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Kanye West Famous Video SFW
Still from Kanye West’s ‘Famous’ video

‘Famous’ – artistic genius or commercial exploitation?

Kanye West’s controversial new video has divided fans and critics for its disturbing camerawork and depiction of nonconsensual nudity

Last week, Kanye West one-upped himself once again with the release of his “Famous” video. The clip, filmed on a grainy night-vision camera that roams voyeuristically over waxwork bodies, depicts 12 of the world’s most recognisable faces in bed together. They’re all naked, their limbs barely covered by a gargantuan white sheet. On the left-hand side we see Donald Trump intermingled with a comatose Anna Wintour. Next to them is Rihanna, who lies next to her abuser Chris Brown. Even Ray-J, who famously filmed a sex tape with West’s wife Kim Kardashian, makes the cut. Vincent Desiderio, the artist whose “Sleep” painting inspired the visuals, called it “brilliant and daring”. Lena Dunham, on the other hand, branded it “sickening”. Is this art – or is it exploitation?

There are scores of critics willing to argue the former. Paper magazine labelled it “unsettling and brilliant”, Vanity Fair called it “his most thought-provoking work yet”, and The Verge described the video as a “spectacularly bizarre and enthralling experience”. Incidentally, the most positive review of the work comes from Vincent Desiderio himself, an artist clearly thrilled that his original haunting tableau had provided a source of inspiration. In an article published by W Magazine, Desiderio gushed that the visuals were an “extraordinary gift”, unprecedented proof of “the power of the artistic imagination to transcend categorical expectations”.

What’s indisputable is that the “Famous” clip is a powerful reflection on the nature of fame. All of us are voyeurs; we’ve seen these celebrities eat, sleep, fuck and fail. The camerawork represents this relentless, invasive fascination with celebrity identity. The footage lingers over every inch of simulated famous flesh, mimicking the ways in which we – and, by this, I mean individuals and media outlets – scrupulously dissect the lives and personalities of their IRL counterparts. There’s something disturbingly seedy about the video set-up, and there’s something even more disturbing about viewer reactions. As an audience, we don’t shy away from gazing at these unconscious bodies; instead, the video and its slow close-ups leave us entranced.

What’s indisputable is that the ‘Famous’ clip is a powerful reflection on the nature of fame. All of us are voyeurs; we’ve seen these celebrities eat, sleep, fuck and fail

The most passionate response to the video so far came courtesy of Lena Dunham, who claimed in a now-viral Facebook post that she felt “sad and unsafe and worried for the teenage girls who watch this and may not understand that grainy roving camera as the stuff of snuff films”. This is a powerful statement – to compare the video to pornographic content in which women are deliberately murdered may initially seem a stretch, but there is a sinister element to the footage that implies interference from a third-party. The difference is that we’re the third party – we all take the role of the cameraman prowling hungrily over these bodies.

West claims that he deliberately removed any trace of overt sexual connotation from the clip; his efforts, however, don’t stop this clip from appearing worryingly intrusive. These detailed waxworks have still been purpose-built, created by sculptors that no doubt scoured photos to ensure every inch of these naked likenesses was as realistic and detailed as possible. Their state of consciousness is ambiguous – are they asleep, comatose or unconscious? Dunham argued that these were the “prone, unconscious, waxy bodies of famous women, twisted like they’ve been drugged and chucked aside at a rager”.

Her words have particular resonance when considered in the context of the song’s most controversial line – “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / why? I made that bitch famous”. The lyric is a direct reference to the infamous 2009 VMAs incident, when West stormed the stage to argue Beyoncé as a more worthy award recipient than Taylor Swift, snatching the award from her hands. Naturally, relations between the two have been turbulent ever since, and conflicting rumours continue to swirl as to whether or not Swift initially approved the lyric. Regardless of context, the lyrics taken at base level are undoubtedly misogynistic; he strips the star of context and reduces her to nothing more a sexual object and detracts from her own monumental achievements by arguing his stage invasion was the sole reason she was catapulted to fame. It wasn’t – it was her 2008 album Fearless, which sold close to 600,000 copies in its opening week and went on to sell over 7,000,000 copies in America alone.

There are two crucial differences between Desiderio’s Sleep and West’s ‘Famous’ – context and consent

There are two crucial differences between Desiderio’s Sleep and West’s “Famous” – context and consent. The slumbering figures depicted in Desiderio’s original tableau are either fictional or anonymous; by contrast, the naked figures that appear side-by-side in West’s video are a handful of the world’s most famous faces recreated largely without consent. West has argued he was neither for or against the personalities chosen; that they were chosen without bias to simply become parts of a larger cultural puzzle. But Amber Rose must surely be there for a reason? West famously claimed he had to “take 30 showers” after being with her and has goaded her repeatedly for her stripper past. His views towards her have been misogynistic, hurtful and, ultimately, hypocritical – he’s quick to criticise her sexuality in the context of her past, yet quick to exploit her naked sexuality in his own artistic statement. Even Rihanna, one of the world’s most famous and successful stars, is once again framed as a ‘victim’ when lying next to Chris Brown. The reference to her attack is questionable; much like West removes Swift from the context of her success, he also places Rihanna in the context of her attack as opposed to her artistry.

Her inclusion alone substantiates Dunham’s accusation that the clip is misogynistic – her likeness has been stripped bare and plastered on screens worldwide without her consent. Swift is also rumoured to be horrified by the clip – this is just days after her legal representative released a statement claiming she was humiliated by the song’s initial lyric. Art is supposed to be controversial. Dunham acknowledged this herself, explaining that “art’s job is to make us think in ways that aren’t always tidy or comfortable. But this feels different.” She’s right – art is supposed to be controversial, but it’s also supposed to be consensual and not communicate its message at the expense of others.