Is Kanye West an Artist?

Even though I have prematurely declared myself the Queen of Rhetoric, the university I attend still made me take a persuasive writing course. Because I took what is probably the most rigorous AP Language and Composition class in the history of high school, I knew all about Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle. I learned exactly one thing in the class, which was how to properly format an APA style paper.

Persuasive writing classes, even for someone like me who loves writing (obviously), can feel like pulling teeth if you’re not writing about interesting things. Unfortunately, I don’t consider gun control or corruption in the prison system (papers one and two) to be particularly interesting. But the third paper was author’s choice. Of all the important things happening in the world, what could I write an essay about?

Right. Kanye West.

This essay is adapted from the six page paper I wrote for that class, edited for style and length.

Kanye West, as a figure, requires no introduction. Surely in places where there is no electricity or understanding of Western media someone is humming the chorus from “Gold Digger.” He’s as popular as he is divisive. From jumping on stage to interrupt Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards, to proclaiming the definitely not innocent Bill Cosby innocent on twitter, the man is certainly no stranger to controversy. But perhaps the most polarizing aspect is his status as an artist. Most people think of him to be nothing more than an egomaniac, however, Kanye West should be considered a legitimate artist in the larger context of art history. There is ample precedent in history to make one thing clear: Kanye West is a genuine, multidisciplinary artist.

The PBS produced Art Assignment Youtube channel made a fantastic video on West, from which I got the inspiration to write this paper. In it, the brilliant Sarah Green states that “an artist is someone who does things with intention.” Say what you will about Kanye West — most of it is probably true. After all, I’m not defending his personality. But what Kanye does, whether it is making music, fashion, or artsy short films, is done with the intention of creating art. That doesn’t necessarily making it good art, but that fact that it is cannot be denied. Furthermore, Kanye encourages a world to expand their view of the mostly white-male art history canon, to corners of the world where the underrepresented are doing unique and extraordinary things.

West is a multidisciplinary artist who believes deeply in collaboration — the power of the shared vision. West has worked with accomplished artists and cultural luminaries in the design for his album covers, like, Takashi Murakami for Graduation and Condo for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But his favorite collaborator, by far, is Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft. Her work consists of staging performances with, usually female, models nude or partially nude in different formations. Her work is an upfront confrontation with gender and the stigma on sexuality. Together with Beecroft, West injects social commentary into his work. The models in the Yeezy fashion show are grouped by skin tone and marched down the runway with a drill sergeant barking at them. In a time where race relations are at the forefront of culture, this cannot be a coincidence, even if West and Beecroft won’t outright say it. Either way, both see West’s work in fashion as “living paintings.” However, I see Kanye’s greatest contribution to the art world is as a performance artist.

Kanye West carefully curates everything he does and each has its own unique flair. Anything cannot be exactly repeated, and when he does return to his earlier work, he brings it to another level and alters it. Take his performance of his 2008 masterpiece 808s and Heartbreak at the Hollywood Bowl last year. He played the album in full, no other greatest hits, no encore. He was accompanied by a full orchestra, background singers, an electronic band, and pyrotechnics, all for an album built on little more than autotune and a drumkit. This performance is a statement of both the past and future. It’s not a simple re-performance, but an elevation of a previous work that attempts to reconcile the permanent nature of the digital age with a continually developing artist.

There is already ample precedent in art history to understand the link between pop culture and fine art. Andy Warhol and Pop Art is of course the finest example of this. Warhol transformed the repeated images of culture in his work and it became and intense reflection of the world he lived in. West, too, leaves a mark on everything he touches. In his grasp, object refuse to be ordinary.

Pop art is the transformation and reinterpretation of images — in it culture is art. And West sees himself as an artist of culture — “I am a pop artist, so my medium is public opinion,” he says in his acceptance speech for his honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The award was presented in May of 2015, much to art critics chagrin. More than anything, Kanye is a champion of creative equality, where every idea no matter how outlandish is treated with the same respect as works in museums. With the very fact of this recognition, Kanye fights against art elitism. Kanye’s art world is a broader thinking one — where not just technical skill is valued. A place where we as humans are allowed to think critically about long standing institutions, the intentions of art, diversity, and creative thought. I think that’s something we really need — and we have Kanye to thank for it.