it’s time to talk about Kanye West’s “Famous” from an art history perspective

We’ve heard Kanye West’s new video for his song “Famous” discussed in relation to the definition of modern celebrity, the effects it may have on Taylor Swift’s squad, and whether or not Kim Kardashian’s butt is real (it is, get over it). However, it’s time to look at what the video and its complementary artwork are really about: performance art.

Before anyone gets up in arms, let me reassure you that I am an expert on the subject. Just kidding, but I did write my undergraduate thesis on notions of audience participation and celebrity involvement in the art world. So what about “Famous” makes it performance art?

Performance art requires a participating and engaged audience. An audience that acts and reacts based on how the artist commands or influences them. Celebrities like Jay-Z, James Franco, and Shia LaBeouf have all done performance art pieces. What makes their work successful and ultimately accepted by the art world are the vast audiences they attract due to their celebrity status.

Kanye West performs everyday of his life. Have you seen his Twitter? He performs for audience reaction, and he always gets it. His wife, Kim Kardashian West, who has mastered the art of celebrity, lives her life equally if not more dramatically. She broadcasts every moment on TV and social media outlets, and has gone on the occasional Twitter rant herself.

kanye_wests_famous_video

c/o Hollywood Reporter

Now back to “Famous”, specifically. The cover art for the video features West lying in bed with his wife, and various other nude celebrities including Donald Trump, Chris Brown, Rihanna, and, you guessed it, Taylor Swift. The video features shots of the eerily still bodies lying in the bed, and although most of the celebrities didn’t actually participate (they were created using wax figures), the imagery is still intense. At the end of the video, West thanks each of the celebrities featured for being famous.

In the context of performance art, West has made an interesting commentary on notions of fame. Celebrities seek an audience to be popular and relevant, and without that audience their fame means nothing. West drags celebrities into the spotlight with him, making them unwillingly a part of his performative behavior. In addition, West sponsored showings of the video all over the world, announcing the locations on his Twitter feed. West invites the audience to view his spectacle and comment or react as they will. His entire celebrity existence is about the reaction of others, and that sounds like performance art to me.


12376312_188030644921275_2859538240756987153_n Kelsey Miller is a well-known meme historian and pasta maker. Her passions include bad reality TV, grey sweatpants, and fat dogs. She’s been faking it ’til she makes it since 1993 (although she hasn’t made it yet).

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