that the result of being uncomfortable and having to think of something in a way that is “untidy.” Are those not her very own parameters for defining art?
Yes, West has borrowed the bodies of unknowing participants, recreated them and displayed them nude for the world to see, and Dunham is right, as a viewer one does start to feel like a creepy voyeur with questionable morals. But then again, Richard Prince has taken the Instagram photos of scores of unsuspecting strangers and turned them into high art, selling them for upward of $100,000. That’s arguably also a violation, or appropriation at the very least, but maybe it’s more acceptable because Instagram photos are meant for public consumption and the work is devoid of anything that could be viewed as objectification.
With all that in mind, Dunham’s dissection of “Famous” feels overwrought; she mentions snuff films, suicide and live-streamed sexual assaults, among other things. Once again, while I wholeheartedly understand her concerns, it doesn’t mean that she’s correct in conflating multiple issues and then using a broad stroke to apply the outcome to West’s artistic or non-artistic intentions. Framing “Famous” as an attack on the safety of women and their power to consent requires ignoring both the video’s male presence and its inspiration and intention. Does it make sense to raise concerns about consent? Yes.
However in this context a more pertinent conversation would be about the loss of self-ownership that often goes hand in hand with celebrity. There’s a reason Kanye West selected 12 “famous” bodies to display and not 12 regular, degular, schmegular (shout out to Cardi B) individuals. Would Dunham have felt so distraught if West had appeared alongside his wife with 10 sleeping models draped across their bed?
Would any of us have reacted at all?
Or are we really reacting because the naked faces are indeed famous and we are equally titillated and abhorred by the fact West has put them on display in the most vulnerable, revealing and human manner he could think of.
Also check out how the “Kanye Effect” is impacting the fashion industry.