When the music video for Kanye West’s “Famous,” from the album The Life of Pablo, was released this week, folks were caught in a whirlwind of shock and offense—as they should be, when encountering provocative art. Sometimes, art of that nature is written off because it’s regarded as shallow or classless; that’s not only a wrong way to approach art, it also a bad way to express how one feels about an artist. When it was revealed that the video was inspired by realist painter Vincent Desiderio’s “Sleep” (2003-2008), that shock and confusion was toned down and shifted to an atmosphere of analyzation, even as the outrage of the celebrities featured in the piece continued. The initial disregard of constructive criticism about the video illustrates how far we’ve moved from putting art into context, and shows, instead, that we’re in an era of thin skin.
Talking about how we think about celebrities shouldn’t require us to do so by walking on eggshells. We want to move forward as a culture by tackling our issues head-on, acknowledging the ugly things in conjunction with the good, the beautiful, for it is not only our strengths that make us, but our weaknesses, too, and that should be a staple in discussing controversial topics and people. Art has always been on the frontlines of this discussion, unceasingly reminding us that the vulgar or the provocative is a part of our lexicon.
An aspect of this language is composed of artists incorporating other art into their work. Desiderio appreciated being quoted in “Famous,” highlighting in an interview with the New York Times how looking to other art for inspiration builds “aesthetic realms that are feeding off of the same information.” It’s not solely that connection that makes purposeful work, it’s the referencing of that work to convey a message. “Famous” exhibits a dozen celebrities sleeping naked in the same bed, so it doesn’t take long to be repulsed at first glance. Yet it’s the repulsiveness of these celebrities intertwined in this fashion that gives the video its significance. They’re naked, sleeping like babies, a serene, comforting sight. This collection of repulsive folk painted in this state, when we think about their repulsiveness, sparks curiosity, making us remember that, in spite of their infamy, they sleep too.
The collective and continued shock of the work after the “Sleep” reference punctuates the need, if not, the emphasis, to return to a culture of constructive criticism, for the image of the figures as vulnerable should have been enough to merit thought-provoking discussion. “Why are they sleeping?” is a question I’ve yet to see, and, instead, the internet is wrought with “Celebrities React” articles. Where is the demand for intelligible talk about these topics, or exercise for the push of the limits on our knowledge? One searches for the point at which we developed this hyper-sensitivity, wondering what it will take for it to disappear, and when we’ll think about art before we judge it.
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