Opinion | How should we react when our favorite art is tainted?


Courtesy of Peter Hutchins / Flickr

Kanye West performing at a Washington, D.C. show in 2013.

Alex Jobin, Staff Columnist

Kanye West (who now asks to be referred to as “Ye” but by no means deserves the pleasantry) is the most recent, and perhaps most potent, example of why fame and wealth do not equate to morality. 

The artist and designer is no stranger to controversy (see: 2009 VMAs, Trump endorsement, infamous TMZ appearance, etc.) but has surpassed even his most loyal fans’ threshold for questionable behavior through his recent public spiral down a fascist right-wing rabbit hole. 

Calling George Floyd’s murder into question on N.O.R.E. and DJ EFN’s Drink Champs podcast, stating “I love Hitler” on Alex Jones’ InfoWars, and suggesting concentrating and monitoring Jewish people in a conversation with Proud Boys leader and neo-Nazi Gavin McInnes have been just a few highlights from West’s anti-semitic and alt-right ravings over the past handful of months. 

Perhaps it is because West had previously seemed infallible in spite of controversy that this recent fall from grace has weighed so heavily on popular culture and political discourse. It is the fact that the bar was set lower for Kanye West — whether because of his widely celebrated art, financial status, overwhelming social presence or all of the above — and yet he still stooped below that bar. 

West’s cancellation is emblematic of a truth that American culture has only recently begun to unpack: that our idols are human, that they are flawed, and that they are not dissimilar from our political leaders in that they easily fall prey to the allure of power. 

Indeed, West is oddly embodying an entire political phenomenon which has been sweeping through everyday American households: the ever-intensifying catacombs of misinformation, fearmongering, and paranoia propagated by Donald Trump, QAnon, and a parasitic far-right digital ecosystem which thrives off of the revenue generated by advertisements of bigots like Charlie Kirk and Ben Shapiro. 

In a strange way, West’s recent fascination with Nazis is one which invites greater pity than outrage. His voice is one of the louder ones calling out for help among a choir of Americans who have been duped into endless conspiracy, theorizing and misinformation for the sake of profit and political control. And, of course, West’s ravings clearly demonstrate a need for mental health treatment and support which he is unfortunately unwilling to receive.

Nonetheless, it does not get much more egregious than fanboying over perpetuators of genocide. At some point, public pity must give way to denunciation, and luckily that is what we are seeing for the most part with regards to West. 

Longtime collaborators like Adidas and Balenciaga have severed ties, artists and athletes who previously worked with West have denounced him, and even his fanbase has shunned him to a large extent. The Kanye West Reddit has even become a fanpage for longtime Kanye-rival Taylor Swift. In protest, users even began sharing historical information about the Holocaust.

In my purview, this is the only appropriate response. I have long enjoyed West’s music, apparel and general creative output, but since his recent comments I have made a conscious effort to stop consuming his content and feeding into the bigotry he seems intent on spreading. Although no consumption is ethical under capitalism, directly contributing to the prolongation of an anti-semite’s time in the limelight — even through cents-on-the-stream — is unethical to another degree. 

I have sympathy for those who still wish to enjoy West’s art — I would be lying if I said that his recent actions completely deprive his albums and apparel of their intrinsic, though subjective, artistic value. However, this is a tradeoff. 

One can choose to play the songs and buy the merchandise of a man who is directly using that money to fund visits to right-wing media outlets in order to further anti-semitism’s acceptability in mainstream American politics; on the other hand, one can simply play other songs, buy other clothes or even contribute to organizations that fight against bigotry.

We live in a time where we feel detached from our dollars. When we buy a meal at Chick-fil-A or some art supplies at Hobby Lobby, we prefer not to think about the anti-LGBTQ policies that these corporations’ profits are going towards. That psychological disconnect is even greater when we are swiping a piece of plastic instead of dealing in dollars and coins. 

And although it should not be the power-starved consumer’s responsibility to act as a check against the unethical practices of corporations, perhaps we should at least be mindful of the power that our dollar holds in a system whose heart pumps blood made from money. Be mindful that even if you ideologically disagree with Chick-fil-A, or Hobby Lobby, or Kanye West, they will still see you as a faithful parishioner as long as you continue to pay your tithe and contribute to the collection plate.

One may be able to separate the art from the artist — especially in the case of a figure like West, whose career has spanned decades and whose political views used to be radically different — but unless you are listening to “The College Dropout” on CD, you cannot separate the dollar from them. I think it could even be argued that wearing the merchandise of a public bigot like West is unethical for promoting them and thereby promoting their ideas, but I cannot blame you if you wish to get as many miles as you can out of your $500 sneakers.

At the end of the day, what are we supposed to do when our favorite art becomes tainted? My response would be this: Kanye West (or anyone) is not the be-all end-all for music or fashion.  No matter how great “Graduation” or the Red Octobers might be, nobody who acts with such disregard for his fellow man deserves your precious time or money. 

Collectively we share such a rich pool of talent and innovation; great art is being made everyday, so find something new to love. 

Just as there was a time before Kanye West, there will be a time after Kanye West — the same as any other artist, soiled legacy or not. Perhaps in retrospect we will have a better understanding of how to treat the art of an icon-turned-bigot like West, but for now I suggest refraining from lending such figures the attention they and their ideas so desperately crave. Bigotry of any form deserves no place of credibility in modern discourse, no matter whose mouth it pours out of.