An apologist is one who defends a controversial topic. Now, hesitatntly, I am willing to admit to subscribing to Kanye West apologism. I think that Yeezy Boosts are overpriced, that there are definitely more Kanye West songs that I have never heard than I actually know, and that ‘Ye and I probably wouldn’t get along in person. But for some reason, the man exists in such a profound space for me; he’s someone I want to love, or hate, or at least take part in the collective frenzy for.
Having just released his seventh album, premiered his third fashion line at Madison Square Garden, and entangled himself in another heated Twitter debate, Kanye West has once again been thrust into the public eye (not that he was not and is not always already on our radar). We have criticised him before for interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Music Awards, for supposedly reclaiming the Confederate flag by putting a patch of the symbol on his new merchandise, for professing that he was God before posing on a magazine cover with a
crown of thorns. Even President Barack Obama has joined the antiKanye conversation in the past, having been caught on camera calling West a “jack***”. I suppose that means that Obama won’t be endorsing #Kanye2020, a presidential candidacy that brought the artist even more controversy after he announced it back in August of 2015.
When Kanye received an honorary degree from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in March of 2015, “proper” artists and Kanyeopposers alike voiced their opinions, some even trying to prevent his reception of the honorary diploma. Jay Enne, an alumnus of the SAIC, created a petition to revoke his degree, writing on her blog that she was “entitled to disagree with any action that encourages a man who has become a parody of himself and emblematic of what happens when an unstoppable ego meets an immovable narcissist.” Many within the art world assert that Kanye West’s “artistry” was bought, that there must exist a distinction between Celebrity and Artist.
Artists are collaborative, forwardthinking, and inspirational. Who else has collaborated as broadly as Kanye West, who lists both Paul McCartney and Souljaboy as past collaborators, whose album art has featured both prolific Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami (in his album Graduation, from 2007) and Givenchy’s former creative director, Riccardo Tisci (Watch the Throne, 2011)? Those who have noted being inspired by Kanye include and are as farreaching as the Wutang Clan, Drake, Lorde, and the Arctic Monkeys. His fashion lines utilize desolate neutral tones, camouflage, and distressed fabrics as vehicles for social commentary on race, the military, and refugees.
West stated via Twitter that his latest fashion line, Yeezy Season 3, draws inspiration from a 1995 photo at an internally displaced persons (refugee) camp in Kibeho, Rwanda, which incited further controversy. Laura Seay, a blogger, in response to Kanye’s Twitter announcement, wrote, “Kibeho is a massacre site, not a runway…A Kibeho themed fashion show is as offensive as an Auschwitzthemed fashion show would be.” Creating disagreeable
content doesn’t discount one as an artist, though. Van Gogh was called “very ugly, ungracious, impolite, sick” by Jeanne Calment; composer Richard Wagner was outspokenly antisemitic.
Artistry does not entrust a conscience or a set value system, and that’s what makes art art. I don’t mean to celebrate Kanye as a role model (or even say that he’s a good person), but we can’t start discounting people’s talent and influence just because they’re part of the mainstream
or because they come from a different background.
As Sarah Urist Green from The Art Assignment insists, “The more people from outside of
art get involved in art, the better art gets. The better chance we have to keep museums interesting, boundary pushing, and most of all, relevant, serving an actual public, rather than an imagined one.”
The reason Kanye is so divisively offensive is because there’s so much to be offended
by; he keeps creating without hesitation and with disregard for established rules, and his actions, though sometimes questionable, are deliberate ones. No matter your opinion on him, you probably have an opinion on him, and you are thereby participating in the art that is Kanye West.