Kanye West goes by many names: Yeezus, Yeezy, or ‘Ye. But after May 11, you can add Dr. Kanye Omari West to his many aliases. In March, the rapper revealed that he would be receiving an honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After dabbling in higher education at the American Academy of Art and Chicago State University (he dropped out after one year to pursue music), the hip-hop multi-hyphenate will return to his city for a moment his late mother, Donda, would be proud of.
Lisa Wainwright, dean of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was on the board that selected the 37-year-old visionary, and said that despite the negative reaction to the comittee’s decision, they stand by their choice.
“This is a Chicago kid from a tough part of town who aspires to go to art school. That’s a great story,” Wainwright tells VIBE. “If Kanye’s on stage getting an honorary doctorate saying art school is important, that’s a message we want to send to our communities, to all communities.”
Here, as Dean Wainwright delves into Kanye’s impact on the art world and shares how SAIC is expanding its reach into the inner cities of Chi-town, we break down how Mr. West nabbed his honorary degree in a series of steps.
STEP ONE: He expressed interest in SAIC.
Wainwright: “Here’s this guy from Chicago talking about our art school, this guy who’s got far reach and an interdisciplinary artist himself. I said to Walter E. Massey, the president of the school, ‘Maybe we should think about giving an honorary doctorate to Kanye West. He’s shown an interest in the school and I think it would be an iconic moment to have a Chicago native of his caliber addressing our graduating class.’ The community started to talk about this and we quickly agreed. It was just circumstance, a weird fluke that we heard him mention us, and essentially Kanye got us thinking about his impact through this award.”
STEP TWO: He fits right in with the school’s culture.
“He grabs what he needs when he has the feeling of that need. That’s what our students do. They tailor their own paths of study here. They move laterally across disciplines, mixing up the academic and the studio. That freedom is a little bit scary, but it also allows for incredible production. He’s pretty open, and likes to make his own path. That’s what we let our students to do. They make their own path. I’m excited for him to meet the faculty. Nick Cave is going to be introducing him at graduation. He’s a really famous artist and designer who chaired our fashion department for many years. He’s had shows at Jack Shainman Gallery and at Mary Boone. I wonder what’s going to happen between Nick Cave and Kanye West next year. Let’s keep our eye on that.”
STEP THREE: He caused a little controversy – of course.
“Controversy gets the public dialogue going and that’s the role of great art and design. We want to engage in public discourse. We want to struggle with our historical moments. That’s what great art and design does. It makes us think, talk, and we’re a democracy. We have different points of view, we respect each other’s points of view, and this is the beauty of the United States of America. This moment of democracy is that which allows artists to do outrageous things. Kanye knows his history. He knows the history of rap. His work is very self-critical, self-reflective. He can have this demeanor that puts people off, but the benefits of his gestures overall are so enormous that the personal bit is less important to us.”
STEP FOUR: He employed key artistic techniques.
“There was one where he uses this glitch kind of style, but it was a piece that employed all of this glitch technique. Ruptures in the video field and the visual noise of the video were manipulated into this remarkable assent. This is what we teach here. Glitch art is a big movement within video and film. It was 2009 and it’s called “Welcome to Heartbreak” directed by Nabil Elderkin.”
STEP FIVE: His story lends itself to SAIC’s community mission.
“We have many initiatives going on right now through our art education department and art administrations department. We are building a whole program in this community called Homan Square in Lawndale. We’ve done a lot of activist work out in the community. There’s a whole movement now in the art world called social practice. There are leaders in that arena, and social practice is when you take your work out into the community in order to engage [these areas] in a variety of thinking and doing that will improve the social conditions. That’s absolutely critical to our mission, this idea of social practice and we are building more projects in the city of Chicago.”
STEP SIX: He is taking part in a resurgence of music and art.
“Music isn’t inherently abstract. It’s tough sometimes for folks to understand abstraction in painting, but abstraction in music when you get a good rhythm your body starts to move. Why does your body move? That’s the abstraction that is appealing to some inner sensibilities. Artists have known this about music, so that linking between art and music has had a long history in the modern era ever since the early 20th century. I like that it’s coming back again. There are plenty of examples in the history of art collaborations between artists, musicians, designers, and architects. I think it’s cool that we’re seeing it on the part of these rap artists. Albert Oehlen, who is a German painter, is our graduation speaker. He has a huge interest in music. That’s a part of his source material and some will argue that the improvatory marking of his canvases is analogous to the improvatory jazz. He’s very interested in music as a cognate discipline, as another way of expressing emotion, of yielding our deepest human desires.”
STEP SEVEN: He set his sights on breaking high fashion barriers:
“He’s just an amazing lyricist and composer. I think his videos are pretty interesting. He did some work with a very famous artist named Vanessa Beecroft (“Runaway”). I think his contribution to fashion when he was one of the earliest to go to high fashion shows, and to show up in Paris with his crew and intervene with this sacrosanct high temple of fashion there. I think that was amazing. Certainly as a musician that’s his most important contribution, but I dig the way the way he rifts off of that. He rifts into clothing, with video, with language and dialogue. He is a multi-disciplinary artist and that’s exactly what we court here at SAIC. We’re really interested in opening up these fields.”
Photo Credit: School of the Art Institute of Chicago