Kim Kardashian West is the artist the contemporary art world deserves: an emblem, indictment, and antidote, all rolled into one highly Instagrammable, A-list package. Her new book, Selfish, a coffee-table compendium of published and previously unpublished selfies, is good enough that the Jerry Saltzes of this world are rising to her defense, comparing it to highbrow literature. Seemingly overnight, the "famous for no reason" celebrity that America loves to hate has become a new darling of art aficionados and public intellectuals. And it makes sense. We are past the digital revolution and squarely in our digital adolescence. Personal technology is king, the selfie reigns, and Kardashian West is the queen.
The boys club of (largely) European representational, modern, pick-an-era painters and photographers still worshipped by old-guard collectors and art historians have long immortalized the women in their lives in various states of undress. Degas's dancers and bathing nudes are perhaps one of the most obvious and prominent examples of art made from the anonymous female form, but the theme is reoccurring. Go to any museum and you will find woman as muse, man as artist, with a few token late 20th-century exceptions thrown in to keep the PC police at bay.
In the digital age, this commodification of the frequently anonymous body has been taken to new heights, with Richard Prince making art by recycling women's and men's Instagram shots—many of them selfies—in a cheap indexing of the ways we make products out of our own lives by documenting our memories. No matter that he stole these images from their producers and then profited from their reprinting at $90,000 a pop. No matter that his comments on the women depicted are full of that passé and lusty misogyny of men determined to make stereotypes of themselves. Defenders have claimed he is creating a sort of meta-selfie by indirectly asking audiences to "face up to our incessant narcissism and our curiosity for others' narcissistic images," but I am not convinced. We have rose-tinted cultural lenses indeed if a white man commodifying other people's lives, images, and experiences isn't viewed as just more of the same.
Kim Kardashian West on 'Jimmy Kimmel Live!' (2015)
Enter Kim Kardashian West. Her habit of taking selfies is so frequent, the image of her taking a selfie is almost as ubiquitous as her actual selfies. Her dedication to the form, even mastery of it, clearly irks the supposed better sensibilities of those who still want to position themselves on the side of good taste. And make no mistake, good taste is here defined by the gaze outward, not within. Even when waxing effusive about her new book, critics have seen fit to lambast the selfie as being "perhaps the next most masturbatory act to actual masturbation." And called Kardashian West's collection "an exercise in curated narcissism."
Detail of the cover of 'Selfish' (2015) by Kim Kardashian West
But what is the selfie except the new, most convenient form of self-portraiture? And since when has self-portraiture been so abhorred? Since now, apparently. Since camera phones have made the self portrait so easy, so democratically accessible. I see no one retroactively discussing the self portraits of, say, Van Gogh as evidence of his narcissism, although interestingly this argument has been made about Frida Kahlo, with one headline calling her the "patron saint of internet-enabled narcissism."
This dismissal should be acknowledged as part of a wider trend that views female self-love and the art created from it as somehow less worthy than the male gaze in art and elsewhere. The selfie as a form upends historical norms of female representation and power, and places the power of depiction squarely in the hands of the subject. By embracing the selfie from as early as 1984, Kim has positioned herself as the primary creator of her public image. For that, she should be commended, not reviled.
By making herself the subject of her own life—and dare I say, her own art—Kardashian West is part of an established legacy of female artists and writers who have created art from the realm of the intensely personal and confessional. In addition to Frida Kahlo, whose self-as-subject was intensely motivated by her own physical injuries and immobility, the work of Cindy Sherman has long complicated the intersection of the personal and public by depicting herself as different women in various social and professional roles. Whereas in Sherman's work, there is a tension between the self as immutable and the self as constructed, in Kardashian West's selfies, the public and personal collapse. We see Kardashian as an actual mother, as an actual and self-aware sexual being, all while fulfilling a hyper-femme womanhood that complicates our own public ideals of gender presentation.
From 'Selfish' (2015), by Kim Kardashian West
Julie Doubleday has called Kardashian West "a near-perfect human embodiment of the values we've been taught to aspire to." Kardashian West is all the things women in America are supposed to be: beautiful, sexually pleasing to men, motherly, not too smart. And yet she is hated by a subset of the population that takes pleasure in being better than what they see as a self-aggrandizing and seemingly vapid expression of humanity. Enough already. Such pseudo-intellectual posturing is built on the back of a faulty value system in which women and people of color are allowed to be aspirational—for class status, money, power—but only in prescribed ways: marrying up, getting rich in business, or advanced education. It is not that these are bad ways to be aspirational, but that their respectability is meted out by an established upper class who gets irritated when people like Kardashian West accumulate and achieve—because it reminds them of their own undeserved station. In many cases, the established upper class inherited their wealth, and yet they judge those whose success is equally arbitrary.
The art world is complicit in this class disdain, and as I have suggested, complicit in privileging the outward male gaze over the inward female one. It is ennobling and inspiring to see the discourse reach a "tipping point" of finding Kardashian West and her work "worthy of the attention of people who flatter themselves as serious critical thinkers." She is an outsider, albeit a wealthy and famous one, and maybe one day she'll benefit from a different American trope—the successful underdog. Until then, her new book, Selfish, serves as a welcome antidote to an art system in deep need of reconfiguring, if not full-on revolution. Her transformation into an artist is a first step into a new respectability. I wish her well.
Kim Kardashian West's Selfish is out now from Rizzoli.
Laura Jean Moore is on Twitter.