So, Kanye West has become a Famous artist overnight? Props to him

Displayed in a gallery for two days, an automaton from the rapper’s latest video is suddenly a $4m collector’s item. Just don’t call the work on show a sculpture

Is it or is it not on sale for $4m? In case it’s not obvious, I’m talking about Kanye West’s “sculpture” Famous. According to which reports you believe, his lineup of lifelike, automated models of celebrities in bed together is either going for a lot of money, or was never up for grabs in the first place. Perhaps the “creator” himself can’t decide. That’s if Kanye moulded these figures. Did he really shape that silicone – or did he just pay for it?

Famous, originally made for the video of West’s song of the same name, has been exhibited in an “exclusive” two-day exhibition at the Los Angeles gallery, Blum and Poe – thus becoming art. Because it’s in a gallery, it has to be, right? Cue the inevitable speculation that art inspires in our lofty culture: how much is it worth? Remarkably, what little of the media coverage has asked is whether Famous is a work of art (let alone a good or bad one) or in what sense West is a visual artist.

See Kanye West’s sculpture in his video for Famous
(WARNING: explicit content)

The saga certainly points to the emptiness of art in our time, its complete lack of coherent critical values. West, it has been reported, based Famous on a painting by the hyperrealist painter Vincent Desiderio called Sleep. This debt is not concealed. Famous is described as a “homage” to Desiderio’s picture: the painter has said he’s moved and flattered. West even invited him to see the video and has made much of his other work.

So at least West is a step ahead of those contemporary art titans Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst who have both been accused of churlishly stealing ideas. This is moreof a “conversation”, as Desiderio put it. Sleep is a tacky painting and it has inspired a tacky sculpture. Except West didn’t exactly make it. He “charged” his team, as CNN tells the story, to create “anatomically correct” models of a range of celebrities including Donald Trump and his own wife Kim Kardashian.

From the world’s reaction to Famous, you’d think it was the first time anyone had ever exhibited lifelike models in an art gallery. Yet it’s surely obvious that in getting his team to turn Desiderio’s original image into a 3D hyperreal sculpture, West was following in the footsteps of figures like Ron Mueck and Duane Hanson, to name just two artists who have been creating eerily lifelike human figures for years.

A sculpture of a young boy by Ron Mueck, on show in Venice, 2001.
A sculpture of a young boy by Ron Mueck, on show in Venice, 2001. Photograph: Andrea Merola/epa/Corbis

Essentially, he was commissioning his people to reproduce a well-known contemporary art style. As for the rudeness of Famous, that too has plenty of precedent. The Los Angeles artist Paul McCarthy has already used George W Bush, who features in West’s Famous, in an obscene lifelike automated sculpture involving a pig. Other works that Famous echoes include Koons’s Made in Heaven sculptures and the perverse mannequins of Jake and Dinos Chapman.

So what is Famous, with its predictable and obvious pastiche of “controversial” contemporary art, really worth? And where does it rank as art? The answer should be obvious. Famous is not a sculpture. It is a movie prop. It has the same qualities as a parody of modern art made for a film ... or in this case a music video. As the French theorist Roland Barthes might say, it signifies art, full of allusion to what is thought today to be hip and sensational. It would fit well into a Hollywood film about the art world.

On those terms it works well but it has no real power or imagination as a work of art in its own right. It’s called Famous, and the way it is being reverently reported as if it really were an important work of modern American art reveals the power of fame in our time to destroy all values, all reality. The culture in which West’s video prop is taken seriously as a sculpture is absurd, bankrupt, risible.


Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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