This past Tuesday Kanye West premiered the video to his song “Bound 2” on Ellen. The video displays Kanye and a topless Kim Kardashian riding a motorcycle in front of various ultra-cheesy green screen backdrops including a birds eye view of mountains with eagles flying above, galloping white horses, and the Grand Canyon. It’s essentially a video made up of cheap drug store romance novel covers. The internet’s initial reaction: a collective “WTF.” Not exactly what you’d expect by the self-proclaimed contemporary Michelangelo, Steve Jobs, and Walt Disney. The predominant opinion seems to be that the video is just one massive kegel exercise for Mr. West that also allows for the soon-to-be Mrs. West to show off her back-in-shape post-birth body (the old “two birds, one stone”). However, to my eyes, that is the furthest from Ye’s intentions with this new video, as this appropriation of supposedly “kitsch” culture by an avant-garde artist is a part of a long lineage of American art.
This division of high and low culture goes all the way back to art critic Clement Greenberg’s 1939 essay “Avant-Garde & Kitsch” in which he segregates visual culture into two very distinct sections. Greenberg claims modernism and the avant-garde were used as a reaction to the “dumbing down” of culture by consumerism. In Greenberg’s visual culture the highbrow and lowbrow are separated and never allowed to interact, with abstract expressionism being commended and everyday imagery such as advertising being condemned as “kitsch” meaning dumb, tacky, and ultimately dangerous to culture. Pop art reacted to this with Andy Warhol’s paintings of celebrities, advertisements, and products, Jasper John’s flag and target painting, and Richard Hamilton’s collaging together of magazine imagery. This appropriation of supposedly “kitsch” imagery is seen as the transition from modernism into postmodernism. Galleries were now welcomed homes for everything from toilets to soup cans to pornography. Enter Jeff Koons stage right.
Jeff Koons rose to prominence in the art world in the early eighties through his sculptures of banal and kitschy subject matter such as stainless steel balloon animals and Michael Jackson with his pet monkey, Bubbles. Koons’s work drew notoriety and controversy for both its neo-pop appropriation of lowbrow culture and its blatant questioning of authorship in art. Reminiscent of Warhol’s work, Koons’s pieces were made by assistants in an assembly line like fashion. By forcing the viewer to ask exactly who is the artist behind the piece, he critiqued ownership and production in a world of mass production and consumption. In other words: If Jeff Koons didn’t make the sculpture then why is his name given credit? This draws obvious parallels to a lot of the criticism Kanye received earlier this year in regards to the amount of producers he had working onYeezus. West and Koons share many similarities from the contentious nature of their work to their juxtaposing high and low culture. The visual imagery in Kanye’s “Bound 2” video is both a display of this and, even further, a direct influence from Koons’s “Made in Heaven” series.
“Made in Heaven” was a series of prints, paintings, and sculptures released in 1989 displaying Koons and his pornographic film star wife, Ilona Staller, performing various sexual positions in front of elegant backdrops that reference paintings by artists such as Edouard Manet. The series questioned where the line is drawn between art and pornography for nude subject matter . You can see right away how the combination of imagery in the “Bound 2” video is highly reminiscent of and likely informed by pieces like this and this. Kanye’s spoken many times in interviews of his purposeful juxtaposition of elements of “high” and “low” culture, all the way back from College Dropout when he “took Freeway put him on tracks with Mos Def” through crashing together Jim Henson, George Lucas and Fellini in the Runaway film to Yeezus where he references Michael Douglas, Tron, and the Zeitgeist all in the same verse. In the podcast he did with Bret Easton Ellis he openly credits these “drops of cheesiness” as being pivotal to his success.
Kanye’s always been about breaking down boundaries in culture and forcing his audience to question what’s acceptable in hip hop, music, and art as a whole. This really isn’t anything new for him. Remember last album when he wanted to marry a porn star? The track before he asked us who will survive in America? And this recombining of the supposed kitsch and avant-garde is of such necessity to us in this era of disposable culture where quality and patience are so easily set aside for quantity and expedience. By interjecting these “drops of cheesiness” into his art he is able to both present a self-aware form of irony while still confronting his audience with complex issues such as how human sexuality and nudity operate in different contexts from paintings and music videos to romance novel covers and pornography. He pops wheelies on the Zeitgeist, co-opts the mainstream for the underground, the underground for the mainstream, the kitsch for the avant-garde, the avant-garde for the kitsch. Because even Yeezus knows a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.
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