Why A Chicago Art School Is Giving Kanye West An Honorary Degree

The president and dean of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago explain their plan to finally give the college dropout the degree he deserves.

April 16, 2015

Last month, the renowned School of the Art Institute of Chicago announced they'd be awarding Kanye West with an honorary doctorate at the Class of 2015's commencement ceremony, alongside AIC director Douglas Druick, gallerist Rhona Hoffman, artist and alum Janet Byrne Neiman, and the German painter Albert Oehlen. Among alums and the art world elite, the news was received with equal parts enthusiasm and scorn: many celebrated the school's bold choice at recognizing West's contributions to the popular arts, while others claimed the rapper was not befitting of such a distinction, and it would ultimately reflect poorly on the institution. The decision has also inspired debate on campus among students themselves, with some distributing flyers and starting online campaigns both critical and supportive of the choice. We spoke to SAIC President Walter E. Massey and Dean of Faculty Lisa Wainwright, who spearheaded the cause to give the college dropout the degree they felt he deserved.

What exactly does an honorary degree entail? Who are some of the people it's been awarded to in the past? WAINWRIGHT: We use the honorary doctorate to recognize significant contributions to the cultural landscape, and this includes, often, not only artists and designers but musicians and actors and other forms of cultural expression. We're really delighted to have a mix of disciplines on stage during graduation because it reflects our commitment to [being] interdisciplinary. In the past we had Patti Smith, which was amazing, right after her book Just Kids came out. We had Philip Glass, which was great. Then we had the mayor one year receive an honorary doctorate, which we were very excited about because of the cultural contributions to the city. And we even gave it to Ed Harris one year, when the big Pollock film came out. We have a history of honoring notable figures in the field of cultural expression. MASSEY: I've received a number of honorary degrees myself; all colleges give them. As Lisa said, it's to recognize people who have attained excellence in some area of activity that your institution recognizes, and we think Kanye has done that for us.

He's not the only one who's receiving a degree this year. WAINWRIGHT: There are four others.

When did you make the decision to give Kanye a degree? WAINWRIGHT: We have a speaker every year who gives the final commencement address; we try to get that done early. We did choose Albert Oehlen, who is a really significant painter in Germany who's changed the landscape of painting, frankly. We figured that out months ago, and then started to consider our honorary doctorates after that. Kanye came up right toward the end of our deliberations. It was perfect timing: we hadn't finalized our discussion. We got word from Twitter that he said something about his wishing he got his degree from the Art Institute. We thought, "Wow, this is wonderful that he's mentioning us, that he's mentioning art school again." We reached out to him.

You had contact with him? Or his camp? Was he excited? MASSEY: I had not spoken with him; we have been in touch with his camp. We sent him a formal letter, of course, and he's very honored, he's very moved by it. I can't speak for him, but I can imagine… We are a very interdisciplinary institution, and what he does cuts across so many disciplines. We have a course in our liberal arts program on hip-hop, and Kanye is a subject of study in that course. We have another professor, Jon Cates, who specializes in glitch art and digital art, and he says Kanye successfully mobilizes critiques of various aspects of our cultures through his projects. "This is the complexity of our current situation that he exemplifies," Jon once told me. "He is both inside of and critical of systems; he is enthusiastically engaged in creating while also critiquing." We have faculty members who use him as the subject of their teaching, so this is perfect.

"This is the complexity of our current situation that he exemplifies. He is both inside of and critical of systems; he is enthusiastically engaged in creating while also critiquing." —SAIC President Walter Massey

For young people today, college is a difficult choice. What is most valuable about an education in art today? WAINWRIGHT: We're seeing more and more collaborative, iterative, inventive kinds of strategic thinking in the world around us, not just in the art world. I'm talking about the business world, the world of economics, the world of politics. Talk about post-enlightenment! The divisions that once drove the establishment of universities and knowledge's stratification is really changing. It's quite wonderful to see the overlay, the collaboration of different kinds of thinking and different kinds of education around the world in order to solve some of our most wicked problems. You know that term, wicked problems? The challenges we face as humans being on this planet are being addressed by clusters of thinkers. We have a physicist at the helm here. Maybe it's a coincidence, but it's interesting that we have so much art and science going at this school right now.

What art school teaches—what our art school teaches—is how to think creatively even outside of the field in which you operate, and Kanye does that. He slips between these disciplines in such interesting ways. And that's what art school teaches you: how to keep modeling new ideas, and by modeling I really mean physically modeling thoughts and concepts and issues. I think art school, in some ways, is going to jump ahead of college, universities, in providing an education for young people who don't really know what the field will be next. But to teach at the kind of innovating, creative, problem-solving, model iteration, flexibility, bad-ass radicalism that Kanye certainly engages—I think that's good. It's healthy for a society to have young people who are trained to imagine that they can do lots of things. That the status-quo ain't so good. And that you can break the status quo. This is a history of art, the history of modernism. There's this great expression in the modern era this French expression called Épater la bourgeoisie: shock the bourgeoisies. That's the rallying cry of early modern art. And I see it again. I see it in our students, let's shock us out of our complacency. Then let's cross over and work together and try to address these problems in our lives.

It sounds like some of Kanye's reputation for shocking the bourgeoisies is part of the reason why you guys wanted to honor him in this way. WAINWRIGHT: I'm the dean, so I dig that, I like that. We don't want to break the law; we're respectful. We're not like, "Let's insight wildness and anarchy…" MASSEY: We don't go out of our way to do things to shock people.

But you don't shy away from that either. MASSEY: Us giving Kanye this honorary degree shows a lot of complexity in his music and his creative persona that they didn't see before. I know you're going to ask whether we've had controversy, and, as you might expect, we've had some. But, what's been interesting is the people who have been positive. Those who seem to oppose it react in a kind of visceral way to what they see: his surface image, what they see on television about him taking the Grammy from Taylor Swift. So they haven't taken the time, haven't been interested enough, to really see behind those kind of surface images. What a good thing about this for me—I'm not an artist—is that this is provoking just the kind of discussion we like to have. What is art? Who's an artist?

"There's this sense that high art is what we honor, and pop culture is not what we teach in art school. I think that's a problem." —SAIC Dean Lisa Wainwright

I was surprised to find that there was a lot of discussion and debate on campus among the students themselves about the awarding of the degree. Have you seen push-back from students? WAINWRIGHT: Not much. A little from some alums. I actually think that's a high-low problem. There's still this sense that high art is what we do, is what we honor, is what we're about. And that pop culture is not what we teach in art school. Pop culture, mass culture—that's a whole other thing, and we're about high art. I think that's a problem. We're trying to collapse those boundaries a little bit. That's what I like about Kanye. Chicago's known for it. Chicago pop art. Harry Who and The Chicago Imagists. Chicago's known for really looking at source material that's popular. And yet we're associated with the museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, which features high art. A little bit of it was class within the art world. There are many classes in the art world, some of the push back was, "Wait a second, this is pop." That's what I dig. We're going to have, on stage, both the director of the Art Institute, Doug Druick, who's a very renowned historian of 19th century art and runs a major encyclopedic museum in the country, and Kanye West, who talks to the people on the street. It's perfect. I love the combination.

There was one student who started a petition to bake the degree in a cake. Other students opposed his use of profanity in his music, or claim, "He's not an artist, he's a celebrity." To see younger people take that stance is interesting. MASSEY: That hasn't been as widespread. They get maddened about it once they get on social media. People who have no connection with the school will comment on it. They're still young! People aren't fully formed in any of these areas. One of the things I said here that I'm liking more and more about this taking place is providing an opportunity to talk about those kinds of issues. Why do you think that? What's behind your immediate surface reaction? I think it probably wouldn't have been as good to me if there were no opposition. It would've been too bland. WAINWRIGHT: I think also we've had opposition to our speakers in the past. You can imagine Jeff Koons—some of the faculty and students had questions about. We had the Guerrilla Girls, a graduation speaker had a gorilla mask on her face at graduation, so we heard from the parents about that one [laughs]. You can't please all the people all the time.

How many tickets does Kanye get? Does the whole family get to come? He's got a lot of in-laws. WAINWRIGHT: [Laughs] Tickets are a real problem already, I heard scalping is happening. MASSEY: The other thing, of course, is that he's from Chicago. He's from Chicago!

Were you two fans of his work ahead of this? Does any of his material stand out? WAINWRIGHT: I have a 16-year-old, so I've been sort of listening to rap for the last five years in the background with me going, "Turn that down!" But now I've been listening to Kanye, and he's remarkable. I mean, it's a really fantastic sound. The sound itself, the music is phenomenal, and then the lyrics. I'm watching "Black Skinhead," that one is amazing to me. That's just such a powerful lyric, and very danceable, which is my criterion. "Jesus Walks," that's another one I think is really just powerful, powerful, powerful lyrics. My son has turned me on to rapgenius.com. This is what I do as an art historian, I deconstruct what works of art mean. Now I'm looking at his lyrics and reading about, he has this term "Chiraq." He's comparing Chicago to Iraq, and the violence to the youth. The guy is smart. The lyrics are smart, the music is beautiful, it's complicated, it's post-modern, it's hip, it's awakening, I couldn't be happier.

Lead Image: Patrick Kovarik/Getty Images

Correction: Previously, it was unclear that Walter Massey was quoting Jon Cates when he said, "[Kanye] is both inside of and critical of systems." Proper attribution has been added upon request.

Why A Chicago Art School Is Giving Kanye West An Honorary Degree