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Kanye West received his honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) yesterday. The night before, he gave a talk at the school that began as a question-and-answer session but devolved, quite wonderfully, into a rambling, free-associative lecture. Along the way, Dr. West compared music to drugs, discussed his process for designing clothes (his new “obsession”), dropped a lot of names, and revealed a number of things about himself, including that he has synesthesia and Matthew Barney is his favorite artist. He managed to sound both grounded and hyperbolic, and he spoke both wisely and a little absurdly about what it means to be an artist. The whole thing is online thanks to Complex mag, but here are some of our favorite moments.
Appreciating the audience and the SAIC degree:
It’s moments like this that make the fight so worth it, to know that there are people who appreciate how hard it is to be an artist in an industrialized, commercial world.
In response to a question about being stereotyped as a hip-hop artist:
A lot of times I’ve been able to work with the most amazing people on the planet because I was considered not to be a threat to what they do. Because I was considered to be a hip-hop artist. So it allowed me to work with a Murakami, or a Condo, or Riccardo Tisci, or Spike Jonze, or Spike Lee — all these different fields, that so-called box allowed there to be a level of … like a marriage or something, like working with people that are married, because these people are willing to be controlled and compromise. Actually, I use that little box and that stereotype to my advantage, to be able to just kinda put my hoodie on and be able to collaborate as much as possible.
On his fashion design:
We want to invent. We want to contribute something. We don’t want to just capitalize off of what happened in the past. We don’t want to just do our version of a polo collared shirt and put our logo on it. We want to contribute, we wanna think about what society needs, what people need right now, and how can we provide it to them at a price that’s … realistic.
On a Le Corbusier lamp that he bought:
It was dumb expensive; it was like $110,000. And it was very inspiring to me … not just because it was expensive, but more for the fact that it was free when it was first made. And it costs a lot because it’s a statement now of class for these french gallerists, to charge rich people more. Which I thought was really interesting as the world becomes less racist that there’s still a really big class war. There’s a real separation of the classes and the masses. And Corbusier gave the people higher ceilings, literally and metaphorically. And I remember at that time I was going through leaving Nike and going to Adidas. And I was also dealing with trying to get a deal with a luxury house because I wanted to paint. But I wanted to paint with musical art — sculptures equal clothing. Clothing is a form of musical art. And I would look at that lamp that was made of rocks and cement, but the shape was so beautiful, and it wasn’t even made of marble … When I look at that Corbusier lamp and think, ‘he made this and he put this lamp in zoos so everyone could have it.’ It was about everyone having the opportunity to have beauty, to be inspired.
On the divisions between the arts:
I wanted to talk about this barrier between art, music, and fashion. Because as you know, with the class system, you know who’s the highest, of course? Art. Art’s considered to be the highest on the class system of creatives. Somehow even above a director. You know, they can’t even be mention in the same breath as that. I was on the phone with Steve McQueen one time, he said, ‘I’m not a photographer!’ ‘OK, but you use a camera, Steve.’ … The best thing I thought about Steve McQueen winning the Oscar wasn’t, as some people have told me, ‘He is the first African American Oscar winner.’ He’s not American, bro! The best thing about Steve winning that Oscar was the fact that he was able to be excellent at two disciplines. Absolutely excellent at two disciplines.
On the responsibility and privilege of artists:
I think the responsibility we have as artists — and I will mention myself in the same breath as you because on Tues i will have a doctorate [applause] — but I feel, [in] our time as artists, our responsibility was to the truth. Cause how else could history be documented? How else could our time be represented, this time that we had? Who’s gonna stand there and say how it really is right now? Who’s gonna express that? There was a time when hip-hop expressed that. It doesn’t anymore, in my opinion … When I would sit with Farrakhan, he would stress that responsibility of the truth — the truth no matter what. When I would sit with Steve McQueen, he would express that responsibility of the truth — the truth no matter what.
Matthew Barney’s my favorite artist. That is my truth. And when I go and see a five-hour piece, I just felt like he didn’t hold back from what was in his history. I felt like he expressed exactly the way he saw it, and that’s also the … privilege of art, is to express exactly what you feel and to never lose that. Every opportunity that I get, every expanded opportunity to paint, I feel like I’m getting younger and younger and younger. The idea of becoming an adult is the idea of conforming and compromising. My daughter, I know she goes to sleep and she dreams this whole plan about how she’s gonna get away with whatever she can possible by the time she wakes up. And I think that that’s also the responsibility of artists, to try to get away with whatever you can. Because everyone’s compromising. Everyone is placing themselves in a social debt based on how big their house is and how fast their car is and how fast the car is next door to them. They’re losing their art, they’re losing their passion, they’re losing their purpose. It’s like the whole world is based on showing how much you have or posturing that way. I went into debt to chase my dreams. I went into debt when no one wanted a straight black American entertainer to design a dress.
Art means something. Fonts — see, I get emotional over fonts. Spacing. Proportion.
On the different skill sets that people have:
I wouldn’t even try to — you know, at this point in my life — to curate a biennale.
Presenting an idea he’s had, while wandering around Art Basel and the Venice Biennale:
I want Bob Iger, the head of Disney, to invest in my ideas. In fact … one of my ideas is … I love Walt Disney … I feel Disney should have an art fund that completely supports all of the arts. And I feel that there should be a responsibility, recruiters, constantly looking for new thinkers and connecting them directly to companies that already work. Why does the person who has the most genius idea or cultural understanding or can create the best art have to figure out how to become a businessman in order to become successful at expressing himself? I think it’s important for anyone that’s in power to empower.
And finally, two different versions of Dr. West’s unified theory, offered at different points throughout the talk:
Everything is art. We’re all a big part of one giant movie, one giant painting.
These random ideas, they all make up a point.