Tag Archives: kanye west

kanye vs. kant

Today I’m going to write about Kanye West.

No, I’m not going to review his new album The Life of Pablo; I won’t talk about his problematic, sometimes misogynistic lyrics (something that I struggle to reconcile with enjoying his music); and I’m not gonna discuss that horrible “BILL COSBY IS INNOCENT” tweet. Again, problematic, and something that others can do a much better job expounding on than I can.

Instead, I’m going to write about Kanye West and taste.

Kanye’s return to Twitter has been one hell of a ride. He’s no longer going on about being responsible for empty water bottles left on planes, nor bemoaning the lack of cherub imagery on his Persian rugs, nor getting emotional over fonts.

But now he tweets about his music, clothing line and debt; creativity and inspiration; his reverence of Will Ferrell; and critiquing his critics.

At first glance, particularly for someone who doesn’t follow the man on Twitter, Kanye’s tweets about the Grammys seem to be the rants of a self-obsessed man with such a pathetic take on losing that he downs too much Hennessy and then, once properly hammered, takes to Twitter to enact a clumsy revenge.

But peek between the lines, Dear Reader, and you’ll see something else.

“Everybody with any form of taste.” The implication? Taste is something objectively good. You and I don’t get to decide what is tasteful on with our personal opinions.

And that’s when I thought, “Well, shit. Am I reading Kanye or Kant? It’s KANTYE.” (Please clap.)

See, the work of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher from the 1700s, has more in common with the Twitter account of Kanye West than one might expect. In his Critique of Judgment, he talks about something called sensus communis, or a common understanding of what constitutes “good” art.

But here’s where it gets tricky: Kant says we determine what is good art by using reason, the highest human faculty. Kanye … well, that’s not exactly his perspective. Or it doesn’t seem to be.

Again, taste. But this time Kanye implies something else: “cultural relevance.” Part of the reason the Grammys are not a valid awards show, Kanye insinuates, is because Grammy voters are out of touch with culture.

So here we wade into more complicated territory. Taste is something both objectively good and culturally relevant. That’s where Kanye and Kant diverge (feel free to argue; I haven’t studied Kant in depth for three years).

But if something that is Good is determined by a common consensus exclusively from those who are in touch with pop culture, then doesn’t that exclude or devalue the opinions of people who aren’t in touch? Why does Kanye assign different standards of taste depending on who listens to March Madness? And if only those people who are culturally relevant can have taste, then can taste truly be objective?

Maybe I got it wrong. Maybe Kanye’s understanding of art falls into what Kant would label the tier of art below the Good, which is the beautiful, or that which pleases. “In all judgements by which we describe anything as beautiful, we allow no one to be of another opinion,” wrote Kant.

But I get the feeling that Kanye thinks that art occupies more of a transcendental plane than merely a pleasurable one.

Hell, maybe Kanye’s tweets have more to do with class, race and power instead of art and taste. I’ll get to that too (probably). But for now, I’m thinking out loud here (and trying to remember how to blog instead of write journalistically), which means that I’m going to leave this post open-ended. If you have thoughts, I’d love to read them.

(Here’s the A$AP Rocky music video, by the way. I’d say “You decide whether it’s any good,” but, you know, we just discussed that.)

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the economics of race and silence: kanye west and bell hooks

Remember when Kanye West said, “[We] brought the leather jogging pants six years ago to Fendi, and they said ‘no.’ How many motherf*ckers you done seen with a leather jogging pant?” in an interview with Zane Lowe on BBC1? And then Jimmy Kimmel thought he’d strike his late night humor chops by recreating the scene with a couple of kids? And there was that great Twitter feud between Jimmy vs. Kanye of 2013?

This fiasco was resolved over a month ago when Kanye appeared on Kimmel’s show to receive an apology, but today I found myself googling the original BBC1 interview with Kanye again. This time, my curiosity was piqued by bell hooks.

First order of business: an introduction. bell hooks is a name, not a tool you can find in the Walmart home improvement aisle. I studied a bit of her feminist cultural criticism in my last year of college; currently a professor at Berea College, her work pushes feminism beyond the confines of the white and privileged. She is a materialist, and she recognizes the economics at play in subjugation–not simply theory that works in the realm of ideas.

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young bell hooks. via Denison

She wrote a piece responding to Sheryl Sandberg’s contentious book Lean Inwhich is totally “not a feminist manifesto.” Oh wait, “ok, it is a feminist manifesto.” Both of these quotes belong to Sandberg in her book and illustrate the sort of non-substantive banter which, hooks argues, makes up Sandberg’s entire argument.

Among the fallacies that bell hooks finds with Sandberg’s argument is this:

“Given the huge amounts of money Sandberg has acquired, ostensibly by paying close attention to her financial future, her silence on the subject of money in Lean In undermines the call for genuine equality. Without the ability to be autonomous, in control of self and finances, women will not have the strength and confidence to ‘lean in.’ … her failure to confront the issue of women acquiring wealth allows her to ignore concrete systemic obstacles most women face inside the workforce. And by not confronting the issue of women and wealth, she need not confront the issue of women and poverty. She need not address the ways extreme class differences make it difficult for there to be a common sisterhood based on shared struggle and solidarity.”

bell hooks is absolutely right. To consider social inequalities, one cannot simply discuss gender or race or class on its own, but as a part of a larger political world to which we all have a relationship. Sandberg’s silence, therefore, is not merely a missing piece, but an intentional statement that eliminates the mention of class and race from the conversation. Silence is a political statement– an erasure of marginalized voices.

So what happens when these silenced voices do speak? What is their cultural impact, if they have any at all?

Enter Kanye West and his interview with BBC1. Many followed Jimmy Kimmel’s example: they laughed at it and brushed it off  It seems that every time he speaks up, he’s turned into a clown by smug commentators and bloggers….

We got this new thing called classism. It’s racism’s cousin. This is what we do to hold people back. And we got this other thing that’s been workin for a long time… So you don’t have to be racist any more. It’s called self-hate. It works on itself. It’s like the real estate of racism. Where just like that, when somebody comes up and says kind of like “I am a god,” everybody says, “who does he think he is?” I thought I told you who I thought I was. A god. Would it have been better if I had called the song, “I am a n*gga?” Or if I had a song that said “I am a gangsta”? Or if I had a song that said “I am a pimp.” All those colors and petinas fit better….on a person like me, right? But to say you are a god? Especially when you got shipped over to the country you’re in and your last name is a slave owners’? How could you say that? How could you have that mentality?

Kanye explains how the dominant culture works on a mass scale by suppressing the will, goals, and empowerment of individuals. If each individual thinks of themselves in terms of the manner prescribed to them (i.e. “I am a black man and therefore a n*gger” or “I am a woman and therefore inherently weakened by emotion”) rather than in terms of their abilities and potential, they cannot challenge and move beyond the power structure that dictates their limitations in the first place. What if the weaknesses that we perceive as individuals are intentionally imposed by culture? To boot, the cultural effects of subjugation are economic. A person without agency has no financial autonomy either.

I’m not blindly praising Kanye. I struggle to swallow and reconcile some of his lyrics, for example. I enjoy his song with Jay Z “N*ggas in Paris” on a purely musical level, but I can’t listen to the lyrics lest I hear the words “Come and meet me in the bathroom stall/And show me why you deserve to have it all.” The subtlety in this representation of sexism perhaps makes it all the more dangerous, and it certainly illustrates just how problematic the intersection between race, gender, class actually is.

But people don’t see the complexities in Kanye’s words, because they don’t take him seriously. The critics and bloggers who smugly mock him with about as much cleverness as Jimmy Kimmel (read: none) turn him into a clown, a grotesque, behaving in exactly the way that Kanye condemns in his interview (“…and everybody says, ‘Who does he think he is?'”) So what happens when the silenced decides to speak? He’s a caricature, a cartoonish image built up by different segments of the media.

But it’s fashion consultant Jibril Durimel who mainly gets it right, as Kanye quoted him:

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For further reading, check out this piece by Tom Hawking from June called “If You’re Laughing at Kanye West, the Jokes on You.”

Otherwise, I’ll leave you with this:

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