5 Lessons on Art vs. Commerce That Kanye West and Damon Dash Should Keep in Mind Before Turning Up

Straddling the lines between creating art and making money is a never-ending battle for these two passionate artists. Here’s some advice that might help. 

Kanye West; Damon Dash
Kanye West; Damon Dash Francois Guillot/Getty Images; Stuart Wilson/Getty Images

We all know that Kanye West has an ax to grind with corporations—specifically with some of the major fashion houses and how he thinks they’re trying to sabotage his attempts at launching a high-end clothing line. He thinks he’s experiencing racism and celebrity-ism, saying that because he’s a musician—and a hip-hop musician at that—clothing designers are pigeonholing him into a certain box and aren’t taking his talents at face value. He’s ready to burst through a glass ceiling and the Louis Vuittons and Nikes of the industry are not trying to see that happen.

Then there’s Damon Dash—Jay Z’s former business partner. He’s been on the press circuit in the past several months blasting the “culture vultures” and “culture robbers” that he says are sucking the blood out of hip-hop culture. Dash called out executive guys like Lyor Cohen and Steve Stoute, who, Dash believes, hook up artists with inauthentic branding opportunities that only end up hurting the artists’ brands, and by extension, hip-hop culture. As an example, he cites Mary J. Blige, who was practically laughed out of town after her Burger King ads ran in April 2012. Many people—including Blige herself—felt strongly about their genre being appropriated to peddle greasy fast food in a way that felt a bit like shucking and jiving.

While West’s and Dash’s concerns are a bit different, both of them reflect the ongoing tension between art and commerce. Both men are battling age-old questions: As an artist, how do you “keep it real” and profitable? How do you stay true to your craft and identity, but maintain a healthy bottom line as you veer into other markets? How do you convince executives to take you seriously—especially if the movers and shakers in a particular industry are predominantly white and aren’t used to having African-American collaborators, let alone leaders?

Two professionals in the art world who noticed artists grappling with these questions created a course in New York City aptly titled, How to Play the Art Game Without Sacrificing Artistic IntegrityIt’s taught by art curators Amani Olu and Larry Ossei-Mensah—co-founders of the Medium Group, an organization “that helps brands and artists navigate the art world.” If West were a student in their class, he might ask, “How do I get the fashion industry to support and take my efforts at launching a high-end line seriously?” And Dash might ask, “Am I wrong for promoting the independent movement and raging against these corporate partnerships that don’t understand or respect our culture?”

Here’s how Olu and Ossei-Mensah might advise West and Dash:

1. It might take 20, maybe 30, years for your work be perceived as a formidable high-end fashion line with staying power.

It’s not that West hasn’t shown he’s dedicated to fashion and has the talent to develop a competitive clothing line. It’s just that he seems to think that his success in the fashion industry will come in the same way that his success in the rap game did: he’ll find a back door into it by becoming a highly sought-after producer, developing a solid rapport among industry leaders, climbing on tops of tables to show executives that he’s passionate, and a couple of years later, getting a life-changing deal, like he got from Dash and Jay Z’s Roc-a-Fella Records back in the day.

But in the fashion world? Eh, not so fast. Sure, he’s got some of those elements in play today. His back door into the fashion game is his music résumé and celebrity, he’s got close friendships with some of the most influential, creative fashion directors in the business and his version of hopping on tables is doing avant-garde press interviews about how fashion executives won’t kiss the ring. But Ossei-Mensah and Olu explained that West needs to accept the fact that the fashion industry doesn’t exactly work like the music industry: “The fashion industry is waaaay more complicated,” Ossei-Mensah stressed.

Ossei-Mensah points to designers like Valentino, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors—all men in their late 40s, 50s and early 80s who came into the industry just as wide-eyed and bushy tailed as West, and had to work tirelessly over the course of a few decades to be mentioned among the greats. This is especially true for West, who doesn’t want the run-of-the-mill clothing lines that Hollywood celebrities typically put out. He wants a line comparable to Ralph Lauren, Polo, Prada—which will likely take a boatload of patience, trial and error and humility—which brings us to the next point: