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Why do we continually lose our shit over celebrity art collaborations?

Image of Drake courtesy New York Times

Remember the time Shaq curated a group exhibition with the wink-wink-nudge-nudge title “Size Does Matter”? Or the time logic escaped Alanna Heiss, who gave James Franco an achingly narcissistic solo show at the Clocktower? Or the time Jay-Z gave a cringe-inducing performance called “Picasso Baby” at Pace Gallery? Or how about when Tilda Swinton napped in a box at MoMA, which is basically the only lame thing the actress has ever done? Or, um, there was last week, aka Björk Catastrophe Week, which saw the Icelandic artist’s poorly curated solo exhibition at MoMA tarnish the reputation of the most sterling art institution in New York. Do you know what the German word “fremdschämen” means? It basically means “secondhand embarrassment,” or the vicarious cringey shame you feel for other people when they do something stupid. It’s a useful word here.

The list of cringey celebrity collaborations with the art world is a long one. We can now add two more: in addition to the exhibition that Kanye West is curating that we recently reported on, Drake is organizing an art auction for Sotheby’s. Kanye West is even receiving an honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which sparked a Change.org petition in response. On the Change.org site, Hellen Ascoli of Guatemala City, Guatemala, sums up the problem nicely:

“I went to SAIC to learn to be critical of the world around me and advocate change in my home country. I feel that it is no longer okay to call everything art but rather as artists we should be commited to social change through critical thinking and engagement and being responsable in everything we do. I feel Kanye West is impulsive and uncritical as his main aim is attention and fame. This type of show biz art is not the reason I attended SAIC and believe that giving him a PhD is an insult to all the students and professors that work hard in their field.”

The question remains: Why do all of us lose our shit over mainstream celebrities in the art world? Why do we let them make a mockery of our most hallowed of institutions? The trend seems to dovetail with the increased presence of new collectors–or newly minted millionaires (aka Wall Street bros)–in the artworld. While it isn’t strictly impossible to produce a successful celebrity art project, celebrities are often treated as experts when they’re not, and thus clearly are given preferential treatment for, well, being a PR machine. Luckily, it seems like we can bear these piecemeal, but not as a regular phenomenon, as evidenced by Jeffrey Deitch’s failed celebrity-driven program at LA MoCA, which prompted multiple well-known artists to leave the museum’s board.

When will we learn that the quick-burn attention afforded by a celebrity collaboration isn’t worth losing one’s integrity over? When will it end?!


I don’t know if it’s fair to compare Kanye getting an honorary doctorate from SAIC with Deitsch’s LA MoCA mess. We “continually lose our shit” over celebrity appearances because it’s a sanctioned form of condescension, with virtually no stakes at all, in a field where punching down is the default mode.

Personally, I think it’s fine that Kanye is getting an honorary doctorate rather than the usual menagerie of avaricious business moguls, dictatorial offspring, or vapid socialites who usually come in for art-world burnishing. Kanye is a brilliant producer, he’s from Chicago, who cares if he says outrageous things? At least he isn’t an arms trader. Completely agreed with Pedro Vélez on this, who posted the following on Twitter: “His record is there [in Chicago] and he is way more talented than 90% of painting graduates at SAIC.”

Great topic. I’m with Mostafa on this one. I have great respect for Kanye’s musical abilities and find his last couple of records amazing. While he undoubtedly seeks fame, I see this differently from Ascoli; I think he principally wants to make great music. And I don’t think that SAIC giving him an honorary degree is “calling everything art,” unless I’ve missed something. So he’s a clown sometimes. Who cares? John Lennon once said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, but is anyone still pissed off about that? Uncle Andy knew that fame attracts fame. We all want to ride on the coattails of Drake and Ye and Koons and so we all report on it constantly (and comment on other people’s reports and think pieces, and even sometimes report on our own, haha). Maybe it’s a phase and we’ll all look back on this and laugh. I mean, I’m sensitive to the problems you point out, but I’m actually laughing now.

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I totally agree with Mostafa. Karen’s asking two questions, though, right? One is: “Why do all of us lose our shit over mainstream celebrities in the art world?,” and the other “Why do we let them make a mockery of our most hallowed of institutions?” I think the first question, “Why do we lose our shit?” is a lot more interesting–since we perhaps shouldn’t be taking the institutions so seriously to begin with…

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Admittedly, I think I’m extra sensitive to SAIC giving Kanye an honorary doctorate because it took me 5 years and 100k+ to graduate with a BA in Visual and Critical Studies. I just don’t understand what the school would gain from giving Kanye an honorary doctorate–bad publicity?

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A scholarship fund? That might work for everyone–

Now that’s an idea. Maybe it’s a blatant donation invitation?

It hadn’t occurred me before you brought it up, but this is often the case with honorary doctorates. So maybe we get so hung up on a mutual-legitimation/cultural-capital reading of such collaborations that we miss certain bottom-line considerations? Although in the case of Bjork/MoMA, I can’t imagine what they would be–

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I’m willing to concede that honorary degrees are a more or less inherently bullshit practice (recipients from my alma mater, Edinburgh University, in the year I graduated included Annie Lennox and the CEO of the Carnegie Corporation, which gives the university piles of money.) However, the point Karen’s raising isn’t just about this specific instance, and some of the other examples she brought up (James Franco at the Clocktower, for instance) can’t be written off or justified as easily as a kind of necessary fundraising evil.

There’s also more than one way to read the question of why we “lose our shit” over celebrity collaborations. Mostafa seems to be primarily addressing it in terms of critical response–the art-world cognoscenti who seem overeager to jump on every instance of celebrity/PR pandering, but we could also think of it in terms of why institutions lose their shit over celebrities (or as Karen put it, why they’re willing to put integrity on the line in exchange for a moment of hype). In the case of something like the Franco exhibition at Clocktower, or Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” at Pace, my sense is that the art world cared considerably more than “the public,” so what’s the point, from an institutional perspective? I guess part of my issue with these kind of collaborations is that they seem to underestimate the so-called “public,” implicitly arguing that celebrity pandering is necessary in order to attract diverse audiences. But wouldn’t a better way to attract diverse audiences be to, say, reduce admission fees? I see something deeply condescending in the idea that “the public” (read: the non-art-world, the ignorant masses, etc. etc.) needs celebrity nonsense as a point of entry into art, which often seems to be the subtext of these kinds of things. I don’t see serious, adventurous, even scholarly, programming and a large, diverse, engaged audience as mutually exclusive prospects, but it means having a little more faith in the capacity of a non-specialist audience than these kinds of spectacular, attention-grabbing collaborations suggest.

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K West is not talented, but a product of a machine, which currently doesn’t seem able to be turned off. Giving him a PHD and allowing him to curate is an example of how bad things have got within the art world and its art institutions. But it’s logical that it be so. Looking at the system we see this is of course where it should go. Conversely, It could be that a different approach is so wanted and needed, that anything or anyone will be given a go to try. After all there is no vision or direction within art or even life momentarily. The future is one long nightmare of pain and misery. And art, which is the great egalitarian power, is still in a cul-de-sac, chasing its tail.

Rachel makes a reasonable point, which is that honorary doctorate strategy aside, we can look at celebrity collaborations as a failure by institutions to treat their audiences with intellectual respect. Without getting into how that applies in this particular case (of Kanye getting an honorary doctorate from SAIC), and instead looking at most widely-attended museum exhibitions, you get the sense that pandering to audiences with celebrity stunts isn’t even that spectacular on the business side.

For example, in the 2013 Art Newspaper rankings of top museum exhibitions worldwide, we see real, reasonably scholarly exhibitions — though there is a tendency toward a certain kind of accessibility or experiential quality (e.g. Dalí, Fabergé, Turrell). So it’s a little bit of a mystery why some museums have developed an interest in celebrities or pop cultural figures as a subject of exhibitions, given that their visitors are not sure to care that much. Maybe it’s part of the drive to continue acquire new visitors? And that museums believe that people who actually care about art are already tapped out?

On a different note, the veneer of celebrities coming and going to museums as VIP guests is probably, on balance, still helpful, and it’s something we haven’t really accounted for: Lady Gaga showing up at Wael Shawky’s opening and Instagramming it is probably valuable to PS1 in terms of getting people in the door, but that maybe speaks more to media conditions than it does to the value of celebrity.