Monday, October 17, 2022

Ye (the Artist Fomerly Known as Kanye West), Fandom, and My Attitude Toward the Universe

Kanye West  is the latest artist to raise uncomfortable questions about whether you can separate the person from the creation: anti-semitic rants, incoherently paranoid interviews, stalking his ex-wife, "slavery is a choice," etc. If you love his music, what are you supposed to do? (And note that Ye has probably made his biggest contribution as a producer, so just not listening to his own songs won't get you clear of him.)

What if we try to separate Ye’s art from his misbehavior? What if we say we are going to put Ye and his bigotry aside and focus purely on the music he gave the world? That’s a stance many of his fans are already comfortable taking. Ye has been so publicly outrageous for so long that plenty of people are used to disliking Ye the man and focusing all their attention on Ye the musician or Ye the fashion icon. Choosing to denounce Ye’s hate speech and still appreciate his music might not feel all that different from saying he was wrong for storming the stage at the VMAs but knowing you’re still going to buy his next album.

In the case of West, attitudes are complicated by his mental illness. He has been diagnosed as bipolar and has said on a couple of occasions, after incidents, "sometimes I forget to take my meds." So if you condemn his outbursts, are you being insensitive to the mentally ill?

That attitude is offensive to all the people with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses who don’t spend their days going on long antisemitic rants (to be clear, that’s most of them). Being bipolar can make a person paranoid and prone to conspiratorial thinking, but it does not make a person a bigot. It is possible, and indeed preferable, to separate Ye’s bigotry from his mental health problems when talking about his recent outbursts.

But some people who dumped on Britney Spears during her very public downward spiral into insanity, which led to the legal conservatorship and all that conflict, feel bad about it now and don't want to do it again. 

I no longer have any trouble with this sort of question. As far as I am concerned, all important artists fall into two categories: those whose horrible behavior we know about, and those whose horrible behavior we don't know about because it hasn't been revealed yet.

I don't mean that literally; I am sure there are great artists and other celebrities who are not horrible. But I refuse to get invested in admiring them, because I think that on average celebrities are horrible people, and that horribleness is one of the things that makes people celebrities. (Narcissism, in particular, seems to infect nearly all of them.) I have seen grown men looking heartbroken when it turns out that some athlete they have worshipped beats his wife and cheats on his taxes. Me, I decline to take the risk. In general I simply refuse to learn about their off-field or off-stage lives, and when it does happen I file it under, "huh, interesting." When is the next book due out?

True, some celebrities are worse than others. Some are criminals, and they should go to jail; I don't support any legal lenience for people just because they have legions of fans. But I enjoy art by criminals, too: Caravaggio, for example. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Hero-worship is not one of my vices; in fact I find it to be one of the most mysterious behaviors of my fellow humans. We're all human, and the evidence suggests that all humans are deeply flawed. Whether we're talking about prophets, saints, kings, generals, politicians, painters, writers, film-makers, whatever; they are all horribly flawed. (I suppose this is why I have a certain interest in the "take down the statues" crowd.) Given my historicals interests, I am often most curious about people who lived in other eras, times and places with moral ideas very different from our own. It strikes me as a waste of time to ask about the ethics and politics of the people who made, say, the Standard of Ur, the Iliad, or Stonehenge. When we get closer to our own time we have a lot more information, but I am still not much invested in "character." I have written, for example, about the different gay sexualities of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, but while I find that interesting it doesn't have any impact on how much I like their art. 

T.S. Eliot was a racist, sexist, antisemitic lover of empire and desipser of the lower classes who treated his long-term mistress abominably, by our standards probably morally worse than Kanye West. But "The Waste Land" is still a great poem. If you don't like that, you are probably uncomfortable with the cruel randomness of our whole existence in this universe.

We are all, as I see it, thrown without our asking for it into a world we cannot understand, a world filled with terrible tragedy, where every beautiful creation seems to rest on a foundation of sin and crime. We can spend all our time moaning about that. Or, we can try to lift ourselves out of the muddy maelstrom by admiring the beauty, kindness, and cleverness of which the world is also full. We can marvel at the sumblime wonder of destructive storms, indulge ourselves, from our peaceful desks, in the intellectual fascination of war. We can be swept away by the fierceness of life's struggle against itself: the perfection of a tiger's killing machinery, the chemically choreographed precision of an ant army on the march. And we can enjoy the creative gifts of people clinging to sanity with a grip even weaker than our own, while also feeling thankful that it is not us who have to suffer that such wonders should be brought to light.


David said...


You may not worship individual heroes, but you seem pretty devoted to the heroic spirit. I mean, read your own last paragraph. I'm not saying that's some sort of foible or contradiction; but I think it's an important point. Arguably, what you're doing is protecting the heroic from the inevitable weaknesses of individual heroes.

I'm pretty troubled by the cruel randomness of our existence in the universe. I don't think that's some sort of silly or loser position. Surely many of those heroic cultural achievements you admire are serious meditations on the unanswerability of this very problem, not dismissals or, so to speak, solvents of it. Maybe even The Waste Land is such a work (in so far as one can get any good idea of what it is about). For another example, part of the genius of the Book of Job is that the issues it raises are NOT just all answered in a neat little package by the speech out of the whirlwind.

David said...

Perhaps that is part of the role that narcissism plays in (some) art. The artist's narcissism is so great, and of such a form, that they take personal offense at the cruel randomness of our existence in the universe, and the universe's refusal to explain it satisfactorily. A lot of energy could come from that.

John said...


Absolutely, I value the heroic, and also the creative, and the kind, and the plain amazing. I watch sports, after all, and follow chess, and love art.

But as you hint, I think my view of such things is that they *are* separate from other things about our personalities, including our morality; in a sense they are separate from the individual. Many athletes and artists feel that their gifts came to them from elsewhere; I don't think "God-given talent" is just a verbal tic. The amazing potential of the universe is realized in strange ways, in strange people. I feel about Picasso pretty much the same way I feel about a glorious thunderstorm; they wreak havoc and can also amaze and delight us.

You know that I am a little weak on the concept of a unified self.

That's a really good point that a lot of art takes its power from its opposition to the cruel randomness of the universe. Some artists are particularly sensitive to this cruelty, including the young Eliot. Others are focused on the contrast, to the sense that "the sadness of life is the joy of art." And there is also art that draws its power from a protest against closer harms, the human crimes of politics and war and so on.

I'm not trying to brush off the horror of life, I'm just saying that is the world we live in. We should reduce the horror when we can. But we won't ever succeed in eliminating it, so in the long run the best way to fight despair is to celebrate the victories we can win, including those of art.