A Portrait of the Artist On Fleek: Self-Awareness, Canonicity, Feminism and Kim Kardashian’s “Selfish”

<> at SiriusXM Studios on August 11, 2014 in New York City.

“when an image is presented as a work of art, the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions about art.”
– John Berger, Ways of Seeing

When I first held a copy in my hands, Kim Kardashian’s Selfish instantly put me in mind of a Bible. It is a squat, thick book with a hard cover sleeved by a glossy protective sheet; in appearance and feel, it is reminiscent of the missals kept in the schools and churches of my childhood. This initial, uncanny similarity is the first of many potential engagements that Selfish makes with patriarchal canon (I will outline some others over the course of the next few hundred words), despite the fact that Kim Kardashian – hyper-modern; populist celebrity; woman – is exactly the type of cultural producer that traditional ideas about cultural achievement excludes. Yet, suddenly, art critics are lauding Selfish, and Kim Kardashian is quietly becoming Kim Kardashian the Artist as well as Kim Kardashian the Celebrity.

Whether the similarity between Selfish and a Bible is intentional or just something I made up (though bear in mind that she is married to a man whose art flirts consistently with ideas about religion and canon), there is so much in and about Selfish – a book composed by Kardashian of her selfies, dating between 2006 and 2014 – which can be thought about in terms of questions of intentionality. Is the book intended as art, or is it to be taken, as implied on the surface level, as simple personal autobiography? Is it political in any sense? And, perhaps most importantly, can it be considered a self-aware exploration by Kardashian into her own position as celebrity and media phenomenon? I want to address these questions, and in doing so will suggest that Kim Kardashian’s Selfish is a revolutionary and thoroughly contemporary art book, which is in conversation with both popular culture and the intellectual canon. It makes these links by challenging ideas about what art is allowed to be, interrogating the ways in which we view women’s bodies, and actively engaging with perceptions of celebrity in 2015.

Firstly, though, I want to address the most obvious counter-argument to the one I’ve outlined. In general, Kim Kardashian is viewed as unintelligent, and therefore it is perceived that a person like her could not make a work which has any of the qualities that I have suggested of Selfish. People think that Kim is unintelligent for many different reasons: because she is a reality TV personality; because she takes pleasure in her own appearance; because she once allowed a man (who she trusted and was in a relationship with) to film her having sex with him; because her mother is her manager; because her husband is Kanye West. Because she made a book out of her selfies.

It is easy, however, to dismiss this counter-argument – which centres so much around misogyny and canonical male-centric ideals about what constitutes intelligence in Western society – with a simple list of Kim Kardashian’s achievements. She is a highly successful businesswoman with projects in various sectors; she is, arguably, the star of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, the highest-rated show airing on the E! network in the US; she is a skillful and in-demand model. In order that she could accomplish all of this, she also overcame the extreme violation of her trust and privacy when her ex-boyfriend decided to sell their sex tape.

And she made a book out of her selfies.

That last one is important. As we can see, Kim Kardashian’s intelligence is not of the ‘traditional’ sort. All of the accomplishments listed above are in industries which have developed rapidly during the twenty-first century (indeed, even Kim’s major business successes have been in fashion and technology). They are also in industries which are largely populist, rather than elitist, and which skew towards interests viewed as ‘feminine.’ Thus, she represents a type of contemporary cultural achievement which goes against all of our previous notions about what cultural achievement is.

One of Kim’s major cultural achievements is her contribution to the advent of the selfie. Undoubtedly, she is the crown princess of the form; she has, as her book attests, been taking selfies before selfies were selfies. She currently details her every look publicly via her Instagram feed, always mentioning the designers she is wearing and the hairdressers and make-up artists who have helped craft her vision. The detailed attention to matters of appearance in Kim’s selfies exemplifies the reason for a great deal of the backlash against selfies in general. They are frequently labelled as vain and shallow, due largely to their entirely visual nature and their primary status as a means of expression for young women, a group whose interests are constantly and systematically derided by Western patriarchy. When the word “selfie” was inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary (itself a prescriptive tool of patriarchal canon) in 2013, its inclusion was met with contempt. This was due, I suspect, to a concept linked with young women, and visuality, and supposed narcissism, being given a place within a canonical site of intellectualism.

Kardashian, through the very title of her book, directly engages with this view of selfies as exercises in vanity and self-obsession. At the same time, she also plays knowingly with specific perceptions of herself within contemporary Western culture. In the same way that “selfie” infiltrated the dictionary in 2013, Kim Kardashian has used her selfies to create a book – again, part of the usual apparatus of academic canon and traditional intellectualism. In itself, her transfer of the selfie, usually confined to social media, to the printed medium (always including staples of the form like pouted lips, makeup #onfleek and showing in the image itself the phone camera used to take it) completely frustrates previously held ideas about what the printed page should look like.

It is possible, then, that in redirecting previously held canonical notions by interrupting the canon with such brazen femininity, Selfish can be understood as a feminist text. In its content, too, Selfish can be read as taking a somewhat feminist stance, inviting women (and indeed, all people who enjoy selfies) to revel in their own appearances. It presents selfies as acts of self love – radical in a society which condemns appreciation of oneself based on appearance. In one caption, Kim writes “I loved how I looked and how that made me feel,” demonstrating an outright refusal to be shamed for feeling good about herself. In this sense, Selfish feels highly political (though whether this is intentional is both another question entirely, and far less important than our perception of it as such).

The joy that Kardashian takes in her own body is central to Selfish, as is the level of control she exercises in depicting it. There is an entire section, demarcated by black pages (in contrast with the white pages of the majority of the book) which is devoted to nude and nearly-nude photos. In this section, she includes photographs of her naked body which emerged on the internet without her permission, thereby reasserting her own agency and taking pride in images used to shame and embarrass her, as well as incorporating a number of underwear shots which give us what seems to be an intimate glance into her private life – some of these photos were clearly initially conceived as sexts.

This is where Kim Kardashian the Artist must reconcile with Kim Kardashian the Celebrity, and it is possible that she uses her standing as the star of a reality television programme – often the site of overshare – in order to interrogate ideas about celebrity and exposure. Kim Kardashian made her name by giving fans an intimate look into her personal affairs via her television show. She continues to do this through sharing with her reader these seemingly private photographs, but ultimately she is only showing us what she wants us to see. This is a clear aspect of her artistic project from the outset of Selfish.

The very front cover of the book depicts Kardashian as the epitome of Western heterosexual desire – full lipped, large breasted, wet-haired, yet also fully and very obviously made-up. However, this cover image also partially shows Kardashian’s outstretched arms, indicating that the photo is very much a selfie, because of the physical action of placing the camera in front of one’s body that a selfie requires. The inclusion of her bodily positioning in this image (it could, after all, easily have been cropped) implicitly suggests the control that Kardashian has over it – she is presenting only exactly what she wants her reader to see, whilst also underlining that she herself is the creator of this image, and, therefore, of her own image in the public eye. And whilst it is important to remember that Kim Kardashian is a conventionally ‘attractive’ woman, and therefore has a number of privileges which relate to that status, the images in “Selfish” are interesting because they positively present a woman in control of how her own body is viewed. They are also telling in terms of that woman’s self-awareness of her own celebrity status.

The overarching statement that Selfish makes is that Kim Kardashian is entirely in control of how we see her. Everything about the book – its self-awareness, its potential feminism, its diversion of canonicity – contributes to this central idea. The short foreword states that the photographs included were chosen from “thousands of selfies we considered for publication,” hinting at a strong curatorial position in the space between familiarity and overshare which made the Kardashians famous. The great achievement of Selfish, then, is that it allows Kim Kardashian the Artist and Kim Kardashian the Celebrity to exist simultaneously. It is not a derisive departure from celebrity by a woman who has outgrown her past, but rather it is indicative of Kardashian’s legitimacy as a new, contemporary type of artist who embodies the concept of celebrity and is in a unique position to engage seriously and critically with it.

Whilst as a figure, Kim Kardashian is clearly divisive and sometimes problematic, her achievement with Selfish is currently unmatched in contemporary popular culture. In one tome, she challenges widely held ideas about art, intellectualism, self-presentation, the body, and celebrity, whilst also remaining relatable to her fans in doing so. And for a woman whose mere presence in social consciousness is frequently met with derision because she makes money using her looks, that’s probably a job well, and carefully, done.

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