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Tuesday
Jun142011

"I Crossed The Line"

 

The following column is in no way to be interpreted as critical or negative toward any rapper. It is a think piece, and it will be taken as such. 

See? It's pretty nice to disclaim the controversial things you're about to do. And when you add that disclaimer after you've already been taken to task for those disclaimed actions? Well, that's doubly nice. Just ask Kanye West.

West added a disclaimer to the final cut of his video for "Monster," which read, "The following content is in no way to be interpreted as misogynistic or negative towards any groups of people. It is an art piece and it shall be taken as such." Those two sentences, the former pathologically defensive (misogyny only acts toward one group of people), the latter a bit egomaniacal, pretty fairly encapsulate the Kanye West experience these days.

To be fair, Kanye has a lot to be defensive - and egomaniacal - about in his latest video.

When the unofficial "Monster" video leaked, before it picked up its disclaimer, there was a lot of noise made about, well, the very things the disclaimer now addresses. The executive editor of Feministing stated she was "done defending Kanye." Authors condemned the video on The FriskyRacialicious,BlogHerMedia Watch, and many other websites. So does tacking on a five second disclaimer offset the subsequent five minutes and fifty seconds of video? I'd say not exactly.

That's not to say the video fails at making an artistic statement, though. It does, perhaps, make an impressive and important statement about race, gender, and America; it is actually the perfect video to correspond with West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

One of the things about the video that jumps out at you is that it resembles nothing more than a fashion exhibition. For all its gore and carnage, no one's clothes are even a little dirty. And everyone - even the corpses - are really well dressed. I mean, I wouldn't kill someone for Jay-Z's suit or Kanye's brown trench, but I'd maybe think about it.

With his hyper awareness of clothes, Kanye's video illuminates the ways that a Twilight-inspired spread in a glossy mag could also be construed as objectifying women-turning them into a real object, a dead body. But it's more likely that Kanye is borrowing tropes from fashion's culture rather than subverting them. A big part of Kanye's person is style. He's on the record, literally, as the Louis Vuitton Don.

Kanye West has made an interesting journey, starting out at a place where he said, "They made us hate ourselves, and love their wealth." At this point, he has more in common with the wealthy elite he criticized than the girl who "couldn't afford a car so she named her daughter Alexis." The "Monster" video seems to be Kanye West processing this.

Fashion and art are blurred, often intentionally by the former in order to more resemble the latter. If Kanye really is making art, he's doing so within the context of a particularly gory fashion show. While Kanye's ostensibly made it, becoming rich and famous, it's obviously not made him happy. His success has, in fact, made him more monstrous. He more resembles the sort of person he used to despise, and "Monster," the song, acknowledges the hubris and unreality that now characterize his life.

But the video finds another layer of meaning in "Monster" that's perhaps not present in the song alone. Aside from his success, there's another way that Kanye has become monstrous. With his ties to fashion, Kanye must be uniquely aware of fashion's whiteness. Whether they're models, the elite who frequent the high-fashion world, or the rich who bankroll the industry, the controlling interests tend to be white. The intersection of race and wealth is a major theme of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, where elsewhere he says, "As long as I'm in Polo smiling they think they got me. / But they would try to crack me if they ever saw a black me." The video is a racial line drawn in the sand: Virtually all the dead are white women, and virtually all the monsters are people of color.
Presiding over the whole spectacle, directing the fashion show, is Kanye West. Whether he's lovingly rearranging the two dead women in his bed,or managing a crowd of the trapped and dead, Kanye is in constant control of the video's action. Even the scene where he's besieged by grabbing hands subverts the idea of a black man in chains by locking up the hands that bind him.

It's entirely possible to ignore the racial aspect of the video, instead viewing it as a misogynistic work. That's a fair way to look at it, and it's somewhat ironic that Kanye's disclaimer tries to make a distinction between misogyny and art. Art is frequently misogynistic. There are scores of people who have no inclination to ever watch a seminal film like Blue Velvet more than once because of its apparent misogyny. You don't even have to go so far as to say that Kanye's making a statement about how women are objectified in order to excuse the way he treats them in the video. It's disturbing. But you also can't immediately dismiss "Monster" because of its misogyny because it does make a salient point, and powerfully.

As we see Kanye get caught up in the snares of race, class, and violence, it never seems artificial or like a set up. He just dives into his Olympic-size ego and comes up with another contradiction that normal people have learned to ignore or sublimate into one or another pernicious lifestyle choices. In this way, adding a disclaimer to "Monster" seems like a rare misstep. Kanye knows his work will get construed in ways that are uncontrollable. It's one reason why his art is so attractive.

The label of "art" doesn't really shield Kanye (or anyone) from criticism. All the critical legwork done in the 20th century has taken the onus of art from the artist and placed it on the viewer. If Kanye's audience doesn't think it's art, no amount of disclaimers will (excuse me: shall) convince them otherwise.

It will be interesting to see, now, if all his success will make him take fewer risks. I hope not, though; reducing an artist to someone who regularly issues disclaimers would be monstrous.
Fuse June 14, 2011

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