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28 June 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 2:08pm

Taylor Swift and Donald Trump are naked in Kanye West’s new video, but is it art?

Capturing a celebrity in bed or sleeping is a staple of culture both high and low. Is the “Famous” video just another artistic use of the trope, or is it something more sinister?

By Anna Leszkiewicz

What’s the best way to get millions of people to watch your new music video? Take 12 of the world’s most famous people, get them naked, and film them in bed together? That’s (sort of) what Kanye West did this week for his song “Famous”, using lookalikes, prosthetics, and post-production tricks. In one bed, a camera roams over the naked forms of unmistakable individuals, linked by their propensity to be caught in controversy. From left to right: George W Bush, Donald Trump, Anna Wintour, Rihanna, her abusive ex Chris Brown, Taylor Swift, Kanye himself, his wife Kim Kardashian West, her ex (and co-star in their leaked sex-tape) Ray J, West’s ex Amber Rose, Kim Kardashian’s mother’s ex Caitlyn Jenner – and Bill Cosby.

“It is a comment on fame,” West told Vanity Fair’s Dirk Standen, refusing to elaborate much more than that. “For him,” writes Standen, “the ambiguity goes to the core of what he’s trying to say about the mythos of contemporary celebrity.”

The images are at once intimate and inauthentic – inviting us to see celebrities as normal human beings (the use of lookalikes eliding the differences between Kim Kardashian West and her nameless body double), even as the viewer knows the likenesses on screen are fake, that the real George W Bush would not consent to being viewed in a pose of such vulnerability.

It’s this lack of consent that makes the video uncomfortable. Lena Dunham took to Facebook to criticise the “sickening sense of dis-ease” she felt seeing the naked bodies of famous women portrayed without their consent in “Famous”:

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“While Bill Cosby’s crimes are still being uncovered and understood as traumas for the women he assaulted but also massive bruises to our national consciousness… Now I have to see the prone, unconscious, waxy bodies of famous women, twisted like they’ve been drugged and chucked aside at a rager? […] I know that there’s a hipper or cooler reaction to have than the one I’m currently having. But guess what? I don’t have a hip cool reaction, because seeing a woman I love like Taylor Swift (fuck that one hurt to look at, I couldn’t look), a woman I admire like Rihanna or Anna, reduced to a pair of waxy breasts made by some special effects guy in the Valley, it makes me feel sad and unsafe and worried for the teenage girls who watch this and may not understand that grainy roving camera as the stuff of snuff films.”

At the launch of the video at The Forum in Los Angeles, West discussed his work in very different terms. He noted the primary influence for the video was Vincent Desiderio’s Sleep: side by side comparisons of the video’s final overhead shot and the painting flooded the internet immediately afterwards.

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It’s a fairly faithful recreation of Desiderio’s original image: the body positions of each individual are largely preserved, and the number of people in the frame and the colour pallete are consistent with early versions of the painting. (Desiderio worked on Sleep for several years after it was first exhibited in 2004, and there are significant differences between that Sleep and the final 2008 version.) There are important departures, too: most obviously, the instant recognisability of the 12 bodies in “Famous”. And while Sleep’s canvas ends abruptly in the middle of a person, suggesting the tangle of bodies could go on indefinitely, as we pan backwards towards the end of “Famous”, we see that these celebrities are an isolated, discrete group.

In Desiderio’s original painting the eye is immediately drawn towards the canvas’s central couple, whose heads and bodies are turn skywards to meet our gaze. There is an intimacy between them that is captivating: not quite domestic, not outwardly sexual. The scene could be an orgy, the site of a massacre, a shared familial bed. In West’s version, it is worth noting that the centrally positioned couple, and the focal point of the video, are not West and his wife, as we might expect – but West and Taylor Swift. Swift, who, we know did not consent for her likeness to be pictured, especially after she claimed she found even the reference to her name in the song’s lyric “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex” deeply offensive.

Desiderio describes the space of his paintings as like “an observatory” – and “Famous” feels deeply voyeuristic in the way the camera picks apart body parts, lingers on faces, and slowly zooms out from the bed. Desiderio told The Virginia Quarterly, “Initially I was thinking I might try […] a giant video loop, something one might project, say, onto the vaulted ceiling of Grand Central, stretched out in real time.”

“Famous” features long minutes of a silence pierced only by the soft breathing of its stars, accompanied by close-ups of their skin and sheets. While it feels remarkably like the video Desiderio –  confined to his sick bed by cancer, “feeling so terribly vulnerable” and “longing for company” –  might have made, the context of “Famous” means it feels far more troubling than Sleep.

Vincent Desiderio also told The Virginia Quarterly that one of the many sources for Sleep was the gruesome claustrophobia of slave ships, and their diagrams of tessellated bodies. West has faced criticisms in the past for declaring similarities between the conditions of fame (specifically, the conditions of being famous and black) and the conditions of slavery, whether in the direct comparisons of interview soundbites (telling Brett Easton Ellis conversations about fashion design with brands like Nike and Louis Vuitton left him “feeling like the main character in 12 Years a Slave) to more nuanced explorations of materialism in verses on “New Slaves” and “All Falls Down”: “We trying to buy back our 40 acres […] We buy our way out of jail, but we can’t buy freedom.”

It’s a sentiment actor Jesse Williams expressed just this weekend to a crowd of cheering celebrities at the BET awards: “[We’re] dedicating our lives to getting money, just to give it right back for someone’s brand on our body – when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies.”

Like Desiderio, West sees “a link somehow between sleep and slavery, and specifically privileged, pillowed, cushioned sleep – the culture asleep, enslaved, straining toward the liberation of wakefulness.”

But Desiderio, while perhaps the most direct influence on West, is not the only comparison to be made. Crumpled bedsheets and questions of public identity intertwine across Western Art history, from the reclining Venus to Tracy Emin’s starkly naked My Bed. These quiet, protracted shots of famous faces in repose call to mind Sam Taylor-Wood’s David (2004), a 67-minute film of David Beckham sleeping in a hotel room in Madrid after training. A still, single shot filmed in a single take, the perspective is of one lying next to Beckham: we view him as a lover might. It is overtly concerned with authenticity – Beckham naps as part of his usual training schedule, in his hotel room: the video is lit only by the bedside lap. “He really is asleep,” the National Portrait Gallery director Sam Nairne insisted. It is perhaps not a particularly challenging portrait (Beckham is angelically beautiful and vulnerable) but it is utterly captivating. As with most artworks that flirt with celebrity, David was not universally well-received: the Guardian’s Jonathon Jones reliably labelled it “moronic”.

David itself was inspired by Andy Warhol’s Sleep from 1963: a video of the poet John Giorno sleeping with a running time of six hours. Here, as in other works, Warhol humanises his subject to the point of tedium, exploring the relationship between banality and stardom (Warhol originally thought of using Bridgette Bardot for the film, but settled on Giorno – who found some fame as a result).

1995’s The Maybe took this experience beyond film: a collaboration between Tilda Swinton and Cornelia Parker, saw Swinton lie motionless in glass case for seven days, eight hours at a time, alongside similarly displayed objects relating to fame: a blanket from Freud’s couch, a scrap of Lindenburgh’s plane, even Charles Babbage’s preserved brain. The two items belonging to famous women – Queen Victoria’s old stocking and Wallace Simpson’s ice skates – contrast with the male items for their relationship with the body and appearance.

Though Parker and Swinton’s work is usually discussed as a piece reflecting on mortality, it also seems to comment on the gendered nature of fame and the objectification of women in the public eye. Art critic and steadfast misogynist Brian Sewell called The Maybe “a feeble and utterly self-indulgent performance by two inadequately educated women”, concluding his review with the “unanswerable” question: “Are women capable of coherent thought?”

John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous Bed-Ins, where they turned their honeymoon into a kind of sit-in protest in their own hotel bed, played with the knowledge of the press response their actions. Designed to use the publicity their marriage would receive to the advantage of humanitarian causes, the couple invited journalists into their honeymoon suites in Amsterdam and Montreal, where they discussed world peace (knowing that the comfort with public nudity they displayed on their Two Virgins album cover would perhaps cause the press to expect something more risqué). “Famous”, too, plays with audience expectation; the screaming headlines, “See Taylor Swift and Donald Trump naked in bed with Kanye West in new NSFW video” are virtually suspended in the silent spaces of the confoundingly sexless video.

Of course, all these examples rely on the consent of their subjects. 

“Famous” draws on a tapestry of cultural images you might not find in an art gallery at all. There is an aesthetic built around the naked famous form, be it a high-fashion shoot in Vogue, sexually explicit private pictures and videos or something in between (a sex scene from a movie, a Terry Richardson photograph perhaps, or a Playboy shoot). My mind jumped to Annie Leibowitz’s photo of Johnny Depp, clothed and tattooed in black, lying on top of a naked Kate Moss (and her similar picture of Lennon and Ono), David Beckham’s first Instagram post, Zoella and Alfie Daye’s bedtime vlogs, and, yes, Kim Kardashian’s nonconsensually leaked sex tape as quickly as it did to any high art examples. Across forms and cultural esteem, they all share a set of tropes: natural skin, white sheets, a grainy suggestion of snatched privacy.

This is what makes “Famous” interesting – it has ambitions to reach the status of high art through its legitimising influences while using the tools of our most lowbrow visions of culture (nudity, celebrity, controversy), and ethically questionable methods. Kanye West says of him and his wife, “Our life is walking performance art”. Can he take the lives of others and make them performance art, too? Is “Famous” art? Or simply celebrity clickbait?