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Kanye West accepting his honorary degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (rendering by the author for Hyperallergic)

In a recent interview with the French design blog Clique, noted college dropout Kanye West claimed that he is “getting an honorary doctorate on May 5th from the Art Institute of Chicago.”

A spokesperson for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) — one of the top three art schools in the US, according to US News — would neither confirm nor deny that West will be given an honorary degree from the school, but did note that this spring’s graduation ceremony will take place on May 11, not May 5. The SAIC will announce later this week the honorary doctorate recipients and commencement speaker for the graduation ceremony.

While waiting for SAIC’s announcement and urging West to double-check his calendar, I highly recommend watching the video interview with Clique as it offers a rare, relatively unfiltered and unedited, 30-minute-long window into the rapper’s ideas about life, art, and commerce. It is replete with outlandish metaphors that go on for much, much too long, broad pronouncements on race and class, and leaps in logic and subject matter that help to clarify how he thinks. Hyperallergic watched the whole thing so you wouldn’t have to (even though you should), and extracted some teachable moments from the apparent doctor-to-be’s answers.

Dr. West explains racism using Lolcats:

Racism is a dated concept. It’s like a silly concept that people try to touch on to separate, to alienate, to pinpoint anything. It’s stupid. It’s like a bouncing ball in a room with two cats, when you don’t feel like playing with the cat, so you throw this bouncing ball and let them fight over the bouncing ball, and the bouncing ball has no purpose other than it bounces. That’s racism.

Dr. West on working with the system:

I don’t want to put the system down, or break a big corporation. I’d like to be able to be one with the system, to help more people. You need structure, you need support. I’d like to be able to work with the system to bring more beauty and truth to the world, and inspiration.

Dr. West explains his aspirations:

I don’t have any financial aspirations, any mogul aspirations, I just have people aspirations.

Dr. West on early childhood education:

I want to see, before I pass, five-year-olds being at 10 times the level of a current human five-year-old right now by removing all separatist concepts.

Dr. West on class, wolves, friend and collaborator Vanessa Beecroft, and the pursuit of happiness:

Class is what creates slavery in a way. I gave my daughter these toys, and I was complaining about some of the toys that my daughter had, like these toys don’t have enough quality, soul, life, energy in them. And then Vanessa Beecroft bought her these wolves that were very lifelike and had so much creativity put into the way they were made and when my daughter saw them she started screaming and running around. That was the happiest I’d ever seen her. It was three wolves. That level of joy, it feels like everything we’re doing in life we’re trying to get that moment back, that level of joy. You go through all this — you have a job, a girlfriend, a wife, kids, this, that, that, that, that. And you hop in your BMW and you wanna grab the wheel and feel like you’re gonna feel as happy as that day, but you don’t. And you realize that somehow joy had been stolen from you. Someone grabbed those wolves from you when you were really young and packaged them in all of the needs of society and said don’t open for another 20 years. And when you finally get back to those wolves, it costs so much to open them up. You have to pay all your college loans off, you have to pay all your debts to society, this, this, this, and this, to finally open that wolf package back up again. And it just doesn’t feel like the same amount of joy that my daughter had at that point.

Dr. West on award shows:

I think there should be award shows for the Nobel Peace Prize, but I guess they just don’t sell enough ad time, they don’t sell as much ad time as pop stars, it’s as simple as that.

Dr. West on the stigma against pop culture:

I think the thought was that everything popular was very basic, and not complex. And, you know, the negative connotation of commercial. So as soon as you’re commercial you don’t have the complexity of a Bach, a Mozart, or a Basquiat. And if you say out loud as a commercial person that you are in the same breath as Basquiat then everyone looks at you like you’re an egomaniac or something. But then you say, wait a second, you know I was a gifted artist since age five, and like on national competitions and went to art school — I’m actually getting an honorary doctorate on May 5th from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Dr. West on education and proportions:

Education is the power. I think that in schools you know beauty needs to be understood. Of course we can learn about Picasso, but we also need to learn about proportions. Proportion is the luxury. Everything is inside of proportions. Proportions are so important that in ancient times they would hide the information of proportions and now it’s happening again.

Dr. West on straddling disciplines:

I don’t care about what anyone in fashion has to say about what I want to do. I’m here in fashion to learn sensibility. I want to create something comparable to what Walt Disney did, but then mix it with what Henry Ford did, mix it with what Howard Hughes did, mix it with what [former National Basketball Association commissioner] David Stern did. The way I’m talking about these industries and these cultural revolutions and innovations and the way that Steve [Jobs] put all that into a phone, it’s possible.

Dr. West on the difficulty of shopping in luxury stores:

Every one of these shopping experiences are so different. And especially when I was young I was really scared to walk into luxury stores, it’s very non-inviting. And it’s very expensive, and like fuck if you’re not knowledgeable you can make a very expensive mistake. It’s bordering on like getting a prostitute pregnant or something like that, an expensive mistake like that.

Update, 3/18: The SAIC confirmed today that Kanye West, along with gallerist Rhona Hoffman, artist Janet Neiman, Art Institute of Chicago (the school’s namesake museum) director and president Douglas Druick, and German artist Albert Oehlen, will receive all receive honorary doctorates at the school’s May 11 commencement ceremony. Oehlen will be the commencement speaker.

In its announcement, the SAIC called West

a leader in the music industry as a Grammy Award-winning recording artist and producer, as well as a fashion designer and interdisciplinary artist whose work provokes cultural discourse by reflecting a realism of the street. He is an advocate for education, and a thinker and maker who often uses his work — his lyrics, videos, performances, and fashion designs — to deconstruct stereotypes and spur cultural discourse on important social issues. West’s work, like much of hip-hop, is meant to startle us out of our complacency, and this is the role of art.

Watch the whole Clique interview below:

Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...

44 replies on “Is the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Really Giving Kanye West an Honorary Doctorate? [UPDATED]”

  1. I guess the art world cred Kanye has been trying to build by having famous artists do his album covers is finally paying off.

    Kanye is the Julian Schnabel of pop music. Mostly successful because the right people believed the hype he spewed about the genius of his actually mediocre work. Neither will be remembered as much of a real influence once they have peaked.

    1. His early work in music is by far more than mediocre and your saying otherwise is just proof you only really know about his news that hits the surface and pop culture relevance. Inform yourself some. He’s actually quite the artist in many respects, just not as many as he thinks

      1. The idea that you actually consider a guy who spews mediocre lyrics over worn out beats and plays no actual instrument of any kind nor does he sing, an artist, speaks volumes about you! He is a gifted entertainer. true ART has NOTHING to do with anything that he does. The idea that he even mentions Bach, Mozart or Basquiat is a joke! Too effing funny! It also shows that true “Art” doesn’t exist in this misspent generation of talentless drones and their equally tasteless audience of admirers!

        1. The fact that you think you are an authority on what’s considered art in any comparison to the people that approved of him, like his many collaborators to legends like Lou Reed, is laughable. You lack information and character. You know nothing and need to learn to respect opinions before spouting nonsense when someone else is making change. Bitter bitch.

  2. I hope for the sake of honest SAIC degree holders who are paying for their degrees so as to play with their wolves later that this doesn’t happen.

    1. I would like to see a greater distinction being made between entertainers and artists. A schmuck putting out rap records does not an artist make.

  3. Well, while Kanye is double-checking his calendar, perhaps Benjamin Sutton could double-check his white privilege. The audacity of hyperallergic to publish this blatantly racist garbage is just absurd. The idea that a black man, an oppressed minority who was subjected to a history of brutal slavery, is undeserving of a college level education is just disgusting. What year is this? 2015? I thought the political color of this website was different, apparently not. Apparently the only color that matters here is white. Let’s examine a quote from this article, shall we?

    “It is replete with outlandish metaphors that go on for much, much too
    long, broad pronouncements on race and class, and leaps in logic and
    subject matter that help to clarify how he thinks.”

    The idea that a black man can’t express his opinions in public on the subjects of race and class are purely bred out of white supremacy. Of course, the extension of this phrase suggests that black men lack the ability to use logic and lack clarity in their thoughts. This is pure hatred. I can’t believe what I’m reading. Hrag, do you have an explanation for this? How did this get past an editor?

    Also, what’s with the photoshopped image of Kanye holding a college degree? Is this suppose to be funny?

    1. To be fair to Hyperallergic, I really don’t believe they have a problem with a black man – or, indeed, black men and women generally – getting a college-level education. Nope. I think it’s the specific individual who goes by the name of Kanye West that’s the problem. And he rather does appear to be, on this occasion at least, somewhat incoherent. Giving space to powerful men to air their views simply because they hold power, and not because they have anything of interest to say, that too might be a bit problematic.

      1. Not sure if I want to get into the merits of Kanye’s artistic practice, I just don’t want to distract from the main points in which I raised.

        As a bridge between these subjects we can talk about the image provided in this piece. Notice how Kanye is wearing purplish colors? This is his expression into how much of a royal figure he is, it’s a sign of pride, one that he wants the audience to be a part of. I’m not so sure Benjamin noticed this, perhaps I’m wrong but to take a source of pride from a black man and then go on to denigrate his character by suggesting that he is uneducated with this photoshopped degree is pretty insulting. The subject of Kanye’s merit for this degree encompasses a large dialogue, but with this single image I think we can get a general sense of his visual literacy and self expression through this language, without digressing into his larger body of work.

        I’m not necessarily trolling, I do sincerely believe that the subject of a black man and post-secondary education is a very touchy issue. College is the gate into economic access, something that favours certain bodies of a populous more so than others. I might have been a little overboard with my comments in respect to Benjamin, however i still maintain that a privileged white male such as himself should be respectful of the larger political issues that this seemingly quaint degree holds.

        Also, I wouldn’t call myself a longtime commenter. I think this my 6th or so article on hyperallergic in which I have joined the discussion in the comment thread. Hopefully I’ll be around for many more 🙂

          1. I could, certainly, but I don’t consider it my job. It’s not how much he does or does not deserve this, it’s about the political dimensions of black people in respect to education with regard to white privilege. To digress into his artistic practice would be to get off topic on the subject into which I was trying to raise.

        1. Haven’t you ever seen the movie CB4? Same idea. Kanye is not an underprivileged person. Troll indeed.

      2. Hrag, please consider the following introductory points before I mention the projects below. To begin, SAIC has a writing department. Yes, hip-hop/pop is not merely writing, but it’s pretty close. Furthermore, he is getting the degree because of his vision and progressing the cultural landscape, not only because of particular projects. I could be wrong, but had (and i understand not doing so) the author of this article taken the time to analyze Kanye’s greatest works with the same scholarly rigor and knowledge of the field (hip-hop/pop, music, history of hip-hop) and care as he would take to analyze a contemporary painting, sculpture whatever, (or not contemporary) I bet he would not come to the same conclusions.

        Second, the author aims to discredit Kanye because of a silly interview where Kanye is indeed speaking incoherently and making little sense. Since when does speaking consciously and academically about one’s work proof of the artist’s merit, or even the responsibility of the artist? Art is fundamentally very irrational, and one cannot possibly be completely conscious of one’s art process and creation. You can’t NECESSARILY appeal to the author for explanation. Look how bob Dylan or warhol answered to the media. In these interviews kanye is just having fun and in his own head. He even made a song about this and how wrongly he’s portrayed by media on his 2007 mix-tape titled Can’t Tell Me Nothing, the lovely track titled “Young Folks” and “Interviews.” Personally, i don’t care much for what kanye says or who he is when he’s dumb-high on life, fame, creativity or whatever else. I care mostly about his music. An artist can attempt, but need not be capable to speak on and EXPLAIN his artwork. This is impossible. A painting is nothing but a painting and can never be translated into English language. Likewise, music is music and is not english language. Music is kanye’s first language, not the language of academia. Especially in hip-hop which comes from a history of rebellion against “the man,” professionalism/academia, and the established accepted structure (think whites). It uses words that AIM to exclude white upper classes. That’s why rappers use slang that is intended to be misunderstood or confusing to the professional/academic white reader/listener. Kanye is not merely a rapper/singer; he is a talented producer, arguably doing that better than rapping.

        Kanye is the man responsible for “Jesus Walks.” There is a good introductory analysis on wikipedia to the song, (scroll to “Composition” and “Critical Reception” sections) it’s samples, influences, significance and meaning. Also, a descent explanation on genius.com. I bet the author didn’t really know that West used samples from Addicts Rehabilitation Center choir, or the reference to Wyclef Jean’s Gone till November in Jesus Walks. To go deeper, I wonder what the author’s critical take is on the use of auto-tune in this song or it’s significance to the state of rap circa 2004? Kanye need not make anything besides this song to prove his artistic worth. One masterpiece is enough for one person. YET, he does have more great songs and albums. “Blame Game,” College Dropout, MBDTF, for starters, not to mention his verses on other artist’s tracks. Not everything he makes is golden, but people latch on to his “worst.”

        There is a yearly EMP Pop Conference and i bet his name is the topic of much critical “academic” lectures, panels, debates which are presented by scholars from that field who are better capable of explaining his work and current issues in pop music. You can get a sense into the deeper critical issues in hip-hop and this discipline. There is also a hip-hop class at UCLA i believe. first class free online which is a good intro to hip-hop.

        1. Theoretical criticism, the lingua franca of the world we’re discussing here, can put him in the same camp as Mozart and Warhol, and that would be fine with me, because you can build a critical case for anything. Somewhere, there’s a Doctoral Dissertation on Kenny Rogers. It almost feels like someone said “Kanye West! He used to live here!” in a nominating committee at some point, and was answered with “Seriously? Make the case” and it’s the case that’s getting the Doctorate.

          1. Does it matter how he was chosen? he’s an exemplary artist who relates more to my generation’s culture and ethos than just about any other candidate.

    2. No, it would be just as upsetting if they gave Charlie Sheen an honorary degree. It’s an honorary degree not a college education.

  4. Brown University honored Dr. Stevie Wonder at graduation once. What other universities? All the boundaries of culture blur.

  5. Finished my MA at SAIC last year—considering that they’re currently approaching their 150-year anniversary…I’m guessing they’ll do anything to get some attention. Kanye has been “interdisciplinarity” at its best.
    However, as an alumnus, I *really* hope he begins receiving phone calls from Alumni Relations asking for donations. It’s only fair.

  6. Honorary degrees mean nothing. This is not a story nor is it when thousands of other people get honorary degrees from whatever school it is. It’s like getting a key to the city or winning the worlds greatest dad award. To earnestly talk about whether he deserves it or not is besides the point because it’s meaningless. Bill Cosby has 16 honorary doctorates.

    1. are you sure? 16? wow. OK then, you are right, the honorary degree is meaningless. except to people who don’t know it’s meaningless ; )

      OMG i looked it up. it’s actually 17 honorary doctorates!!!

    2. Thank you! People confuse honorary degrees with academic ones. They are not the same. You can legally donate $89 to an organization called LADC Institute in California, and get an honorary doctorate in one week. It really doesn’t mean much anymore.

  7. And the Clique interviewer never challenged any of these self serving statements? Proportion being hidden…what?

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