Kanye West's "Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy": Vanity Project or Work of Art?

One of five album covers (this one a portrait of Kanye West) reportedly chosen
for the hip hop artist's newest album. Artwork by George Condo 
Much like Lady Gaga, hip hop artist Kanye West has positioned himself as something of a performance artist, establishing a kind of carefully honed visual aesthetic that incorporates references to both the world of contemporary art and the art of the historical avant-garde. As such, it is an aesthetic that is recognizable to many in the art world as evidence of West’s engagement and understanding of many of its core questions. He did after all attend the American Academy of Art in Chicago briefly before dropping out to focus on his career, a theme that runs all the way through the conceptual grounding of his music in albums titled The College Dropout (2004), Late Registration (2005), and Graduation (2007). But it is also an aesthetic that I would argue has mostly been deployed without much criticality and often to extend and magnify what many also argue is one giant vanity project celebrating (and profiting from) all that is “Mr. Kanye West.” Simply Googling his name immediately results in stories of West’s outrageous behaviour--especially it seems at music award shows-- where West has made a spectacle of himself attempting to capture audience attention at the expense of his colleagues. But is this perhaps just part of his performance? Can we actually take Kanye West's aesthetic vision seriously?

Takashi Murakami's artwork was featured on
Kanye West's Graduation (2007) album
Over the past week, the questions of West’s artistic integrity have once again surfaced with two separate but related visual arts projects that form part of the release of his fifth studio album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The first concerns the controversial art work he chose to feature on the album itself (see image at top of post), and the second relates to the half hour music video--or “art film” as West calls it-- that he produced to feature all nine of the album’s songs. Some of you may recall West’s collaboration with Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami on Graduation (2007) where he asked the artist to help represent his alter-ego “dropout bear” chased by demons and moving through obstacles to make it to his graduation ceremony. In a similar way, West’s latest album is also a portrait, although this time a more literal one with direct representation of the artist himself. Working with artist George Condo, an individual who came of age in the New York art scene of the 1980's and whose art practice centers on themes of surreal sexual energy filled with existential angst, Kanye is presented as a reclining nude straddled by an armless winged white female.

Nudity and provocative posing aside (the main reason for the broader public’s raised eyebrow), the image is filled with loaded art historical references and problematic juxtapositions of academic nudes, the black body, a winged goddess, and complex mythological and cultural symbolism. Lots and lots to unpack here. For West however, the implied narrative is completely personal as he suggests in a recent New York Magazine interview: "It's the story of a phoenix fallen to Earth, and I make her my girlfriend, and people discriminate against her and eventually she has to burn herself alive and go back to her world…I've been feeling the idea of the phoenix. It's been in my heart for a while. It's maybe parallel to my career. I threw a Molotov cocktail on my career last year, in a way, and I had to come back as a better person."
Vanessa Beecroft's own controversial fusion of the world of art
and fashion makes her collaboration with West a perfect match 
West’s video for the album Runaway emerges as a visual extension of the album cover and is said to be inspired by not one, but two, cinema directing legends: Frederico Fellini and Stanley Kubrik. To add further visual complications, the film's screenplay and visual treatment is co-written with controversial contemporary artist Vanessa Beecroft, who is best known for her large scale performance artworks featuring nude fashion models and a narcissistic impulse not unlike Kanye West’s. The casting of Victoria Secret model Selita Ebanks, who has walked the runway in the lingerie company's signature angel wings, also activates a particular kind of spectatorship of the nude and winged phoenix she plays in the film. With each of these disparate influences, the hip hop artist creates a visual landscape for his music that links high fashion, high art, film noir, and epic irony in highly evocative but also deeply troubling ways. I will leave it for you to decide and decipher (I have provided the short video version of the production below; you can see the full version here), but for me the film ends up much like his overdetermined album cover. They are both engaged in visual and conceptual overdrive. Too much going on, too much to absorb, too much to unpack. As NPR music critic Jacob Ganz correctly summed up this past week in his review of the video (and by extension Kanye West’s aesthetic vision), it is all very beautiful but also completely “interminable.”