Dr. West’s Lesson

Kanye West’s first act as a Doctor of the Fine Arts was to clear the plexiglass podium of a clutter of water-bottles. His first words were, “I’m sorry that was just my opinion.” It seemed strange, a bit obsessive-compulsive. Louis Sullivan’s grand Auditorium Theatre stage was full of distinguished academic doctors in colorful capes and velvet tams, the kind of medieval pageantry that one may only see nowadays at a horserace in Siena or at the election of a new pope. The President of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago Walter Massey had just summoned Kanye to receive his honorary doctorate. And here was enfant terrible of hip-hop tidying up and apologizing, although one had to admit that the stage now appeared much more sightly.

Kanye explained: “I am a pop artist. So my medium is public opinion, and the world is my canvas. ‘I’m sorry’ is something you can use a lot. It gives you the opportunity to give your opinion, apologize for it, and give your opinion again.” Kanye isn’t just a neat-freak, he is a performance artist. He was offering a simple example of what it meant to make a space better. It had been a very public space and so his actions perhaps called for an apology. Then he said: “George Bush has some very cool self-portraits.” There were ready titters in the crowd of graduating art students merely at the mention of George Bush, but Kanye seemed sincere. Was this Kanye’s way of saying he is sorry for his infamous remark after Hurricane Katrina that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people?”  In his memoirs, Bush recalled Kanye’s public accusation as one of the most infuriating moments of his presidency, and Kanye had since apologized.

It was strange to see Kanye West up at the podium. I had just seen him at the Bulls game the night before, welcoming the crowd, rapping at the first intermission, sitting next to Scottie Pippin. You expect to see Yeezus at the United Center. Now here he was speaking haltingly, confessing that he felt nervous, that he felt humbled by the honor, felt “humanized,” but also that he knew he had to rid himself of these feelings. He seemed to gain confidence from his confession as well as from his public resolution to recover his nerve. Now that he had his doctorate, he explained, things would be “easier.” He was speaking to his audience as his fans. His degree would make it easier because his fans wouldn’t have to work so hard to defend him. He also spoke to his audience as fellow degree holders, as fellow artists: when he makes great art now, he will be doing so with an art school degree, and so he will open new creative opportunities for his fellow students of the arts. Kanye sees his degree, along with other public accolades, as “Floyd Mayweather Belts.” (He is a pop artist in the art criticism sense; sports and advertising are to Kanye — “She’ll do anything for klondike” “Since O.J. wore Isotoners,” — what product packaging and news clips were to Warhol.) Having his degree would now allow him to give his opinion (for which, he admits, he might later need to apologize).

Kanye ended his remarks with “thank you” and walked away, forgetting his diploma. President Massey had to chase after him, calling “Dr. West,” don’t forget this! Kanye after all has always known what a degree is worth: it can open doors, it can get you entry into another arena of public opinion. But there is where the real bouts are fought: offering “opinions,” apologies, defenses, and counter-opinions. Speaking with SAIC students the day before, Kanye offered some other lessons. He said, “The responsibility of the artist is to get away with anything you can.” Give your opinions, don’t ask permission, and, if you have to, say sorry later. This isn’t always easy. But with such great responsibility, Kanye said, there also are rewards: “The privilege of art is to express exactly what you feel.” Fellow artist George W. Bush interestingly takes a trick from Kanye’s playbook. When asked about those “cool self-portraits” that Kanye praised — revealing semi-nudes set in the shower and bathtub — the president apologized: “I wanted to kind of shock my instructor.”

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