Oh, Yeezus: Kanye and the Cultural Omnivore

By May 10, 2015

For as long as culture has been an industry and considered an actual definable concept, it has been divided into high and low, elite and popular, etc., etc. There are many examples of this divide (think about how we engage something like Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro versus Ice Road Truckers). However, in this hyperconnected world, and with more media and ways of representation readily available at the flick of a finger tap, it is becoming increasingly clear that what we choose to consume makes up who we are—and what we choose to consume, patronize and celebrate makes up our cultural capital. In what used to be a divided world of high and low culture, the viewers of the opera wouldn’t dare pay valuable attention to ‘base’ television programming and vice versa. By contrast, the overwhelming influence and choice provided by the digital age is creating a society of cultural omnivores.

The cultural omnivore is the consumer who can slip from low to high culture, the in-between, the lover of all things. This means the culture is fluid, not a rigid “high” and “low”. To many, this fixed system of classification is challenged at every turn: Who are we to determine what is in fact “high” versus “low” and “art”?

This argument inevitably leads to discussions of the actual artists. How do we decide who is in fact an “artist” in the traditional fine art understanding of the title? Who is allowed to call him/herself an “artist”, and does it matter if this artist creates works classified by tastemakers as high culture or low culture? Does it matter how we consume the culture that these artists create? While many graduate theses have engaged these questions from one vantage or another, I’ve selected the ever-polarizing example of Kanye West as my entry point. Perhaps an unexpected choice; perhaps not. He’s been here the whole time, just being his Kanye self.

As you may have heard, Kanye will be awarded an honorary doctorate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) on May 11th. Some immediately railed against SAIC for paying tribute to the popular and controversial hip-hop celebrity. But, can Kanye only be placed in the box of a popular entertainer and producer of schizophrenically narcissistic and socially conscious anthems? Or, is Kanye actually a performance artist? Consider his appearance on the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special. This was not a standard display of a). hip-hop performer raps for an audience -> b). audience listens and responds with or without approval. It was more. It was a kind of postmodern, musically-infused performance art piece with Kanye crawling around in a claustrophobic space between asymmetrical walls; the staged expression of an artist being stifled by the surrounding world.

Around the world, many media critics and fans panned the performance. It was certainly somewhat bizarre, for sure, but I thought it was amazing. It’s not everyday that something so blatantly of the performance art variety broadcasts on network television. For sure, it did not meet everyone’s taste. This was the exchange that occurred at my house (in bonus recognition of Mother’s Day):

My Mom: what the fuck is this.
Me: Performance art.
My Mom: No, it’s fucking weird.
Me: *explains performance art*
My Mom: It’s still fucking weird.

It’s acts like this one—and also Kanye’s sometimes brazen disregard for the achievements and abilities of others (like dismissing Beck’s qualifications as an artist when the long-time writer/producer/singer writes every song and plays multiple instruments on his albums)—that make him an increasingly polarizing figure in pop-culture. He is at once revered by some and reviled by others.

Indeed, he seems to have unabashedly healthy self-regard, promoting his status as a ‘great artist’: “I was a gifted artist since age five and won national competitions and went to art school,” Kanye told Billboard. It is also widely known that Kanye West dropped out of art school. And yet, now he will be receiving an honorary doctorate. Is this an accolade he deserves given his history as an art school dropout trading formal academic training for a career as one of the world’s most commercially successful rappers? How does the art world view this act?

In his Fader article on the topic, Matthew Trammel discusses how some Art Institute students were not pleased with their school’s recognition of Kanye West, so much so that they actively campaigned against the award. Like these students, many in the institutional art world are quite critical. From their perspective, the Kanye doctorate is a publicity stunt to gain popular recognition, rather than honor someone who has contributed to art and culture.

This is the crisis of Kanye. Does he deserve this award? Is he a great artist, or just a pop star? Should he be allowed within the exclusive realms of high culture or confined to a mere low culture stature? Or, is he in fact operating in both realms? Can we appreciate artists serving both roles in tandem, or is it just that the lines are so blurred between high and low that we’re beginning to consume all culture in the same way? Hence, the term cultural omnivore becomes increasingly more useful and necessary. Maybe, in the end, all that matters is that people find Kanye interesting, and he considers himself a great artist. As Modernism taught us, if one declares it art, then it is art. We don’t have to particularly like said art, but we have to appreciate the act as art because it is declared as such.

I was first told of Kanye’s award during a meeting with Pair Shaped founders Tony Cleasby and Weston Lyon. Tony, who is based in Chicago, described the event as a controversial topic in the arts community. It even started debate within our own ranks. Weston was somewhat wary of Kayne receiving the award while potentially more deserving, less famous artists remain unacknowledged. I simply shrugged and said, “that makes sense, he is a performance artist in a way.”

We can only hope that when Kanye goes up to the podium to receive his award, events will transpire much in line with Tony’s vision of the moment: “For his acceptance speech, I imagine Kanye, to the beating flash of cameras and hesitant trilling of well-healed patrons, leaning into the microphone to utter critical embrace of all the appropriate absurdity and cubist wonder of the event: ‘Everybody know we a motherfuckin’ monster.’”

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