...and it seems pretty convincing.
8. I believe Kanye is doing a modern take on Beuys piece with the coyote. He’s embraced what might be considered the coyote of today. Gotten close to it. Trump, Candace Owens, Alt Right. Maybe he sees this as a better chance to “tame” the coyote than more traditional methods.
— Snowcone (@Snowcone965) May 2, 2018
He lays it out in reasonably convincing detail but the general thrust is: Andy Kaufman and Joseph Beuys, impersonation, dissimulation, reclaim the objectionable to steal its power, pranksterism, recognition, synthesis, etc.
(Or perhaps more concisely: Show business about show business by show business people who want to be better than show business.)
And really, this makes more sense than the original, more obvious notion that West went precisely so opposite-day cuckoo that he became an actual dyed-in-the-wool Trump person. Or the secondary assumption that he is attempting to curry favor with the orc army of Trump supporters who hate black people. We don't know what he's doing, or why. But anyone with even a sliver of liberal humanity knows it feels all wrong. Though it's not like KW hasn't used the old "performance art" canard to justify past antics.
HOWEVER, it's worth considering that the tradition of recontextualizing reality that West is meant to be drawing on isn't a consequence-free zone. I don't know a whole lot about Joseph Beuys, but I know that however dangerous it is to lock yourself in a room with a feral coyote, the stakes only apply to one homo sapien and one canis latrans.
I know a lot more about Andy Kaufman, and I believe the difference between what he did and what Kanye West may be doing has to do with the artist's relationship to messianism. The subject and the object of Kaufman's impersonations weren't so much Kaufman himself as a kind of Andy Kaufman of the mind; the target of his best stunts were ideas about celebrity, show business ego, the expectations an audience brings to bear on a performance, and ultimately, how tinny and ridiculous they all are.
It's significant that Kaufman—then a featured character on a low-rated sitcom and a too-smart-for-most-rooms stand-up comic—transformed himself into a heel character in wrestling, then a form of public entertainment only slightly more prestigious than professional bowling, the only venue in the world where he could claim to be Hollywood royalty. It's significant that his Tony Clifton disguise looked like something you'd find on the clearance rack at a dollar store and all his lines came out of dusty joke books. It's significant that when he favored a heavy drinking, out-for-a-good-time nightclub crowd with a reading from The Great Gatsby or an a cappella singalong of "99 Bottles of Beer," he committed fully, reading until the room cleared, singing all the way down to the last bottle of beer on the wall that happened to fall. (Rumor has it that after he got all the way to the end, a plant in the audience yelled "One more time!" and he launched back to the top of the song.)
It's also significant that he nearly wept when he "met" Howdy Doody, that he arranged for school buses to take his whole Carnegie Hall audience out for milk and cookies, that his Mighty Mouse theme song lip-sync was both freaky and adorable.
(Other significant mitigating factors to consider here: race, privilege, time, and how they all relate to the cultural veneration of the so-called "avant garde," obviously.)
Kaufman embraced the power of life-affirming, if-you-get-it-you-really-get-it absurdism in a way that's pretty hard to discern from West's recent affinity with the current president, his donning of the red Make America Great Again cap, his declaration that slavery sounds to him like a choice made by the slaves. Such attitudes are less absurd (which has a certain innocuous, partly surreal patina) than contemptible. And more to the point, contemptuous.
There's a good argument that any black person—especially a highly visible, much-respected artist—being seen to celebrate Trump in public is willing to risk all future credibility. It may become hard to hear "Black Skinhead," "Blood on the Leaves," or "New Slaves" without the power of the music feeling undermined by the offstage behavior of the musician. That's a risk he's allowed to take for himself—as Beuys and Kaufman and countless other artists have done before him.
But the Trump issue affects everyone.
If it really is all an act, the least worst thing you can say is that it's making light of issues that demand to be treated with gravity. And the worst worst thing? You'd have to consult article three, section three, clause one of the Constitution for that...
If these stunts are performance art, one hopes the payoff will be more interesting than "can you believe thee Kanye West did that?"
The smaller matter of evaluating the art project in progress, or at least its apparent intention, or at least the signaled intention you can extrapolate from what he's done so far (mostly tweets, one web TV appearance), and from other people's speculation about it (RAMPANT), et cetera, consists of trying to see a way this project is dedicated to any subject other than the further aggrandizement of Kanye West's cultural footprint, his embattled reputation as a genius.
But what is that word worth when the long-familiar noun form has degenerated into an adjective that people use to describe anything they momentarily enjoy? I recently overheard someone say "this salad is genius." But even more generally, as this fantastic Pitchfork piece points out very well, the concept of the art genius has probably outlived its usefulness.
Someone might want to tell Kanye West.
Another challenge is trying to imagine the point at which the persistent "what will he say next?" shtick will turn the corner and manifest its nature as art; whether it will locate or indeed even recognize the increasingly invisible line between courage and audacity; how it will be something more than garden variety malignant exhibitionism—which has already been established as the dominant art form of the age.
We even got a president out of it.