Kanye West's ‘Famous’ Video And The Trap Of Provocative Art

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on the power to make us look

Last Friday night, the video for Kanye West’s “Famous” premiered. I watched, remembering that I made a last-minute decision to not cancel my Tidal subscription after my Lemonade-borne trial ended. Based on the 2008 painting Sleep by Vincent Desiderio, the video depicts West in a massive bed, surrounded by lifelike sleeping figures of Taylor Swift, George Bush, Ray J, Chris Brown, Amber Rose, Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump. All are nude, half-tangled in bedsheets and some, like Swift, more revealed than others. Using (at least some, if not all) these bodies and likenesses without consent presents to me, as a viewer, a real conflict on a very base level, one that I reflected on after struggling to get through the 10-plus-minute video.

There are things we forgive in the name of art when the artist is big enough, or bold enough, or revered. This happens on a sliding scale, of course, but the result is often the same, and it is rarely victimless. The problem with art that aims to provoke in this modern American moment is that it often does so on other people’s backs. In order for this model to consistently work, the audience on the receiving end of the art has to be pushed toward anger, humiliation, sadness. “Famous” falls into the long line of this trap. Most glaringly, it falls into this trap by its use and depiction of the body. The instances of the women depicted in the “Famous” video are the most jarring — accomplished, talented women who have, at points in their various careers, used agency over their own bodies as a powerful pushback or rebellion against expectations. More than anything else in the video, the prone, naked representations of the women seemed the most uncomfortable, even if the point of discomfort was meant to spark a dialogue. Instead, it saddled us with that discomfort. Kanye West didn’t do anything with this video that required any mental acrobatics to figure out. We can pretend that is the case, because that is what we sometimes do with Kanye West. His track record prior to these years is one that affords him the creative benefit of the doubt, even when we should know better.

This, too, is how the worst art of provocation survives — an insistence on commentary, regardless of craft. Or, in some cases, the flashiness of commentary to the detriment of craft. Not just in the “Famous” video, but perhaps especially there, Kanye West demands our eyes, attention, and conversation, without having to work for it anymore. This puts him in a lot of positions that feel frantic and cheap, like a boy screaming out curse words in a crowded mall on a Friday night. It isn’t done without some intelligence, surely. The production and execution of Kanye West’s life, like the “Famous” video, plays into the hands of a society of voyeurs, eager to look behind the curtain at the forbidden and private thing, even if we do so between our fingers, with our hands covering our eyes. It is so base and boring, giving a society of watchers something salacious to watch and pretending that it is doing something larger than it actually is. Many people could argue that this is the point of the video, and by extension, West’s life: the power to make us look, even when we don’t want to. The failure is that it doesn’t risk or challenge the artist himself, and generally risks others. Telling, in the video, is the fact that Kanye himself is revealing the least, covered mostly by a bedsheet while most everyone else in the bed is largely exposed. The artist who demands risk and intentional engagement with his work, saving himself.

The commentary on fame, access, and voyeurism is itself not without merit. But on execution, it becomes a commentary that relies, lazily, on an ability to shock, coupled with our general desire to never be left out of the conversation, predicated on the idea that all art merits dissection. This, the other side of provocation: the one that leans on the desire to not be left out of a discussion. It’s about drawing consumers, fans them into a simulacrum of conversation that serves only the person who started it. These are the wheels, spinning deeper and deeper into the mud, all of us trying to unstick the car from its fate, while the provoking artist drives by, laughing. The stakes are pushed higher, too, each time the art is forgotten and replaced with something bigger. And with each day, less and less becomes shocking. The stakes are higher, but the bar becomes lower. And the wheels keep turning.

I don’t ignore Kanye West’s artistic output, even after a long run of exhaustion with it. I have lost the desire to discuss these things. I’m bored with them, and I’m often looking for a window out of the boredom. I want provocative art that doesn’t rely on the body, art that doesn’t rely on what it can take from another person, or on the denial of agency. Commentary, for me, is hollow if not approached carefully. In execution, West’s “Famous” as a commentary on fame is the same as West shouting “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” as a commentary on the inequality of the racial response to Hurricane Katrina. “Famous” is a commentary that demands a soft and nuanced touch, conceived by a man wielding a sledgehammer.

After the heads have turned toward the sounds you’re making, you have to deliver them something of substance. Kanye West has mastered the art of getting us to turn our heads, but hasn’t mastered the art of providing substance to the eager and watching masses. The art that leaves us sad, angry, frustrated, or bewildered can’t be the only memorable thing. In most cases, the music on its own may not be enough anymore — I have accepted that. With our rapid consumption and discarding of big music releases, music now needs something else with it, or it quickly fades to dust. But, even in my understanding of that, I have grown so exhausted with hollow and far-reaching artistic debates around forgettable work that empties me, empties all of us.