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The art vs. exploitation controversy over Kanye West’s “Famous” video, explained

Kanye West and Kim Kardashian in "Famous."
“Kanye West” and “Kim Kardashian” in the visual.
Universal Musical Group International
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Note: This article contains multiple stills from "Famous," including some NSFW images.

On June 24, Kanye West released the controversial video for his controversial song "Famous." Actually, according to Kanye, he released the visual to "Famous," suggesting the videos that accompany his songs are more than music videos: They’re art.

Almost immediately, the internet was awash in both fawning praise and outraged critiques. Was the video, which features naked replicas of multiple celebrities asleep in bed together, tawdry trash? Was it 10 minutes of objectification, rape culture at its worst? Was the whole thing — both "Famous" and the album on which it appears, The Life of Pablo — an elaborate attempt at revenge on Taylor Swift, the latest escalation of a longstanding public feud? Or was it great pop art, cementing Kanye as this generation’s Andy Warhol?

Basically what the debate boils down to is this: Is the "Famous" video art, or is it exploitative? And if it’s both, which is more important?

Who is in the "Famous" video, and why?

It’s easy to see why "Famous" was met with such an immediate and intense reaction. The camera roves slowly up and down the bodies of the famous figures in their beds, lingering on identifiable features: Taylor Swift’s blond hair, Kim Kardashian’s famous rear, Rihanna’s pierced nipples, Chris Brown’s tattoos. (None of the celebrities, of course, are actually there. The general consensus is that the figures are silicon and wax models, perhaps with occasional body doubles present to provide naturalistic breathing.)

The final tableau of “Famous.”
The final tableau of "Famous."
Universal Music Group International

Until the final tableau the scene is dimly lit, possibly by flashlight, and the video is as grainy as a voyeuristic home movie. Halfway through its 10-minute running time, the track cuts out, and we’re left with about four minutes of footage of the sleeping celebrities, with no sound other than their quiet breathing and no action beyond the occasional heaving of a ribcage.

Finally the camera cuts to black and text appears, offering "special thanks" to every celebrity who appears for "being famous."

But they’re not just there because they’re famous. Everyone in the bed has a connection to Kanye.

Kanye made headlines earlier this year when he tweeted, "BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!" Caitlyn Jenner used to be married to his wife Kim’s mother. Amber Rose is Kanye's ex-girlfriend, and Ray J is Kim’s ex-boyfriend (and the one she made that infamous sex tape with).

Chris Brown collaborated with Kanye on "Waves," which appears with "Famous" on The Life of Pablo, and in 2014 it was widely reported that Kanye was jealous of a possible romantic past between Brown and Kim. Rihanna has collaborated frequently with Kanye, and her vocals are featured on "Famous"; last year the gossip press went wild after he advised her that she would be a fool to get back together with Brown.

Vogue editor Anna Wintour faced massive controversy in 2014 when she put Kim and Kanye on the cover of the magazine. Donald Trump has declared that Kanye "loves Trump" (Kanye has publicly attended multiple fundraisers in support of Hillary Clinton), and he shows up from time to time in Kanye’s lyrics.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Kanye said on national TV that "George Bush doesn’t care about black people," a moment that Bush has described as "one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency."

George W. Bush in Famous
"George W. Bush" in the video.
Universal Music Group International

And then, of course, there is Taylor Swift.

The "Famous" controversy starts with Taylor Swift

"Famous" was a pop culture headline well before the release of its video. When the song came out in February with the rest of The Life of Pablo, it launched a thousand think pieces on the line, "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex. / Why? I made that bitch famous."

Taylor Swift in Famous Universal Music Group International

It’s a reference to the infamous 2009 MTV Video Music Awards incident when Kanye rushed the stage as Taylor Swift accepted the award for Best Female Video, took away the microphone, and declared that Beyoncé should have won instead. But Kanye’s declaration that the incident made Swift famous is false — when it happened, she was already one of the biggest pop stars in the world.

Several weeks of very public back and forth ensued, in which Kanye contended that Swift had given the line her blessing and Swift’s team maintained that she most certainly had not. It culminated at the Grammys, when Swift accepted her second Album of the Year trophy in a tearful speech that encouraged "all the young women out there" to ignore those who "try to undercut your success or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame."

The fight encapsulates the core of the "Famous" debate. Swift’s position is that Kanye is exploiting her by referring to her as "that bitch" and taking credit for her fame — and, presumably, for depicting her naked, although she has not yet released an official statement on the video.

It is not necessarily a stretch. After all, Kanye is a grown man who publicly belittled a teenage girl’s accomplishments (Swift was just 19 at the 2009 VMAs), sparred with her publicly for several years, and finally released a video depicting her naked in bed with him, without her permission, just months after their latest public spat, in what feels uncomfortably close to a petty act of vengeance. So if you look at it and say, "Yes, that is exploitative," you’re not reaching.

But Kanye’s counterposition is that he is making art and his art is a comment on fame itself. That means the very public nature of his ongoing feud with Swift, and the way it is both fed by and itself feeds their respective fame, must inherently be the subject of his art.

Is "Famous" exploitative?

Swift is not the only figure in the video raising eyebrows. Many feminist commenters have taken issue with the presence of both Rihanna, cuddled against Chris Brown, and Amber Rose.

Rihanna next to Chris Brown in "Famous"
"Rihanna" next to "Chris Brown."
Universal Music Group International

In 2009, Brown pleaded guilty to assaulting Rihanna, whom he was dating at the time. Pictures of Rihanna with her face swollen and bruised from the assault circulated freely online. It’s nearly impossible to avoid remembering those photos when you see her likeness in "Famous" curled vulnerably and intimately around the likeness of the man who abused and beat her. It feels more than uncomfortable; it feels viscerally wrong.

Meanwhile, Kanye has talked about his disgust for his ex-girlfriend Amber Rose often and publicly since their split in 2008. Most infamously, he told an interviewer, "It's very hard for a woman to want to be with someone [who’s been] with Amber Rose. … I had to take 30 showers before I got with Kim."

"[A]fter all these years I never snitched on u and I don't plan on starting now," Rose responded on Twitter. "We once loved each other so I won't do u like that."

Amber Rose in Famous
"Amber Rose" in the video.
Universal Music Group International

So here’s a man who has said — in public, multiple times — that his ex is disgusting and somehow filthy, presumably because she has at some point in her life had sex. She has made it clear that she finds these statements hurtful and humiliating. Is it okay, then, for him to film voyeuristic footage of a replica of her naked body and broadcast it under the vague justification of "art"? When you tell a woman her body is disgusting, don’t you kind of close the door on then using images of her body for your own purposes, artistic or otherwise?

For that matter, isn’t there something uncomfortable about seeing replicas of all these famous women, naked and unconscious, spread across our screens without their permission?

Sure, there are men there, too, but their bodies aren’t exposed in the way the women’s are; there are plenty of tit shots but no dick shots. And our culture isn’t built on exploiting the naked bodies of famous men; rather, if the 2014 leak of nude photos of dozens of female celebrities proved anything, it’s that our culture loves to exploit the naked bodies of famous women.

The most prominent version of this critique came from Lena Dunham, the creator and star of the HBO series Girls. "Now I have to see the prone, unconscious, waxy bodies of famous women, twisted like they've been drugged and chucked aside at a rager?" she wrote on Facebook in response to "Famous."

As she points out, and as anyone who’s seen an episode of Girls can attest, she’s no stranger to the use of nudity in art — but nude scenes on Girls insist on the agency and subjectivity of everyone involved. "Famous," with its footage of passive, objectified bodies, does not. She writes:

Seeing a woman I love like Taylor Swift (fuck that one hurt to look at, I couldn't look), a woman I admire like Rihanna or Anna, reduced to a pair of waxy breasts made by some special effects guy in the Valley, it makes me feel 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.

The video, she concludes, is "informed and inspired by the aspects of our culture that make women feel unsafe even in their own beds, in their own bodies." It shows a kind of entitlement to the bodies of unconsenting women, a desire to reduce women to their bodies and then stare at them without their knowledge or permission. It is rape culture in video form.

But that’s just one reading of the video. The reading Kanye prefers is that it’s not exploitative — it’s art.

Exploitative or not, the bed tableau in the "Famous" video has many forerunners in Western art

“Sleep,” Vincent Desiderio
"Sleep," Vincent Desiderio, 2003–2008.
Courtesy of the artist and Marlborough Gallery

If the "Famous" video is art, there must be some kind of artistic justification for the half-naked bed tableau beyond cheap exploitation.

A good place to start looking for it might be in the history of bed tableaux and rows of bodies in Western art. Most immediately, the "Famous" video references Vincent Desiderio’s "Sleep," a monumental mural the artist painted from 2003 to 2008 that depicts a row of sleeping figures, half nude, tangled in sheets. Desiderio has been vocal about the influences he used to create "Sleep," and if we trace them we can see the image at the heart of "Famous" develop and mutate over time.

The earliest influence Desiderio can recall, he told the Virginia Quarterly Review, is van Eyck’s "Last Judgment" of 1430.

“The Last Judgment,” Jan Van Eyck. Wikimedia Commons / JarektUploadBot

"The Last Judgment," Jan van Eyck.

Specifically, Desiderio is talking about the rows of the damned at the bottom of the painting, beneath the skeleton. Their bodies are packed closely together, until they become just row after row of interlocking limbs, writhing in torment as they’re devoured by demons. They have sinned, and they are being punished. It’s nightmare fuel.

"Sleep" also references depictions of slaves being transported on ships. Desiderio doesn’t cite any particular image, but this one is more or less representative of most of them: human bodies packed together like cattle in cruel, cramped rows.

"Description of a slave ship," by an anonymous artist, 1786.
"Description of a slave ship," by an anonymous artist, 1786.
Wikimedia Commons / MarmadukePercy

"There being a link somehow between sleep and slavery," he told VQR, "and specifically privileged, pillowed, cushioned sleep — the culture asleep, enslaved, straining toward the liberation of wakefulness."

The third and final influence Desiderio cites is Jackson Pollock’s "Mural, 1943." The painting’s incoherent swirls are characteristic of Pollock’s abstract expressionism, but they give the impression of ranks upon ranks of figures, caught up in some energetic movement.

They’re not necessarily human figures — Pollock once described the work as "a stampede … [of] every animal in the American West, cows and horses and antelopes and buffaloes … charging across that goddamn surface" — but you get the same impression of row after row of flesh that you see in van Eyck and the slave ships.

'Jackson Pollock's Mural: Energy made Visible' Exhibition Preview In Berlin
Jackson Pollock’s "Mural, 1943," at an exhibition at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle.
Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images

And unlike the stern religious moralizing of "Last Judgment" or the moral outrage inherent to the slave ships, Pollock’s mural is free of judgment or moral concerns — which, Desiderio told VQR, was very appealing to him:

As much as I am drawn to images of the Last Judgment, I am myself not all that judgmental — I don’t like to think I am anyway — and with the Pollock, by contrast, you have this sublime evenness, all very muscular — this is still before the drips—that marvelous repetition of those strong vertical arabesques punctuating the lush all-overness of the whole, the sense that they could go on forever in either direction.

Out of these repeated images — limitless rows of flesh, bodies in pain, and bodies in exuberant motion — comes Desiderio’s "Sleep." It came to him, he says, when he was lying in bed recovering from cancer treatments:

I began being visited … by this image of a continuous band of sleepers. … I mean, it’s not all that mysterious how such a notion might have originated for me, all alone like that, feeling so terribly vulnerable and separated from the world of healthy people, this primitive longing for company, the fantasy affording me a sort of comfort. But rather quickly I began to turn the idea around in my mind, and it started filling up with more and more associations: almost like a pressure cooker, it began to effervesce.

The painting exists in what academics like to call a liminal space — that is to say a threshold space, where binaries collapse and ambiguities run rampant. It’s right on the border between sleep and wakefulness. And as it turns from the straightforwardly representational bodies at the top of the painting to the abstracted swirls of the sheets at the bottom, it’s on the border between figurative and abstract.

"At one level," Desiderio told VQR, "what you see before you here is just a normal mind relentlessly, maybe even a little obsessively, working on a normal dream, trying to replicate the luxury of deep sleep, deep surrender, pure reverie."

The bed tableau is also a staple of pop culture

But Kanye is not working purely in the realm of oil paintings and art that gets displayed in museums. His subject is fame and he’s working with pop culture, which means there’s another version of the bed tableau to consider: the magazine cover version, the version I like to call, "The Attractive Cast of This TV Show May Have Just Had an Orgy." It’s a favorite photo shoot convention of magazine editors across the land.

Almost every ensemble TV show you can think of from the past 20 years or so has done some version of this photo, but Gossip Girl which never missed a chance to remind everyone just how sexy and scandalous it was, especially in its early years — may be the champion of it.

The cast of Gossip Girl.
The cast of Gossip Girl in Rolling Stone.
Rolling Stone

The cast certainly had plenty of practice.

Gossip Girl
The cast of Gossip Girl, again.
New York Magazine

Truly, plenty.

The cast of Gossip Girl
The cast of Gossip Girl, again, on DVD art.
Warner Bros.

The pop culture bed tableau is aggressively sexed up, all half-lidded eyes and suggestively rumpled sheets. And unlike the tableaux above — where each figure is just a vague body, not an individual — its success depends on our knowledge of the figures it depicts. This is the cast of Gossip Girl, a show that is famously scandalous and sexy, looking at us in a scandalous and sexy way. The pop culture bed tableau does not work without fame.

"Famous" turns us all into van Eyck’s skeleton

So out of this stew of influences comes "Famous." It reimagines that liminal space of "Sleep," creating a dreamlike world between sleep and wakefulness, comfort and exploitation, vulnerability and voyeurism.

Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West in Famous
"Kanye" and "Kim" in the video.
Universal Music Group International

But unlike "Sleep," it’s not using anonymous bodies to create that space. It’s using the bodies of celebrities, and specifically celebrities whose relationships with Kanye have been discussed and dissected ad nauseam in the media.

Desiderio thinks the point of the "Famous" video is to wash away those layers of accreted cultural knowledge from their bodies. He told the New York Times:

The real subject of the video is that many of these people in the bed are repulsive. But everything about the video kept me at bay in regard to making a judgment on them. Every time I would think a thought like that, I would see them sleeping and vulnerable, like babies. We’re all the same. They’re just famous. … Art goes to dangerous places. … It’s horrible to look at, horrible to hear, but there’s also the kernel of salvation. That tension between those two things is where art functions.

So under this reading, when the track drops out halfway through and we’re left with nothing but these sleeping, famous bodies and the sounds of them breathing, we’re meant to forget that the nude replica of Rihanna is cuddling with a replica of her abuser, that the nude replica of Amber Rose is being filmed and broadcast by a man who has publicly and repeatedly called her disgusting, that the nude replica of Taylor Swift is being filmed and broadcast by the same man just months after his and Swift’s latest public feud. We’re meant to recall everything we know about these people, all the time we spend figuratively peering into their beds, our own voyeuristic desire to know everything about their lives — and then drop it.

We should be left with the understanding that underneath fame, there is nothing but bodies. Under this reading, we should simultaneously feel the desire to judge and the desire to absolve, like the skeleton in "Last Judgment," and the tension between these desires creates a threshold, the liminal space in which art lives.

Western art has a history of exploiting women’s bodies

Of course, "Famous" can be art and also be exploitative. These are not mutually exclusive terms. Western art is, in many ways, built on the exploitation of women’s bodies. The art that we celebrate as a culture, that we preserve in museums, is filled with beautiful, sensual, eroticized images of women being raped.

TItian, The Rape of Europa, 1560-1562.
TItian, "The Rape of Europa," 1560–1562.
Wikimedia Commons / Aavindraa

Writes art critic Griselda Pollock:

When we are trained by canonical art history, we sit through many a class showing images of the sexual abuse of women: the Rape of Lucretia, the Rape of Europa, the Rape of the Sabine Women. I always felt sure that this must be another kind of "rape" from that which I dreaded happening to me, that which friends had horrifically experienced. … Artistic rape is nice, a bit sexy, normal because men do desire women, especially when they sit about with their clothes falling off. But that is feminism for you: always so uncouth and insensitive to aesthetics, and, of course, always bringing things down to the personal level, not being able to keep things like art and society apart.

But in fact, the reverse is true. Art is where the meeting of the social and the subjective is rhetorically presented to us. It happens in ways which mystify that relation, giving canonical authority to a particular kind of experience of subjectivity and social power.

What Pollock is saying is that if art and society are inextricably linked — and if we’re considering the Kanye/Taylor feud to be part of an artistic statement, we have to believe they are — then it is not a neutral act to fill our museums with beautiful paintings of sexual abuse. If art and society are linked, then when we distribute nude photos of famous women without their consent, we’re participating in a long aesthetic history that eroticizes and celebrates women’s pain.

Titian’s "Rape of Europa" is astonishingly beautiful. It is also a painting that asks you to think of rape as sexy.

What separates art from revenge porn?

I’ve been wrestling with "Famous" ever since I first saw it. On the one hand, it’s my belief as a critic that any work of art that makes me dig this deep and work this hard is doing something right. On the other hand, I cannot shake the feeling that every time I look at the replicas of Taylor or Amber or Rihanna I am aiding someone else’s petty act of vengeance, that I am complicit in highbrow revenge porn.

Ultimately, I think it’s true that Kanye has created a work of art and that he’s participating in a long and meaningful artistic tradition. I also think it’s true that our culture is filled with artistic traditions that depend on the exploitation of women’s bodies, and "Famous" is not an exception. Both things can be true, even and especially in liminal space.

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