Yesterday Shad (CBC radio personality) regaled us with a defense of rapper Kanye West. (I find it amazing that anyone has to come to the defense of a person worth a couple of hundred million dollars but culture and the cult of personality is a funny thing) Shad is, apparently, upset that people have been actively resisting West’s performances at events such as Glastonbury and now the Pan Am closing ceremonies. Shad has two bones to pick with resistance to Kanye West’s naysayers. On the one hand Shad objects to people personally judging West and letting that personal judgment colonize their aesthetic opinion of the rapper. On the other hand he wants us to know what a great musician West is and how important it is for his various detractors to understand this.
Shad begins his argument with the logically bizarre contention that it is “arrogant” for people to judge people who they don’t know personally. This is such a strange claim on Shad’s part that I almost don’t think it deserves response. But I feel compelled to say something given the fact that Shad is a replacement personality to the now infamous Jian Ghomeshi, whom we all feel compelled to judge. I suggest to Shad, that there is absolutely nothing arrogant about judging people with whom we are not personally acquainted, particularly people who have chosen to make myriad aspects of their personal life a public affair. I am sure Shad actively make judgments of people he doesn’t know – Paul Benardo and Charles Mason come immediately to mind. Our judgments of people who we don’t personally know need to be treated with caution but let’s not pretend that there is something “arrogant” about it. I suspect Shad is letting his personal feelings about Kanye West interfere with his power as a logician here. However, there is a wider issue that needs to be addressed which is how we let our personal feelings about an artist influence how we react to their work or performance. Shad tells us that he “doesn’t have time to talk about his [West’s] citizenship or his wife or why those conversations are hugely problematic” for him. From how this statement is worded we can, I suppose, presume that Shad doesn’t even want us to talk about West and his personal life. But we need to disabuse Shad of the notion that we can be restricted in our discourse about performers and their personal lives. Now generally, I agree, that there is something strange about letting our personal feelings about an artist play a large part in our judgment of their work. There is a sense in which an artist’s work stands as a kind of cultural document separate from the individual artists and their various contextual issues. The exception is when that part of their personality that we find objectionable enters into their artwork in a significant way, as it does, for example, with a racist writer like Rudyard Kipling. There are many artists to whom I object personally but whose work I adore.
But let me say that Shad (if he has any pretensions of being a cultural critic) should understand that a guy like Kanye West is a special case. West has not only let his personal life become a matter of public record but he has embraced the corporate-driven cult of mega-star personality in a way that few have. We live in an age of art as commerce, and this commerce is increasingly driven by large, corporate institutions. Kanye has not only embraced this, but he has become a ‘mover and a shaker’ in this process. Thus, judgment of West’s personality plays into our judgment of him as a performer in part because he wants it to; he has helped to generate this cult of personality so he can hardly complain when it affects him. But there is something even bigger at stake than this here. And this is the issue of the culture of the empty celebrity. We not only live in an age of art as commerce but we also live in an age of the empty celebrity; people who are famous for no reason than their status as reality television stars. Of course, there have always been people who have garnered fame for reasons that have nothing to do with their merit in terms of achievement. But with the age of ‘reality television’ this has become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. And I would argue that this phenomenon is one of the more toxic aspects of modern culture. The Paris Hiltons, Honey Boo-boos, and yes Kim Kardashians of the world are anathema to the very notion of art and artistic integrity because they make celebrity and wealth the very guiding principle of achievement. One no longer has to have a talent, pursue meaningful endeavours, or make a genuine effort to become competent, one simply has to have a pretty face, and nice round ass and have a penchant for showing off at a monumental scale (as well as have an unquenchable thirst to be rich). Keep in mind too that most of these people who are famous for being famous are women who trade on their sexuality. Some might say that this has always been, to one degree or another, a central aspect of success in capitalism. But it has reached new heights in contemporary, technologically driven society. And here is the important part – Kanye West has willfully become a central part in that cultural poison. I find Kanye West’s arrogance and conceit highly distasteful. But lots of artists (and people in general) are arrogant. I can look past that to a degree. What I can’t look past is the way that the cult of personality, the drive for fame at all costs regardless of skill or talent, the hyper-sexualization of women just to get ahead, and the corporatism of culture have infected our society and the important role that Kayne West has invested in that in his art and personal life. That’s not arrogance Shad, that’s cultural critique.
Now let me just deal briefly with Shad’s other point, and that is Kanye West’s merit as a performer. I don’t want to get too deeply into this in as much as Shad is certainly entitled to his aesthetic opinion, and I will even concede that when it comes to music he is certainly more qualified than I to express that opinion. But, having said that, I must take issue with a couple of things that Shad has said. Shad concedes that commercial success is not a “great measure of artistic merit.” Let me say that Shad is hedging his bets here. Let me say that commercial success is NO measure of artistic merit. If it were Rod Mckuen would be a greater poet than Keats, and Thomas Kinkade would be a greater painter than Turner. However, what Shad does put a lot of stock in is Kanye West’s “critical” success. But here history has an almost equally dismal record as it does in commercial success, at least in an artist’s lifetime. History is littered with artists who gained plenty of critical success in their lives only to be thrown on the dustbin of history later on. And conversely, a huge number of artists who are now considered “great” garnered nothing but contempt from critics while they were alive. Though the list of such ‘critical’ failures is far too long to recite, let me use one interesting example. In 1798 two entirely unknown poets published a book entitled Lyrical Ballads which was roundly condemned almost everywhere it was given critical attention. That book is now considered by many as one of the most important, if not the most important, single books in English poetry. Those two poets were none other than William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge. These two artists were, for most of their lives treated with utter contempt by the critical community. And the reason for the condemnation was fairly straightforward – the critical community represented the establishment. Even where the critics were not politically conservative, they were aesthetically so. On the other hand many very successful artists garnered great critical as well as commercial success only to be forgotten. The French novelist Eugene Sue is a great example. He was the toast of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century, critics loved him and the people bought his books. Similarly, the Dutchman Lourens Alma Tadema was the most successful painter of the entire Victorian era. His fame now pales in comparison to the Pre-Raphaelites who were working at the same time and who were slain by almost every critic and struggled to make any kind of living.
Furthermore, when it comes to critical acclaim, Shad would do well to remember that it is seldom objective. The very notion of independent theatre criticism didn’t even exist, for example, until the advent of the work of the great Leigh Hunt in England. Before that, theatre critics were so closely tied to actors, producers, and theatre owners that good periodical critiques of plays relied on little more than connections (or in some cases money because some theatre owners simply paid for good reviews). But even where critical acclaim has not been so obviously corrupted, it is a phenomenon that should always be treated with suspicion. Blackwell’s Magazine spent decades attacking the Romantic poets because of a host of personal prejudices on the part of their various editors, actual personal issues with some of the poets themselves, political and class bigotry, and simple aesthetic conservatism. Meanwhile they lauded poets like George Crabbe, for example, who aren’t even read today in the rarified atmosphere of university classes. I am not necessarily saying that all critiques are as tainted as theatre criticism was in, say, London in 1800, but it should always be treated with caution. Another thing Shad would do well to remember is the statement by the great George Orwell –
The more I see the more I doubt whether people ever really make aesthetic judgments at all. Everything is judged on political grounds which are then given an aesthetic disguise. When, for instance, Eliot can’t see anything good in Shelley or anything bad in Kipling, the real underlying reason must be that the one is a radical and the other a conservative.
Regardless of where you stand on such a philosophical contention, it should be clear that the success of an artist in her own lifetime is little indication of long term influence or an historical reputation. I understand that Shad wants us to take West’s critical success seriously and it should be a factor in whether we boycott his work or appearances. However, my reply to Shad is that anyone with any kind of historical knowledge of art, its successes or failures, would put little stock in sales or critiques when it comes to judging an artist’s work. Shad obviously thinks that Kanye West is a great musician, that’s fine, maybe he is, I don’t know. But I will let history make that judgment. But if Shad really wants us to embrace the work and performance of West he scores few points with me by failing to realistically deal with West’s place in a poison culture of personality cult, his sales as a performer, nor his success with the critics who often represent a corporate culture of extreme wealth. On the other hand, if Shad wants to tell me why he actually thinks West is worth listening to, I am all ears.