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The Marriage of Hip-Hop and Art History

kanye-power1girodet-ossianWe just started the new school year this week and my day was filled with teaching. Strangely, hip-hop and/or Kanye West were invoked in all three of my classes today, so it’s got me to thinking about the relationship between art history and hip-hop, and more specifically, Kanye West. My theory class is starting out the semester reading the excellent essay by Krista Thompson, “The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop,” which was published in Art Bulletin in December 2009. The contemporary curator at BYU’s Museum of Art did a brief presentation on transcultural trends and used the Murakami/Kanye collaboration as a key example. And in Western Civ, one of my teaching assistants shared her special talent for rapping about art history.

And just a few weeks ago, fabulous grad student Danielle forwarded a link to the latest Kanye video, Power, and suggested that he (or his artistic director, Marco Brambilla) had been looking at Girodet. She was dead on in making this connection. Girodet’s Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of French Heroes, in which Napoleon plays a prominent role, is definitely invoked in terms of composition, mood, and palette. Those scantily-clad women/creatures are eerie echoes of the Emperor’s consorts, like wife Joséphine or Mme Récamier or Mme Tallien. And come to think of it, Kanye is sort of like Napoleon in that the two have shared imperial ambitions. Others have suggested that Kanye and Brambilla were looking at Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling. Kanye has been collaborating with Murakami for years now. Clearly, his time at the American Academy of Art in Chicago was formative to his feel for aesthetics and history.

So I’m wondering about these connections between hip-hop and art history. . . .

Conversation topic: What has propelled these collaborations? And what is at stake here?


1 H Niyazi { 09.01.10 at 3:49 am }

Hip Hop has its roots in a visual art form, with the amazing train art seen in the 1970s. The sociological forces that lead to the creation of this form of expression are a distant murmur in the flavour of hip hop culture that Mr West and his contemporaries are engaged in. I would submit that nothing is ‘at stake’ and Mr West merely is well monied enough to make a flashy video. The real art of hip hop has since transmuted into a mixture of aerosol art practitioners fused with digital art which allows the perpetuation of the original, highly stylised linear forms seen in the 1970s and 80s.

I myself prefer the Corel painter airbrush settings nowadays to a can of Krylon or marker styli I used to carry as a youngster – less messier, and no fumes!

Kind Regards
H Niyazi

2 Maggie Leak { 09.01.10 at 10:32 am }

Check out the National Portrait Gallery’s recent exhibition, “Recognize! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture.”


I like the artist, Kehinde Wiley, and his interest in fusing the influence of Old Masters with the portraiture of contemporary figures. The larger than life painting of LL Cool J, influenced by John Singer Sargent’s portrait of John D. Rockefeller, is a favorite!

3 M { 09.01.10 at 2:13 pm }

I also thought of Kehinde Wiley when reading this connection between Kanye West and Girodet. It seems like West might be familiar with Wiley’s work. Wiley’s work is replete with themes of identity and appropriation, and I wonder if these themes could be extended to West’s video.

4 Ali G. { 09.02.10 at 3:30 pm }

It seems that fewer young people are being introduced to traditional art, so at least with these collaborations they are somewhat exposed to it. I think these connections also call back to the ever expanding definition of what art is. “Art” has expanded greatly with the popularity of internet, music videos, movies, etc. In our world, artists have to expand their horizon and come up with different ways of exposing themselves. I think it’s great that people are at least looking back to traditional art as inspiration. I am intrigued by artists like Kehinde Wiley. His art combines traditional art themes with modern interpretations. In the end, isn’t that what the history of art is all about – looking back to old traditions and adding to them?

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