Kanye Would Stay Kanye, and God Was God
In the art world, just as in sports or office culture, people adhered to well-structured models because ritualised forms were good at obscuring expressions of negation. It was perhaps a truism that a work seeking mass appeal had to follow certain rules of legibility, and that the Pop work, in adhering to these rules, was essentially affirmative. Of course, once you had people’s attention, you could lard your Pop work with all sorts of subversive twists. Strangely, though, he had observed that the most perverse twists often manifested not in the work but in the artist persona, the narrative surrounding the work, the face turned to the public. To take one of the most famous examples, all the darkness and ambiguity in Michael Jackson were as much a part of “Michael Jackson” as were his songs and videos and performances. Or you might consider a figure like Kanye West, who in some ways was similar to Koons: like Koons, West wanted more than any-thing to be not only lasting but loved, and by the broadest possible constituency. Yet these two men fully embodied the addictive principal of control. It was crucial to their ambitions; their art was control, and at times they were lead astray by its temptations. Like Koons, West was so stubbornly idiosyncratic in his pursuit of his vision, so wilfully out of step with his peers, and so self-indulgent in his micromanagement that he found himself careering into eccentricities and perversions that threatened the mass appeal he craved.
“His work, like that of Koons and West, was often vicious, perverse, and fucked-up, and surely that counted as negation, not affirmation.”
This cognitive dissonance between the affirmative Pop artwork and the Pop artist’s personal life, persona, and statements made for the headiest Pop, and not coincidentally this area of friction was where its most powerful aspects of negation were to be found. Already known for his narcissistic self-promotion, Koons went and married a notorious porn star and portrayed them fucking, in photographs and sculptures that dismayed the art world and put a kink in his career. West, who also couldn’t contain his chronically narcissistic behaviour, married a TV personality whose fame stemmed in part from a leaked sex tape, and whom he promptly made a costar in his life and videos. It was almost a recipe: take an unbounded talent for Pop affirmation, temper it with excessive control, and you got negation. But this was what made such artists so fascinating, because with all their own internal contradictions on display they were able to embody their era and its more general contradictions. The cognitive dissonance produced by transgression would only temporarily hurt their careers; over the long term it would bolster the legend. In hindsight their personal and professional tumult would come to represent the warp and woof of history itself.
West and Koons were not just chosen for the role of embodying an age—they seized it and thrived on it. The truly great Pop artist needed to affirm the insane state of affairs that resulted when you danced in the public eye; they had to milk it, and their very hubris was what ultimately redeemed them in the eyes of the public. Koons’ stated goal was to be as culturally powerful as The Beatles, who themselves had outraged people with their claim to be more powerful than Jesus, which was itself updated by West’s proclamation “I am a god.” Of course none of these ambitions could be fulfilled, because none of these powerful and sui generis people would ever escape their assigned box: The Beatles remained a pop-music phenomenon, Koons would forever be an artist whose name was only vaguely recognised by most, Kanye would stay Kanye, and God was God.
In any case, such ambitions were particular. They weren’t to be found in other great and at least initially popular artists, for instance, Dylan and Godard. In certain ways Dylan and Godard were like Koons and West: they too had proved that they could craft incandescent narrative works just as beautiful and sentimental as anything going, they too were perversely contrarian micromanagers with self-sabotaging personae, and they too strove to transcend their boxes, making late-in-life art-world forays. Dylan and Godard, however, had rejected popular success upon realising that it carried the poison badge of generational ambassador and public clown. The fact of the matter was they simply weren’t concerned with communicating to the broadest possible audience. They may have been legends, but they were not Pop artists, because they were far too interested in negation.
He paused, troubled. What was this “negation”? It certainly wasn’t restricted to reclusive, eighty-year-old, straight men, or to sulky avatars of the ’60s. He’d been using the word as if it were the natural inverse of affirmation, but it carried ponderous and heady implications; it virtually trailed a wake of German philosophers. And what was affirmation, for that matter? It was inadequate to claim, as he had, that Pop affirmed the society it examined. Warhol, the consummate Pop artist, was a dark and ambiguous figure whose career—whose very identity and existence—stood as a rebuke to the culture that enthusiastically assimilated his innovations. Moreover, his work, like that of Koons and West, was often vicious, perverse, and fucked-up, and surely that counted as negation, not affirmation.
The thing was, whatever Warhol’s work said or did, and however he himself acted, and however his queerness might distinguish him from these other artists, he obviously cared about his audience. Koons, too, spoke repeatedly of the trust that he wished to cultivate in viewers; if you took him at his word, the compact with the viewer was his highest sacrament. And West obviously wished to bring his message to the public in order to inspire, to fill people with uplift or outrage or wonder. Dylan or Godard, on the other hand, probably never cared much about the potential reception of their work, let alone wished to help people. This was evident not only in their personae (and tellingly they had great capacities for humour and irony, qualities conspicuously absent from the likes of West and Koons) but in the work itself: often brilliant and groundbreaking, deeply important to legions of people, but never Pop. Work that remained this aloof from its own reception was just too unsettling for the mass public.
Read more in Modern Matter issue 12, Colour Model. All artworks by Seth Price.