No one would describe Kanye West as a diplomatic master of social etiquette, but why is Kanye such an unrelenting, uncompromising asshole? Here’s one take from Aaron James, whose book, Assholes: A Theory, deconstructs the set of characteristics that typically define the orifice. The book, previewed in Salon, also focuses heavily on Fox News personalities and hits shelves October 30th.
It is instructive to compare West to asshole artists such as Pablo Picasso or Ernest Hemingway or Miles Davis. None were mistaken about their greatness. All were wrong about what their greatness entitled them to by way of special treatment from others. Here it is harder to be understanding. It is indeed desirable for a society to afford its great artists special opportunities for creative production for the good of all. But there are limits, and many true geniuses do manage well enough to abide by them, perhaps by nurturing a grounding sense of gratitude for being endowed with special creative privilege. Those who don’t are pure asshole. They take full credit for their achievements and expect further benefits in return, despite the fact that their success would never have happened without society’s gift of creative opportunity. (Artists who must fend for food or fight against an invading army tend not to get a lot of art done.)
Things could easily have gone differently and the artist would never have succeeded. Gauguin, for example, might have never made it to Tahiti if the boat from France had encountered bad weather or mechanical troubles, much as many great talents fail simply because they are ahead of their time. We put up with the artist’s delusion that his work is only to his credit, that it is we who are chiefly in his debt, because we find our world better with his artworks in it. Without that, however, the asshole artist becomes thoroughly repugnant. Imagine a failed artist who is not a genius, who continually demands further creative privilege, perhaps at a significant cost to society, and who cannot be moved by or even grasp gentle advice that he should consider working at Starbucks, where people are actually served. This guy, we want to say, is an asshole in spades.