Even as recently as a few years ago, it was hard to imagine Kanye West without artists.
In 2019 alone, the rapper shot a film of himself performing in James Turrell’s Roden Crater and staged an opera with performance artist Vanessa Beecroft themed around the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. The year afterward, Arthur Jafa directed the music video for West’s song “Wash Us in the Blood,” pairing it with the same rapidly edited visuals seen in his films shown in galleries.
Now, it is difficult to conjure an art world that includes Kanye West at all.
Controversy has regularly followed West, who has previously stated that slavery was a choice, unsuccessfully campaigned as a candidate for President of the United States on a conservative platform, and denounced the Covid vaccine. But when West tweeted that he was going to go “death con 3” on Jews this past month, he seemed to have crossed the Rubicon.
In the past week, Adidas, Balenciaga, Gap, Foot Locker, and the agency CAA have all cut ties with West. So far, however, artists who’ve worked with him in the past have largely remained silent.
Emailed about the new antisemitism controversy, Beecroft responded almost immediately. “Let me check with Ye,” she wrote. Then she never followed up.
Representatives for Jafa and Turrell didn’t respond to request for comment.
George Condo, whose work featured on the cover of West’s celebrated 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, sent over a short statement that did not mention the rapper by name: “I have zero tolerance for anti-Semitic comments and for any hate speech from anyone that will cause further pain or anguish to the communities that have suffered the most.”
‘I’m Not Saying I’m da Vinci, But…’
Back in 2015, before his failed run for President and before the antisemitic comments, West declared himself similar to one of art history’s greats. “For all haters, I’m not saying I’m da Vinci, but I feel it’s right for any human being to compare themselves to anything,” he said.
Was West truly as good as Leonardo? For many, the artistry was there. In 2021, Pitchfork’s readers ranked My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as the third-best album of the past 25 years. Four songs by West appeared on a Rolling Stone list of the best 100 songs from the 2000s.
But for West, the obsession with Leonardo appears to have gone beyond egomania—it was a way of signaling that he transcended music altogether, that he was a true artist, one whose sounds shared something in common with the Mona Lisa. When he tweeted about his “favs,” the image he posted was not one of musical recordings but of art books—a Taschen mega-tome about Leonardo, the catalogue for James Turrell’s Guggenheim Museum retrospective, a survey of Matthew Barney, and Elizabeth Peyton’s work.
Throughout his career, West has surrounded himself with art. Takashi Murakami did the cover art for his 2007 album Graduation, one of many critically acclaimed LPs that West put out, and Steve McQueen did the 2016 music video for “All Day”/“I Feel Like That.” Vanessa Beecroft did several collaborations with West, including the famed 2016 one where stone-faced models stood around while the rapper debuted unfinished tracks from The Life of Pablo, and KAWS designed the cover art for the deluxe version of West’s 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak.
At times, West himself even invested in art. Last year, he reportedly dropped £1 million on a Damien Hirst sculpture that features a white dove encased in formaldehyde.
West was hardly the first rapper to cultivate the image of himself as an artist by way of comparison. Jay Z, for example, made waves with his song “Picasso Baby,” which he performed live alongside Marina Abramović at one point. But West’s art connections tended to feel different because he foregrounded them so heavily.
Critics also seemed to have bought what West was selling. For one polarizing piece about the music video for “Bound 2,” the Pulitzer Prize–winning critic Jerry Saltz went to bat for West, the artist. “Just as the Rodney King video included in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, ‘Bound 2’ should be in the upcoming one, representing a bend of cultural nature,” Saltz wrote.
Saltz went on to compare Kim Kardashian’s “nippleless boob” in the video to a Méret Oppenheim sculpture. Then he concluded, “West is part of some total merging of art with everything around it of art going viral—of more people wanting a bit of it in their lives. Regardless of their reasons.”
Keep Your Friends Close
It also seemed that every artist wanted a bit of West in their lives. By the mid-2010s, West’s coterie came to include artists who most have trouble accessing.
Turrell, the famously reclusive artist behind Roden Crater, once gave West a tour of his sculptures at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. From its official account, MASS MoCA tweeted a grainy picture of West and Turrell standing amid the latter’s room-size sculpture composed of magenta light that feels endless. “You finally got me here, bro,” West told Turrell.
Beecroft, a recurring West collaborator, had virtually disappeared from the art world when she first began working with the rapper in 2013, despite having shown with powerful dealers like Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian. When West married Kardashian in 2016, Beecroft was tasked with designing the set for the wedding.
The recent four-and-a-half-hour documentary jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, by the filmmaker Coodie, features a number of celebrity cameos—including one from Takashi Murakami, who appears in a sequence where West records the 2018 album Kids See Ghosts, a co-production with Kid Cudi. He wound up making the cover art for that record.
One could go on. There are numerous photographs of West hanging out with art types—my favorite, for the record, is one where he’s alongside Theaster Gates and Virgil Abloh—and many more examples of artists who are notoriously hard to reach working with West. What did these artists get from working with West, and why have so few been quick to denounce him?
It’s true that few of these artists seem to have future projects with West lined up. But it’s also true that none of these artists seem particularly eager to denounce West, as many others in different industries have.
Perhaps these artists fear reputational damage. Perhaps no one wants to be the first to go on the record. But maybe it’s also that the relationships between the rapper and these artists are simply too deeply entrenched to disentangle.
In the case of Beecroft, at least, she has been open about the merger of their personas. When she was profiled by the Cut in 2016, she alluded to as much when she said, “There is Vanessa Beecroft as a European white female, and then there is Vanessa Beecroft as Kanye, an African-American male.” The remark was one of several explicitly racist ones in the profile, and it drew widespread pushback. Beecroft and West continued working together anyway.
Artists are pals with West, and friends protect friends. It all recalls lyrics from West’s 2016 song “Wolves,” his most nakedly honest reckoning with his own bad behavior: “I’ve been too wild, I’ve been too wild / And I need you now.”
It’s on the artists who’ve worked with West to speak out about his antisemitism. They’ve reaped the benefits of being associated with him, and now, they must contend with his more recent comments. But what to do about art that invokes West and his music without being explicitly about him? The answers can quickly grow complicated.
Perhaps the most notable West-related work of all time is Arthur Jafa’s 2016 video Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death, which ARTnews previously ranked as the best artwork of the decade. A searing meditation on Black life and death in the U.S., it features as its soundtrack the West song “Ultralight Beam.”
Jafa has said he initially did not seek West’s permission before using the song, whose expansiveness dramatically enhances the video’s epic quality. He did, however, send West Love Is the Message, and West loved the video—so much so, apparently, that he invited Jafa to sit in on his recording sessions. Two years later, Jafa directed the music video for West’s “Wash Us in the Blood.”
Here’s a case where something that was never originally West-sanctioned became sucked into his orbit. The video wasn’t critical of West. It didn’t have to be—it was never really about him. But Love Is the Message still led to future collaborations with West anyway. Did something within it flatter West, even though the work wasn’t necessarily about him?
Guesswork is likely to get us only so far—poring over West’s words and actions is largely a lost cause because he has often been evasive and confusing on purpose. What is obvious, however, is that anything West-associated will now be placed under greater scrutiny, and that includes many beloved artists, among them Jafa.
These artists will have to contend with the timeworn debate about people with bad politics who create great art. No one has easy answers in that regard, and this may be the biggest reason why former West collaborators have remained so quiet: the concept of the genius, an unimpeachable master who creates truly awesome work, is hard to disentangle from art history, which is predicated upon it.
These ideas seemed to be in play for Jafa himself, who has spoken about “Ultralight Beam” in the same hyperbolic terms that music critics have. In a 2017 Interview conversation with Antwaun Sargent, he called the song “the first formal evolution of gospel music in about 100 years.”
Then Jafa seemed to allude to the growing awareness of West’s politics, which had led him to meet with Donald Trump about a month before the piece published. “Now, Kanye is a genius,” Jafa said, “but people just don’t like it because he calls himself a genius a little too often.”