In Praise of Kanye West, James Franco, and Other High-Art Multi-Hyphenates


Earlier this year, famed rapper, producer, and headline subject Kanye West put out a fashion line through Adidas, called Yeezy Season 1. It was not the prettiest thing in the world, and, though he made grand proclamations about his intention to have these items priced fairly, at $450 for a sweatshirt, it is not affordable to most human beings, no matter how you shake it. To put it simply: the line was pretty much universally panned, and people told him to stop. But he shouldn’t stop. Neither should James Franco, Lena Dunham, Miranda July, Ethan Hawke, Shia LaBeouf, or any of their other multi-hyphenate friends. They should do whatever the hell they want — and, in fact, the more the merrier.

For too long, we have assumed that we deserve a say in what our famous people do and do not pursue. In 2014, American sweetheart Tom Hanks wrote a sci-fi-flavored short story that was, if not revelatory, at least perfectly nice. But it was published in the New Yorker, so writers everywhere yelled, angry at the fact that Tom Hanks didn’t earn his spot as a writer. As John Warner wrote in the Chicago Tribune,

“Alan Bean Plus Four” is not an irredeemably terrible piece of short fiction, but neither is it very good. If it showed up in my undergraduate fiction writing class, I would even give it significant praise and think to myself that with a lot of work — the kind of work expected of anyone who wishes to write seriously — someday, Tom Hanks might write something successful enough to be considered for high-profile publication.

“Write seriously.” That’s the key to the criticism offered to these so-called dilettantes: if they want to be a writer/artist/musician/actor, they’ve gotta do it seriously, and that takes time.

The odd thing is that the reception of an artist’s branching out seems to depend on the medium in which that artist originally worked. In most cases, the disdain is reserved for actors who branch out into more supposedly serious, non-film work. The most common type of crossover is film (or TV) to music, such as was the case with Steve Martin, Alan Arkin, Hilary Duff, Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Laurie, Zooey Deschanel, and so many others. This transition is somewhat expected by this point, and so is rarely treated with as much disdain as the actor/musician-to-writer/artist one. But still, Scarlett Johansson’s 2008 album Anywhere I Lay My Head remains divisive enough to have recently caused a brief, heated debate in our own offices. My take? It’s a perfectly OK album, completely listenable and not without its merit. If a Tom Waits covers album had been released by a non-famous person, it might not have been noticed at all, sure. But it also wouldn’t have been so hated. (Do yourself a favor and do not read the YouTube comments on any of ScarJo’s music.)

People — even actors who pose as musicians — hate on actors posing as musicians, sure, but the spite reserved for artists venturing into “higher” forms like writing or visual art is a special thing. Miranda July and Lena Dunham are probably two of today’s best-respected multi-hyphenates, though perhaps that has to do with where they started, both as performers who produced their own material rather than performing the material of others. This is maybe the key to understanding the ire reserved for two of Hollywood’s most hated multi-hyphenate stars: James Franco and Shia LaBeouf.

The seemingly universal hatred of these two is, by now, old hat. Franco especially has been hugely hated on since it was discovered that he was attending six graduate programs and (gasp) sleeping through some of his classes. His forays into the art world have been even more scrutinized, with the New York Times‘ Roberta Smith telling him, plainly, “to stop.” People have had such a hard time believing Franco could care about all of these things that they’ve surmised that his whole life is an art project.

Similarly, the hate for LaBeouf has been rampant — though, unlike Franco, the hate for LaBeouf is well-founded: his current art phase started when he plagiarized a bunch of stuff. He didn’t do himself any favors by acting out at Cabaret, either, but Alan Cumming has forgiven him, and for what it’s worth, LaBeouf seems entirely sincere in his regret. This is not a plea for forgiveness for Shia LaBeouf, but I am asking that we all calm down on the criticism of him and his “non-art” and learn to appreciate the fact that, like Franco and Kanye, LaBeouf is a mainstream star who is attempting to broaden his artistic and philosophical horizons in a way that betters the public. And that’s worth something.

Just because an artist is “good” at one thing does not mean that they must stick to that thing — and it also doesn’t mean that any of their sideline artistic endeavors should remain private, no matter how bad they are. The very nature of a celebrity’s life makes all of their work much more public. If James Franco writes a short story, is he going to post it to an unseen Tumblr, or is he going to pitch it to Esquire, who will run it, quality be damned, for the clicks? If Shia LaBeouf is going to start actively devoting himself to Metamodernism, we’re all going to know about it. His forays into art are not going to be unseen things, because he is not, as much as he says he wants to be, an unseen person. This is exactly the type of thing Kanye is fighting against — and yet we chastise him for it.

Kanye, more than anything, seems to wish that he could toil away at fashion in obscurity, that he could go to school and learn from the masters before he’s forced to make clothes on a public stage. But his very existence denies him that. He’s made that storefront bed for himself. You can blame him for that, for marrying a reality TV star. But you can’t blame him for not just lying idly in that bed.

In Smith’s takedown of Franco, she writes, “Perhaps James Franco should just stick to acting. He remains embarrassingly clueless when it comes to art.” What is wrong with cluelessness? Isn’t every artist, at their beginning, clueless? The difference is that “every artist” works through that cluelessness in private, which is a luxury celebrities either aren’t afforded or, at the very least, do not choose. And what artist would choose to work in private, their work unseen?

Getting angry at these famous dilettantes is, at its very base, getting angry at people for doing ambitious things. And that’s where the old adage comes in: if you don’t like it, don’t look at it. The next time a superstar writes a short story, don’t click on it. I dare you. But if you do, don’t complain about it.