No More Parties In L.A. – Kanye West Crashes Into the Art World

No More Parties In L.A. – Kanye West Crashes Into the Art World

August 26, 2016, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles (private view; closed)

I have a confession. At some point between Graduation and 2010 or 2011 (whenever he last recorded with Katy Perry), I lost track of Kanye West. Yes, of course I was peripherally aware of what he might be doing, whether in terms of his own planned record releases or his featured appearances and collaborations with other bands and solo artists. Clearly he was still all over the place with his hands in a thousand productions. But to the extent I listened to any number of these songs or productions, it was no more than in passing (over the radio, a YouTube clip, in the car, etc.) and, even to the extent that some of these collaborations featured some well-known signature vocalists and songwriters (e.g., Rihanna, Paul McCartney, Jay Z, Beyoncé), most of them scarcely registered. But then, I haven’t been a huge fan of McCartney (in recent years) or Beyoncé (recently). In recent years, Kanye has dipped his fingers in a number of pies, including fashion and – we might have seen this coming – art.

In an age of collaboration when every artist (in every medium and in every domain) seems to be everyone’s guest star/artist/designer, this may have been inevitable. And certainly the music and other media industries have always been eager to capitalize on the merchandising potential of any emerging star or hitmaker through the licensing of any and every aspect of their personality and style signatures. Kanye had made his interest in the fashion world known for some time, though I must admit I never saw the roll-out of a full-blown ready-to-wear line coming. To give him credit, his investment of time and resources in the fashion domain has been serious. His Yeezy line, however, has not been a success, notwithstanding a promotional investment that must be staggering (his last couple of Fashion Week collection launches packed Madison Square Garden); and frankly –with or without the mentorship/collaboration (‘is that all there is?’) of Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, I really don’t see how he can sustain it.

But of course it’s more than just Adidas or Balmain or Sony/BMG these days. West has moved in recent years beyond music, design and, more broadly, ‘content,’ to shaping and controlling the production and distribution of that content – through the streaming service, Tidal, teaming up with some of his principal hip-hop collaborators; and DONDA (which so far seems to occupy a space somewhere between a think-tank and something like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop). I’m guessing, too, that he’s had some advice from a mass-licensing matriarch who really knows how to make a franchise fly: Kris Jenner. West was arguably already an Empire-level force in the music world; but with his marriage into the Jenner-Kardashian hydra-clan, you have to wonder if West’s new focus is simply mergers and acquisitions.

In the meantime, two parallel cultural forces have continued to transform the culture at large: specifically, an acceleration and democratization of celebrity culture, which really only began to accumulate momentum as a mass media/mass cultural phenomenon from the late 1960s; and secondly, hip-hop culture itself, which now permeates mainstream culture from Broadway to blogs (including this one), arguably changing its texture and fabric. And why would we expect anything else? If hip-hop (or its derivatives) forms some part of the soundtrack to our daily lives – not simply setting the mood or tone, but a subtext, even an agenda – we should expect it to bleed into other segments of the culture from media and consumer product advertising to politics to, well, art.

But there’s a feed-back mechanism at work here, too. The typical West production (and many others), a reconstituted narrative of fragmentary incident, physical and psychological backdrop, and embroidered cultural reference, vacuums up everything into its free-form epic stream. Yet the dramatic payoff is slender if it exists at all. Its sensationalized disclosures seem more pathetic than prurient. (The phrase ‘too much information’ might be applied as a blanket term to cover the entire subject of Kim Kardashian, not just her cosmetic procedures.) We’d already had a taste of this with Yeezus and that ridiculous video for “Bound 2.” The video (by Nick Knight, if you can believe it), special effects and all, manages to be so overblown and cliché-riddled it seems intentionally made to be parodied – which it promptly was – by James Franco and Seth Rogen and later on NBC’s Saturday Night Live.

There was also a parody (on a slightly different tangent) by Trey Parker and Matt Stone for South Park – which I could have also predicted. Listening to Kanye West in recent years, the character who first came to mind consistently was always Cartman. (Okay I am a fan of the series – but it’s not as if I think of South Park listening to, say, Kendrick Lamar or Rihanna or Beyoncé, or even Jay Z.)

“Have you ever asked your bitch for other bitches?” he asks in that song. Are you kidding? West would ask Mick Jagger for Keith Richards (or perhaps more recently, Dolce for Gabbana). “Jesus wept.” At least. “Mulholland Drive, need to put up some got damn barricades/I be paranoid every time” (this from “No More Parties In L.A.”). And in the same song – “I feel like Pablo when I’m workin’ on my shoes/I feel like Pablo when I see me on the news/I feel like Pablo when I’m workin’ on my house….” – and, well, we know where this is going. (This is from his most recent album, Life of Pablo.) The landscape of Kanye West’s songs has become a red carpet trampled to Marilyn Minter-esque dust – equal parts paranoia, self-aggrandizement and luxury-branding.    

We should have seen it coming – with Pablo; still more recently with Vanessa Beecroft staging his Madison Square Garden Yeezy (Adidas) launches. And then there was Jay Z’s 2013 Pace Gallery encounter with Marina Abramović (for “Picasso Baby”). So last Friday night, at a dinner party in Hollywood, the talk was peppered with buzz floating among guests and from their cell phones about the exclusive, invitation-only opening for a brief week-end glimpse at Kanye’s new art installation at Blum & Poe. Something on this order had been foreordained when the video for “Famous” had been released. West was fairly open about his inspirations (Matthew Barney and his celebrity cameos; Vincent Desiderio’s painting, Sleep). Kanye – about to launch his Saint Pablo tour – surveyed the scene by Skype hook-up; but Kim Kardashian – in an ostensibly Kanye-designed body-skimming fishnet caftan that looked more sad than sexy – was there; along with Kendall Jenner (ultra-casual but fabulous as always), a smattering of celebrity and other guests (including some mutual pals). One of our pals was tweeting and Facebook-ing from the event, which made for still more hilarity (the responsive comments were alternately bored and pitying). I inserted my own comment that I hoped she had asked Tim or Jeff how much the gallery was paid to host the exhibition. (My guess was $1 million.)

Tim Blum had already been quoted (by the Daily Mail) that he saw the work as a perfectly legitimate sculptural installation that might be sold much as any work of art by the gallery. Presumably a buyer could be found – that’s not a big problem in the big wide wild global art world. But there’s a certain risk – and not just to the gallery’s reputation. Now come conflicting reports: that the sculpture is priced to sell at $4 million; and (20 hours ago) that Tim Blum was misquoted and that, although the piece may be touring (also not certain), it is now in storage with no firm price set. In the meantime, this is a lot of expense – and I have to bet the gallery was paid something for it. (Note: I have not contacted Tim Blum, Jeff Poe or any gallery director or representative for comment on either of these stories or regarding the exhibition itself.)

I suppose that B&P might have been in competition with other galleries for such a launch – Pace, Gagosian; possibly Regen Projects. But the reaction among many of us last Friday was more along the lines of ‘Really?’ Then, too, a more exasperated, ‘what next?’ At what point, do we start to ask if the emperor no longer has his clothes? Certainly they’re looking a bit threadbare. (Kim Kardashian’s sad shmatte seemed the best illustration of this.) And they’re definitely not chic. At one time or another, it seemed as if Kanye West might want to be the next Quincy Jones. For all of his influence and musical collaborations, he has a long way to go to make anything like that happen; and at this point, I just don’t see it.

At what point do we see him in bed, not with Kim or Caitlyn, but merely that avatar of cultural narcissism himself, Donald Trump? And why should we want to? Do we really care that he’s down $50 million and feels compelled to turn to the public (or art galleries) on top of the Jenner-Kardashian enterprise for investment? Someone remarked recently that for Kanye, it was not a matter of #BlackLivesMatter (which I have to assume he also endorses), but #CelebrityLivesMatter. But to paraphrase a different kind of celebrity, ‘there is no there, there.’ There’s just no weight or meaning to it. The “rich nigga problems” of Kanye’s jewellery, his Maybach, his “bitches,” are neither a cultural nor an economic priority – nor any priority at all. Kanye has moved well beyond monetizing his creative output to monetizing celebrity – not exactly a new phenomenon, but in recent years, an almost cancerous one. But the worst part is that there is no art in it. It’s hackneyed and repetitive and impoverished.

For all the buzz at the dinner last Friday night, there was no ‘FOMO’ or ‘fear of missing out.’ It was more as if we were witnessing (from a comfortable distance) the ultimate manifestation of Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle.’ I was reminded of a tweet one “Eve” posted after the last Yeezy roll-out – “The Kardashians, the Jenners and the Wests have individually and collectively JUMPED THE SHARK. #HideousAtrociousHorribleAwfulPeople.” And, uh, no Kanye, you didn’t make Taylor Swift famous. Nor for that matter, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamar, et al. For a few hours last Friday, it was as if Kanye had turned the Blum & Poe gallery into a flaming Trump Tower of megalomania; and most of us would have wished it a continent and an ocean or two away. “No more parties in L.A., baby”? If only – for the meantime, “Buckle up, buckaroos!”