Last night I sat up and watched the Kanye West BBC interview that seemed to have caused a little stir on the Internet this past week or so… I am a little bit behind on my pop culture news so I’m not sure of all the discourses happening around the interview, but most of the things that I had seen concentrated on the implications of his views on race. I’d like to concentrate on what I see as his underlying point, a perhaps not-fully realized idea that seems to frustrate him deeply, especially in his inability to communicate it to the interviewer. For his final point in the interview, he basically comes to make lucidly self-aware analysis of the commodity fetish (Skip to 16:43):
And here comes another post where I use basic Marxist theory to analyze the contemporary music industry and popular culture!
I couldn’t find anything that has already been written that made the connection between Karl and the Kanye interview. There was this post on a college class’s group website – which shows that Kanye has been engaging with these ideas for a long time – and I did find a few tweets, but I couldn’t imagine that any mainstream press were doing Marxist analysis of American pop culture these days (if so, please point me in their direction!)
The reason why I find this whole thing so fascinating is that I’m not sure if Kanye West, or any of his close associates (what up Virgil!) have ever read Captial, or if they’re even aware that he’s approaching a specifically Marxist critique of Capitalism in many of his latest interviews. I can speculate that with all their current European explorations, they’ve run into some kind of Marxist philosophy, even while the engage with the upper echelon of the Capitalist design machine. But it fascinates me that he’s approximating to some of the same points as a 200 year-old German philosopher, via the commercial rap industry.
Karl Marx defines commodity fetishism in Capital Vol. 1:
A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it, whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it is capable of satisfying human wants, or from the point that those properties are the product of human labour. It is as clear as noon-day, that man, by his industry, changes the forms of the materials furnished by Nature, in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than “table-turning” ever was…
A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.
This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.
Basically, what Kanye is seeing and trying to point out is that “products” are tied up with and contain the social context in which they are produced. From what I understand of the interview, he aims to dismantle the structural inequalities he’s come across in his career as a “creative” by taking control of the point of creation, means of production, and probably modes of distribution.
Kanye’s analysis surprises and excites me, mostly because I was initially skeptical of the Yeezus album. Not because of the music (which I loved – and thought was a decent commercial representation of the creative energy existing within contemporary New York – especially the queer party scene), not because of the content (even the exaggerated misogyny I imagine was a tool used to critique), but more because I was worried that while Kanye engaged in a critique of hyper-Capitalism from the vantage point of just beneath the “glass-ceiling”, he wasn’t really understanding that he was still fully engaged in the process of Capitalist mystification, or the creation of a commodity to be fetishized. Not that fighting the system from within the system is an easy task. His platform as a producer and rapper has put him in the place where he’s able to be heard, so it would be really hard for him to break down the same system that puts him in the place to be influential enough to question it. It’s one of the fundamental paradoxes of any artist in today’s contemporary digital, hyper-communicated era.
The Russian artists during the early-twentieth century revolutions believed that real revolutionary art educated the masses in the process behind the creation of the product, to demystify the production process, and break the cult of the commodity fetish. This is the kind of self-awareness that I want from my revolutionary products, and something that Kanye has eventually been able to do via interviews. For example, through speaking about the album, he’s been able to reveal that he worked with an assembly line of talent from both mainstream and the underground. However, for Kanye’s music, especially the Yeezus album, this demystification is not embedded in the product itself, and the consumer can choose to just ignore the interviews, or perhaps what Kanye’s saying really is just going over a lot of people’s heads. So therefore it is not a revolutionary product in itself (I don’t think Kanye would disagree – in the interview he seems disillusioned, even bored by music at the moment, mostly focused on the revolutionary potential of product design.)
I’ve recently come across some interesting alternatives to the current system of Capitalist art production and distribution that intrigue me as an artist, and resonate with me after watching the interview. They are based on speculation, but ideas worth exploring regardless. At best they could even provide a guide for creatives (like Kanye), who are wrestling with these issues.
Even though Kanye doesn’t specifically arrive at a critique of the exploitation of labor in a creative Capitalist economy (as Ben points out in the comments below), Kanye does flirt with alternative modes of value distribution. He says in the interview that by the time his daughter is six years-old, she’s going to be getting checks off of people taking her picture. I interpret this as a sort of a non-populist version of what Jaron Lanier puts forth, the idea that people should be paid for the proportion of value that put into the creative economy.
I see Lanier’s thoughts as a guide for my own vision of a future technology driven economy, creative or otherwise.
The past can also serve as a guide. Djenne-Djeno in what is now modern day Mali was an ancient cosmopolitan West African city. According Peter Garlake’s Early Art and Architecture of Africa (a book that our bad-ass Art Director Diego Gutierrez lent me) archeologists believe that in around 800 ce:
A long process of integration of different ethnic groups, craft guilds, lineage, and kinship groups, had reached maturity and made up a single urban whole. Specialist workshop quarters and efficient cartels achieved economy of scale. Competitive emulation encouraged innovation and the creation of new styles and techniques. The earliest gold jewellery to survive dates from this period.
All these developments took place before trans-Saharan contacts had been pioneered let alone established, and long before Islan reached the Niger. Jenne-Jeno was an entirely indigenous African town in its early stimuli, foundation, growth, and development. The trajectory of growth was determined by the interactions within the very mixed population and citzenry. There are no signs of any central authorities. Although excavations were far from comprehensive, no monuments, palaces, temples, barracks, or fortifications have yet been recognized. Even the town wall may have been built for protection against floodwaters rather than armies. Jenne-Jeno forces us to reasses all the presuppositions about the formation of cities and states in Africa.
This describes a dense communal and ethincally diverse urbanity in which hierarchies of royalty and empire were absent. For lack of a better description, pre-Judeo-Christian African Anarcho-Communal urban living. So what do we speculate that the role of art looked like in this society?
The scale and numbers of sculptures suggest that they were household objects, not communal shrine furniture. Only the bearded male figures can be allowed possible royal or divine connotations. They may represent heads of families or lineages or ancestral figures particular to small related groups… The art of Mali does not appear suitable for any large, monumental, public, or social role. Most of it is about private and personal concerns, pleasures and pains.
I think this is an amazing concept. Although it’s based on speculation on a past we never observed, I find it quite alluring. It basically describes an ancient industry of art in which craftspeople could make specialized, personal, and handcrafted private art for average people. Now check out this quote from Kanye’s BBC interview where he explains his goal in entering the fashion industry:
I’m trying to make a higher level of product for the real world. Because people say, “life isn’t fair.” And unless you’re Kanye West, or this pretty girl that dates a soccer player, or your parents had money, you don’t get to wear Versace all the time! And you hear it! We love Versace!… Versace is the greatest designer of all time! We love Versace!..
The creatives, they want to connect with people. These are artists. The clothing designers, they want to connect with people the same way that music gets to connect with people. But the cost of silk is too expensive, and they won’t lower their quality level.
So I can spend two million on a record and give it out in a democratic way. They could spend all their time making the greatest dress in the world, and it’s just impossible to hand make that many.
I know I may be jumping to conclusions as I wrap up here, but seeing these connections has me really excited, especially since creation combined with education has become the crux of my professional mission on this Earth!
Perhaps, for the solutions to the above problems highlighted by Kanye (and I know that we all see manifested in our contemporary youth cultures) we can look back to the past and imagine a world where we can train more individuals to specialize in highly skilled arts and design products. That way, more people could afford them and in turn more people could afford to specialize in making them. We wouldn’t have the superstars of today, but we might just have a happier general population. What if art in ancient Djenne actually had the purpose of helping facilitate a more egalitarian society, one in which diverse individuals and groups competed over aesthetics, rather than resources?
Also, I know it’s hard to draw analogy to modern times (the Garlake book warns us to not do so), but let me just indulge and imagine for a minute that perhaps African-American descendants of Djenne-Djenno living in the United States have an embedded cultural code that connects them to this ancient egalitarian urbanization. If aesthetics and peaceful communal living in a diverse society are completely intertwined in ancient West African culture, could this implied connection between aesthetics and equality also serve as the foundation for a sub-conscious obsession with aesthetics and so-called materialism amongst Americans today? I’ve always believed, and as Kanye has always tried to point out, that our contemporary world’s material obsessions are really just manifestations of a desire for equality, citizenship, and freedom from a system that exploits the many in the interest of the few, not just for the disenfranchised in the United States, but for the entire world: