Chasing Gold Statues: A Study of Kanye West and the Case for Abstract Minimalism in the Digital Age

May 5, 2020   /  

Student: Sarah Stutler
Majors: Art History, English
Advisors: Christopher Kang, John Siewert

American artist Kanye West has been in the public eye for over a decade, often at the center of scrutiny as result of his direct messaging and refusal to mince words. The content of Kanye’s public statements has shifted and evolved over time which has created a multiplicity of lenses with which one can view the artist, complicating the idea of a single monolithic identity. This Independent Study tracks the conscious dematerialization of Kanye’s albums, his body and perhaps even his “brand,” an elusive term in itself, that makes the rapper all the more difficult to pin down and fully understand. Kanye’s decentering of celebrity relies on the artists visual and lyrical aesthetics that reject symbolism and iconography, resulting in a proliferation of abstract forms that serve as the stripped down essence of the artist and his message, connecting Kanye’s identity directly to his body of work.

Sarah will be online to field comments on May 8:
2-4pm EDT (PST 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

29 thoughts on “Chasing Gold Statues: A Study of Kanye West and the Case for Abstract Minimalism in the Digital Age”

  1. Congratulations on this excellent and fascinating project, Sarah! I’ve loved listening to your research!

    1. Hi Professor! That really means so much to me! Your lectures and approach to analyzing art was a great inspiration for me throughout this process. I hope that you are doing well!

  2. Hey Sarah, it’s so cool to see how this has developed since your junior I.S.! I’m especially interested in how you are treating this work as abstract minimalism and analyzing it seriously through an art history lens.

    1. Hi Eleanor, it really is wild to think about how far we have come since junior IS! Thanks for your comment, it was really important for my to take Kanye’s work seriously as an artist working with a variety of media.

  3. Hi Sarah: As someone who appreciated Kanye’s artistry in his early years–but knows just how complex and controversial his celebrity and work has become–I was interested to hear more about these dimensions from your study. I think you are on to something when it comes to the power of empathy and his willingness to reflexively reimagine what celebrity status really means. But I’m still puzzled by whether his artistic complexity is genius…or something more complicated? Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful work.

    1. Thanks for your interest! I think that the question of “genius” is a complicated one as it often comes with a gender bias and is a term placed upon artists after their death (Van Gogh, Caravaggio, etc.). The idea of the tortured artist is definitely a romanticized concept and I think that what is happening with Kanye is much more complicated than someone creating art as a result of bipolar disorder. In my view, Kanye is genuinely engaged with the world and the culture of fine art and I really believe that his achievements stand on their own. I don’t know if that clarifies anything but I hope that it does!

  4. This was an awesome project, Sarah! I really appreciated your view of Kanye as an artist, specifically. I love the album selections here, since MBDTF, Yeezus and The Life of Pablo are definitely some of the best albums to capture Kanye’s brand. I also thought it was super cool the time frame of albums you selected, started with MBDTF in 201o and going all the way to Jesus is King in 2019.

    I’m curious, did you consider using Kanye’s 2018 album, “Ye,” in your research? I think this album is a beautiful, albeit disturbing project that perfectly contrasts The Life of Pablo and captures a lot about Kanye as a human, and not as much a celebrity, notably songs like “I Thought About Killing You,” and “Wouldn’t Leave.” Interested to hear what you think! I really enjoyed learning about it.

    1. Hi Ben! Thanks for your comments, it’s actually so funny that you bring up Kanye’s brand. My third chapter is about brand culture and I argue that Kanye’s ability to shift his brand defies stable meaning. I agree though that these three albums capture an infamous time in Kanye’s life for sure.

      I love the album for “Ye” and it would have been cool to analyze that album paired with “Kids See Ghosts.” Both of those covers introduce natural landscapes through photography or watercolor in really interesting ways. I think that in both of those albums we see a Kanye who is more aware of his mental health and the effects of his earlier career. I think that in many ways that was the start of Kanye’s shift towards natural elements and rural settings. Thanks for that question! If you have any other thoughts feel free to reach out!

  5. I am so proud of you and your hard work Sarah! You definitely will have top explain this vast research a little more to your “ole Dad!! 😉

  6. Sarah! This was interesting and so well presented. It is a great representation of the culmination of four years of study at COW. Congratulations!

  7. That’s my incredible roommate! I am so in awe of how intelligent and wise you are, which is so clear from anyone lucky enough to view this project. You are going to do such phenomenal things in this world and I can’t wait to cheer you on like always <3

  8. Congratulations Sarah! When I heard you ask Pharrel about Kanye when he came to speak I knew I had to see the final IS. This is such an interesting analysis, and Kanye really is the perfect storm of image and industry among other things. Celebrity is a common topic of discussion at our dinner table, and I look forward to using your IS as fodder for our next conversation! I miss you, and good luck with your post-Woo life!

  9. Congratulations, Sarah! You’ve effectively distilled your ambitious and complex I.S. into a beautifully realized presentation. All my best wishes for what’s next!

    1. Thanks Professor! I’m sure that you know just as well as anybody that recording yourself in front of a computer screen is such a bizarre feeling but I’m glad that I figured out how to make it happen. Thank you for all of your help and guidence throughout this process!

  10. Sarah, I can’t get your video to play (argh) but look forward to checking it out soon! In some ways, of course, Kanye seems so defiantly maximalist–I’m looking forward to learning more about the “abstract minimalism” element of your project.

    1. Hi Professor! I am notoriously bad at using and understanding technology so I have no idea why the video won’t play for you but it should be linked to youtube. I totally agree that Kanye’s reputation has become that of a larger than life public figure. I think that at a time in his career Kanye was certainly interested in a lifestyle of fame and excess. However, I would say that he began to visually distance himself from this lifestyle around 2016 with The Life of Pablo and I would go out on a limb to say that his approach to art and performance is minimalistic in theory yet abstract in application. Kanye has called his producers “reducers” and is always so focused on having a distilled message no matter what his point of view may be. I think that Kanye always presented himself honestly and while controversy has followed him as a result of his statements, Kanye’s creation of spectacle always sought to push public debate. I landed on the term ultimately because in art, minimalism is characterized by its interest in reflection and contemplation which I have always found fascinating. I hope that helps to clarify my thought process!

  11. Great work! Your topic is really interesting and we’ve all wondered at one point or another how to think about Kanye’s work. While his personal life seems a bit crazy, there is no doubt that he is an exceptional artist. My question is how you chose Kanye over other artists? Congratulations!

    1. Hey Izzy! That’s a great question, I always knew that I wanted to work with a contemporary artist and I couldn’t think of anyone more contemporary or controversial than Kanye West! He has such a rich catalogue of art and had collaborated with so many established visual artists but his work is largely written off due to his public perception. I had so many questions that I deeply wanted answered which is really what drove this project. Thanks for your interest!

  12. Sarah! Such a unique topic! Looking at Kanye’s work through an artist lens is so interesting and I enjoyed hearing your thoughts. This is clearly such an impressive I.S. project, I’m so proud of you!

  13. Sarah!! What a cool project, you should be proud! I rarely think of album covers being just as important to an artist’s body of work as the music itself, and seeing your analysis of that is fascinating. I’d be curious to see what other artists use album artwork in similar ways, or which artists curate their “brands” in similar ways. Congrats!

    1. Thanks Ellie! I talk about this in my first chapter but I think that the role of album covers is so interesting in how we experience an artists work, especially with the rise of music streaming surfaces. Websites like Spotify or Apple Music alter the dimensions of an album but the artwork is always present, many times even when your phone is off and you check your lock screen. I think that many artists use albums in a way to express their identity publicly but in my view, no one does it quite like Kanye 😉

  14. This is a great project! I wish we could’ve met sooner to discuss our different studies of rappers. Good job!

    1. Thanks Tessa!! Working with you first semester really helped me in organizing my thoughts and getting a game plan together for tackling this project.

  15. Great job Sarah- really enjoyed listening to you!! Incredible work on your part!!

  16. That’s my girl! So proud of you and all of your hard work and so happy for the terrific experience you have had a Wooster! It was the right school for you and I have loved watching you flourish there!❤️

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