So, in a sense, despite a reputation as a controversy magnet that now generally drowns out his reputation as an artist, there should not be anything all that surprising about the announcement coming Wednesday that
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago will award rap superstar Kanye West with an honorary doctorate during commencement on May 11.
The Dean of faculty and vice president of academic administration at SAIC, Lisa Wainwright, said she read a recent interview with West in which he said he wished that he had attended the SAIC.
“I read it and thought, ‘Wow, this is a fantastic moment.’ Here is this major figure in the cultural landscape promoting art school, this guy from Chicago saying art school is cool. So we thought, ‘This man deserves an honorary doctorate from us!’ He should have gone here. He would have been a perfect SAIC student — he likes to shake people out of complacency.”
Past SAIC honorary doctorates have gone to Patti Smith, Jeff Koons, David Sedaris and Chicago artist Theaster Gates.
Lisa Wainwright, who currently sits on the committee that decides honorary degrees, said her son attends Lincoln Park High School and has been schooling her for the past 48 hours on rap.
“I can now quote Jay-Z and Ice-T! It’s all my son listens to. But really, hip-hop is the cultural expression of the moment and here is Kanye, who is delivering in a way something like a 21st-century version of the realists. The man is a radical, so we said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
Kanye West will share the graduation stage with three other honorary-degree recipients: Chicago gallery owner Rhona Hoffman; Art Institute of Chicago president and director Douglas Druick; and Janet Neiman of the LeRoy Neiman Foundation (an SAIC alum, and co-namesake of the school’s Neiman Center). German artist Albert Oehlen will be the commencement speaker.
After West let slip that he would be receiving an SAIC degree in an interview with a French media outlet earlier this week(video below), reaction on Twitter ranged from “Is anyone else PISSED OFF…” to “Never felt more confident that leaving that school was a good plan” to the occasional “he is way more talented than 90% of painting graduates at SAIC…”
Corinna Kirsch, senior editor of the New York-based art magazine Art F City, wrote in the magazine’s daily newsletter Wednesday: “As an alum of SAIC, I am offended that the school’s exorbitant tuition and fees will help fund this nonsense.”
Speaking later by phone, she said that she had no problem with an honorary degree for West based on musical merit “but the school does not have a music program, it has a fashion program and I suppose you could honor Kanye West for his contributions to fashion, but … I don’t know if that make sense. I just think this seems like a gimmick, like it is being given to the most famous person that they could get to honor.”
It was pointed out that Northwestern University gave the comedian Stephen Colbert an honorary doctorate in fine arts in 2011. Kirsch said, but that made sense: “He is a fantastic journalist and Northwestern has a great journalism school, but Kanye doesn’t really fit with any of the programs that (SAIC) offers, so I find the whole thing confusing.”
As for Wainwright, she expected controversy: “But then I dig it when people get riled up — respectfully riled up.” Kanye West studied painting at the American Academy of Art on Michigan Avenue; then English at Chicago State University, where his mother, Donda, was chair of the English department.
Though Kanye left college at 20 years old with a reputation as a record producer already under his arm, his debut album was sheepishly titled “The College Dropout.” His second was “Late Registration”; his third, “Graduation,” opened with: “I mean damn, did you even see the test?/You got D’s, (expletive) D’s…”