Let Them Eat Cake: Kanye, SAIC, and the High Price of Graduation

by Katie Waddell on March 31, 2015 · 1 comment Opinion

I Kanye SAIC

Rosalia Marzulio wants to bake Kanye West’s honorary doctorate in a cake.

That is, the artist and freshman at School of the Art Institute (SAIC) is requesting that SAIC President Walter Massey pass this proposal on to West. She started a Facebook event  and Twitter feed so the project could gain some momentum. When I spoke to her on the phone last Saturday, she’d landed a meeting with President Massey, and was excited to pass on her idea to the administration.

In order to understand the logic behind Marzulio’s project, it helps to know that this isn’t the first authoritative piece of paper she’s turned into a dessert. Before joining SAIC’s BFA program, Marzulio spent three years at a community college. She didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life after high school, and coupled with wanting to spare herself the expense of a traditional four-year program, she opted for an associate degree. One day, irritated with the career and financial setbacks she was facing, she got an appetite for diploma destruction. For all the good her associate degree was doing her, she figured that she might as well eat it.

So, she baked her Associate of Arts diploma. Inside a cake.

To be clear, Marzulio has no beef with Yeezy. She’s asking all five honorary doctorate recipients to surrender their degrees to her oven. (Honorees on the list include Art Institute President Douglas Druick, influential gallerist Rhona Hoffman, German painter Albert Oehlen, and Janet Neiman, a major art collector.)

It’s just that the buzz about West got her thinking about the whole idea of honorary degrees and their legitimizing effect. On the project’s Facebook page, she makes it clear that she’s not doing it in order to prove that Kanye does not deserve a doctorate. On the contrary: “[T]he doctorate does not deserve Kanye West and/or anyone for that matter. It’s paper.”

Her interest is in the strange alchemy of the thing. When an authoritative figure confers an award, like an honorary doctorate (which is different than a degree–a degree signifies completion of a course of study, an award means you’re being singled out) both the recipient and bestower end up sharing the prestige of one another’s name. SAIC honorary doctorate recipients are all over the map. The roster includes actor Ed Harris, former Mayor Daley and his wife, Patti Smith, former SAIC chancellors, major donors, a Guerrilla Girl. The award has less to do with the specific work that these honorees have done than it is a formal declaration of the institution’s desire to become associated with the recipient, whether it’s for the recipient’s celebrity status, cultural cachet—or their deep pockets.

Of the many responses to West’s honorary doctorate surfacing on the internet, Marzulio’s reaction to the news stands out for confectionary reasons. But the project’s attempt to shift the conversation from celebrity obsession to the pitfalls of meritocracy was what compelled me to get in touch with her. There’s been lots of hoopla in the weeks following the announcement. Notable responses include defenses of West’s artistic merit, a petition, a defense of the petitionone bristly tweet from the Art Institute of Chicago, and a gratuitous defense of West’s contributions to art, punctuated with a declaration of art’s role, on the official list of 2015 honorary degree recipients. Not to mention the deluge of angry comments both for and against appearing all over Facebook.

I have to admit that at first I found the news about “Dr. Kanye” profoundly annoying. Kanye’s getting a degree (albeit symbolic) for free, just because he said something nice about the school. It’s kind of like how designers give complimentary couture dresses to movie stars, the only people who can truly afford to pay for them, because hey, free advertising.

As one Facebook commenter in my feed remarked: “Certainly some critique is always valid/necessary, but I feel like he’s just become a placeholder to attach a host of anxieties.” Among those anxieties is the school’s hefty price tag, and the hardships facing students after graduation. I was certainly one of those students who used Kanye as a platform to air my anxieties in public. But the more I thought about Marzulio’s diploma cake, the more I started to think that maybe it’s not about earning or not earning that piece of paper so much as the things you do to acquire it.

As Marzulio was quick to point out in our interview, West himself turned a critical eye towards systems of formal education in his earlier albums. Remember “It All Falls Down” from College Dropout?

She has no idea what she doing in college
That major that she majored in don’t make no money
But she won’t drop out her parents look at her funny

A college degree isn’t just an education. It’s a very specific kind of legitimacy. And one thing West critiques over in over in College Dropout is this idea that formal education is the only legitimate path to success, and that that particular path should be required of anyone hoping to better their career or themselves.

Think about an MFA program (or PhD, if curating and scholarship is your thing). In the United States, advanced degrees are incredibly costly and time-consuming, and inaccessible to most. For the lay artist, a formal education at SAIC might be (and truly is!) rigorous and rewarding. It might make you a better scholar, a better artist. But it also lends you its alumni network and prestige. It’s a valuable education, but it’s also a pricey designer brand. So many aspiring artists and arts workers have to make the difficult choice between forgoing the helpful pedigree or the mountain of debt.

Is all of the armchair outrage directed at Kanye his punishment for trying to skirt the usual inroads to contemporary art? Are these just the jealous grumblings of people who have been underemployed and indebted and adjuncted into submission? Like so many SAIC students, West pined for the creative life. He just happened to find another way in.

{ 1 comment }

P-e-J May 6, 2015 at 3:36 am

It truly is an honorable effort she’s putting in to make her voice heard.

Btw article has her last name wrong, it’s spelled “Marzullo”

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