Move over Dr. Cornell West there’s a new Dr. West on the prowl. Kanye West managed to amaze us during the commencement ceremony through which he remained non animated for the duration of 90 minutes on Monday. For one whom we’ve come to expect the unexpected observing his stillness was rather a performance itself. Perhaps a ‘Bright Moment ‘ in the life of Kanye West who was known before the end of the ceremony as many things — Yeezy, Ye, Kimye, Jay-Z’s boy, North’s father, Amber’s ex, the Louis Vuitton Don, designer, filmmaker, scene stealer, would-be architect, instigator, fireball, headline maker, Chicagoan — somehow managed to stand patiently at the Auditorium Theatre for 30 minutes plus as 900 graduating students of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago filed slowly into their seats for commencement. Then there was another hour through which he sat ever so still. The SAIC provost Elissa Tenny introduced SAIC president Walter Massey, who introduced the dean of student affairs, who introduced gallery owner John Corbett, who introduced German painter Albert Oehlen and it went on all the while as Kanye West sat non reactionary and on his best behavior. He never fulfilled our wildest expectations of him that have come to be Kanye’s norm.
Instead he sat, he listened. He actually smiled. He smoothed out his role over his legs. He smiled more, applauded when appropriate, adjusted his black graduation robe, leveled the headdress upon his head. And without a hitch it was time.
He walked slowly with intention to the microphone, something he’s done countless times and then there it was the moment we all expected from him. He stepped abruptly backstage, before actually taking the mic then stepped to the podium again and jokingly apologized for a lifetime of the things he has said. It wasn’t quite the shocking display of some-thing that we expect from Kanye. To our surprise he went on to say “I’m sorry, that was just my opinion.” He even confessed that he was nervous: “I felt my nerves a bit. I don’t feel that feeling a lot. The nerves of humility and modesty when being honored, a humanization of a reality of being recognized. All I thought as I sat (in the audience), kind of shaking a little bit, is I need to get rid of that feeling, I need to not be nervous.” The he was back in control as he shared, “This honor is going to make your lives easier, for two reasons: You don’t have to defend me as much! And I’m going to make all of our lives easier.”
Well there it was the Kanye ego that we know so well even when he thought he was humbling himself, it still came full circle back to all-about-him however his delivery was easy to take because we got it that he was sincerely trying. He offered no explanation as to how he was going to make outlives easier.
He paused a lot, to pace himself perhaps.
The room as it should have been was silent as he spoke. It was a graduation commencement not the VIBE or BET Awards show where all decorum is thrown out the window. Then he did what Kanye does. He spoke authentically from his heart. He addressed the controversy that has swirled around SAIC’s decision to honor him. He said, “When I was giving a lecture at Oxford, I brought up this school. Because I went on a mission to create in other spaces — apparel, film, performance — but it would have been easier to have just said I had a degree at the Art Institute of Chicago!”
Truth be told, by the time SAIC commencement happened, it’d been a long weekend for Kanye.
He performed Sunday the day before an impromptu song at the United Center during a first quarter timeout at the Bulls game. Then he gave an hourlong lecture/Q&A at the SAIC, to a group of 400 students who packed a school auditorium, each of their tickets describing him as “an interdisciplinary artist whose work provokes cultural discourse by reflecting a realism of the street.” Some students agreed: He seemed a little nervous then, too. At one point he’d invited them to shout their questions at him. “Can I give you a hug?” “When are you going to open a school?” “What does Chicago mean to you?” “Can we hang out later?” “Do you wanna build a snowman?”
And to our surprised Kanye answered the last question.
“I say I wanna build a snowman because I want Bob Iger, the head of Disney, to invest in my ideas. Not one idea, not a good idea, or even a bad idea — a series of them. But just in my ideas … I feel Disney should have an art fund that completely supports all of the artists and … I feel there should be a responsibility.”
If he was all over the place during his lecture, at graduation he was mostly immobile, sitting between Lisa Wainwright, dean of faculty and vice president of academic affairs, and artist/SAIC professor Nick Cave. Being the last honoree, alphabetically speaking — the others being Oehlen, Art Institute president Douglas Druick, gallery owner Rhona Hoffman and philanthropist/artist Janet Byrne Neiman — the tension was there, the elephant in the room waited. The lights in the auditorium cast a soft yellow haze, and extra security stood sentinel at the edges of the stage; West leaned forward in his white chair, seated in the front row facing the audience — a little like Fashion Week, but without runway models to draw away attention.
In the weeks before commencement, loud contingent of students and alumni made it clear they did not want him at graduation. But Monday, at the ceremony, the reaction to West was positive, even grateful: Rob Bondgren, dean of continuing studies, said “As an alum myself, I thought that if art students don’t understand why he is worthy of being recognized, then they’re not getting the degree I got.” Dave Pauldine, of Elmhurst, whose daughter was graduating, said the school had sent thoughtful letters to parents explaining the decision to honor West, “and I think they made a thoughtful, smart case for him as an artist. I think it was some of the kids who seemed more surprised by this than the parents, to be honest.”
Kenrick McFarlane, part of the graduating class, stood in the back of the auditorium waiting for his parents. He said: “Not everyone loved Jesus at first. Not everyone loves Yeezus. That’s how I see it.” Now ain’t that the truth?
West did not descend to the podium. Cave offered a short introduction (“his visionary and ambitious career is a true reflection of the creative spirit”) and then West strode across the stage and was draped by Massey in the traditional academic stole. He grinned big and said, “I am a pop artist. So my medium is public opinion and the world is my canvas.”
“’I’m sorry’ is something that you can use a lot. It gives you the opportunity to give your opinion, apologize for it, and give your opinion again. People say ‘You shouldn’t have to be sorry for your opinions …’”, Kanye said with enthusiasm. Then alluding to the Hurricane Katrina telethon moment when he said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” he said, “George Bush has some very cool self-portraits. I didn’t know he was an artist!”
And just like that he walked off without pause. Dr. Massey waved him back to collect his degree. Then West inhaled deeply, hugged the academics and artists beside him, then darted off the stage for the finale and left to catch a plane. Dr. West moved on to the next big thing.