Is The Sheer Fact That Kimye Is Famous Art?

Photo: Randy Brooke/Getty Images.
In December of 2013, Kim Kardashian took a photograph of herself touching shoulders with Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović and posted it on Instagram. In the picture, which Kardashian filtered in stark black-and-white, both women wear black and stare into the camera, a place they are both comfortable — they are both not strangers to being looked at, they have both built entire careers out of it. The caption was Abramović’s name alongside a blue emoji of a heart, that tiny digital signifier that the women were not just posing together but were intimately acquainted; that they were maybe even friends, that Kim was sending Abramović a visible, virtual valentine. At that point, Kim had just given birth and gotten engaged to Kanye West (who had just compared himself to Abramović during a Power 105.1 interview weeks before). Marina had become a national star after a documentary about her MoMA retrospective, The Artist is Present, aired on HBO. The photo captures an important cultural meeting: a moment when two women who often put their bodies on public view communed with each other for the masses. They clearly had a lot to talk about.

Two days ago, Kim did it again. After Riccardo Tisci put on his first Givenchy show in New York (a show art directed by Abramović featuring surreal happenings like women climbing ladders, Serbian folk singing, and somber string solos), Kim posted a new Instagram with Marina, this time with Tisci in the picture and the caption “LOVE.” She’d graduated from emoji to words, from the suggestion that she might be close with Marina to the confirmation of it. And this time, it didn’t seem so odd. Most of the Twitter chatter about the photo was that it was “iconic,” “classic,” “perfect,” “two queens.” A lot can change in two years.

That same day, it was Kanye West who was crashing the party of high culture without permission: He announced that he would show Yeezy Season 2 at noon on Wednesday of New York Fashion Week, smack dab in the middle of Naeem Khan and Anne Bowen’s runway shows (Khan’s went on as scheduled, Bowen shifted hers after calling Kanye “unethical” in the press and calling herself David to Ye’s Goliath).

Not only did Kanye drop his presentation like a mic into the middle of an already packed week (a sacred week for an industry that takes itself seriously enough to section off seven days twice a year for critical engagement with designers' grand visions; Fashion Week is essentially an art installation that spans the city and takes the form of swishing clothes), but he did so on an epic Kanye scale. The Yeezy show was broadcast in 35 different movie theaters around the world, theaters that were mostly packed with young people quick enough to sign up after seeing the RSVP on Kanye’s Twitter feed. In beaming his show to movie houses, just as he did with Yeezy Season 1, Kanye makes a kind of populist statement: He will open the doorways of the fashion presentation, which have been historically closed, and allow his superfans to see the new Yeezy boot colorways the moment they appear.

And yet, in the era of livestreaming (almost all fashion shows are now available immediately via the web), Kanye’s choice to make Yeezy 2 a coveted event instead of a universal one that anyone could watch over the web (or at least on a better stream than Periscope) was a theatrical act. Kanye was performing. He wanted people to crowd into theaters, to find a bootleg stream, to be there when his wastrel-zombie-derelict clothes came into view. And what he offered those watching was written in the language of performance art.

Vanessa Beecroft, the noted Italian performance artist who has worked with many fashion designers to help stage controversial shows, is often described in the press as Kanye’s “favorite artist.” Beecroft, with her long, flaming red hair, fashions herself as kind of an artist choreographer: She places groups of people in different positions to make statements. Sometimes it is naked women laying face down in pools of blood to draw attention to the crisis in Darfur. Sometimes it is women sheathed in nude fabric made to stand and be gawked at for several hours in order to comment on female objectification. In the case of Kanye’s shows — Beecroft choreographed Yeezy 1 and 2 — she drew on the visual and verbal vocabulary of the military: straight lines, drill sergeants, models falling into place in perfect rows while staring defiantly ahead. The message, if there was any? Kanye wants to command his own army, clad in elegantly bedraggled separates.
Photo: Michael Tran/Getty Images.
At the VMA’s this year, he declared 2015 the year he is prepared to “die for art.” He raged against awards shows, the music industry, and the power structures that made him desperate to be liked. And while he apologized for leaping on stage to eclipse Taylor Swift’s big moment a few years back, he also spoke in grand terms, like he was ready to incite a coup. He joked about running for president. He said that he had “died for the artist’s opinion.” He beckoned other artists to do what they feel, to not bow to the industry, to follow him in his quest to greatness without the boundaries of the business. It sounded very much like a battlecry. It also sounded like performance art — and he was wearing a Yeezy 2 sweatsuit the entire time.

The Yeezy 2 presentation happened yesterday in complete silence (except for North’s baby babbles, but more on that later). It was serious business. The models came out in order of skin tone, marching to orders barked by various menacing-looking lieutenants. No one seemed to be having much fun, except for Instagram star and Kanye’s youthful muse, Ian Connors, who smoked a cigarette and mostly looked bored. The show wasn’t really designed to showcase the clothes: No model walked individually, and so none of the outfits could be seen all that closely, even on the big screen.

I attended the screening in Union Square, and most of the audience made loud comments about not being able to see details, though they all picked up on the new sneakers. They noticed the sneakers right away. For the purposes of those watching in the theaters, the Yeezy show was a footwear presentation with expensively inaccessible army-navy-surplus-meets-Rick-Owens outfits on the side (a Yeezy Season 1 anorak, we’ve just learned, will run over $3,500). Few of the audience members in the theaters (me included!) would be able to afford the clothes they saw, but they can all hope to access the shoes — the shoes that still link Kanye to the world of music and street style, the shoes that keep Kanye relevant outside of the echo chambers of high fashion. After the screening, I asked a group of teenagers what they thought of the show: It was pretty cool, they said, especially the moon boots.
Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images.
In Skylight studios, however, the crème de la crème of the fashion world was there for the IRL show, Anna Wintour among them. An A-list group of celebs sat in the front row and all made an effort to consider Kanye’s vision with as much gravitas as the show demanded. It was clear he meant for the work to be taken in like an art show, like a MoMA exhibition, with silent nods and reverence. And at the end, as a new track played and people could finally relax or crack a smile, Kanye poked his head out between the models with a humble wave: The artist is present. Whether or not the clothes were beautiful, or fierce, or even wearable (a nude bodysuit with nothing underneath is a hard sell) was besides the point. Kanye’s mission, as a culture creator, is to be taken seriously on all levels of the establishment: with the musicheads, with the fashionheads, with the kids. To do this, he must wear so many hats: visual artist, genius producer, cultural iconoclast, sneaker brand, bold rapper, free thinker, creator of worlds. It is a lot to keep track of, and yet it is clear that Kanye wants it all to be seen as art.

At the VMAs, Kanye yelled out, “We're the millennials, bro. This is a new mentality. We’re not gonna control our kids with brands!” What he is making, he wants the world to know (even if he is a few years too old to be a millennial himself), isn’t fashion for the sake of commerce or capital gain or brand extension — it’s a vision. It’s a project.
Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images.

Kanye’s self-branding gets to be coded with the gloss of art, while the media still derides Kim’s increasing fame as nothing more than artifice.

And then there’s Kim, a human brand extension, livestreaming a video of herself behind the scenes of the fashion show with North playfully giggling on her hip. This video streamed inside the new Kim Kardashian app, which launched this week, the same day she posted the picture of herself with Abramović. The app, one of a group of apps personalized for each Kardashian sister and offering a peek into her private life (the Kylie app is by far the most successful), costs $3 per month and includes beauty tips, shopping suggestions, and live video of the women going about their days. Of course, the response to Kim’s app was nowhere near as polite as that to Kanye’s Yeezy presentation.
Entertainment Tonight grilled Kylie about whether or not she believed it was right for people to pay to see her videos, while Twitter users moaned and groaned and rolled their eyes about another way the Kardashians are becoming inescapable famebots designed to dominate our airwaves yet another day. Kanye’s self-branding gets to be coded with the gloss of art, while the media still derides Kim’s increasing fame as nothing more than artifice.

But back to the video of Kim and North: It was a tender, light moment between mother and child, a silly little slice of life, in which Kim, the most looked-at woman in the world (according to Instagram, anyway) looked at her own little girl, making her crinkle her nose up and laugh. There was something very human in this moment, right before the stark coldness of the Yeezy show. During the show, North made noise and grabbed for Anna Wintour before being set on the floor to play, a moment of extreme cuteness that made everyone in the theater sigh. Kim is offering herself to the masses — in the app, as a mother, as a woman who is scrutinized for her every move — and we love it. We clamor for it. And then, we demean it. Kim’s app is seen as a lowbrow capitalist grab for more eyeballs, while Marina Abramović, sitting silently inside the MoMA, is seen as a cultural hero. But Kim sits silently in front of America all the time, letting her pictures speak for her. In Kim’s world, the artist is always present, and Marina knows that; that’s why they are friends.

It would not be too crazy, even, to say that Kim is continuing Marina’s work, and they both know it. Offering your body to the public to be gazed upon, picked apart, idolized, sexualized, and thought about in such a constant, unceasing way takes guts. It takes the desire to want to keep doing it, despite the criticism. One day, I imagine, there will be a MoMA retrospective where one can walk up and snap a selfie with Kim; or at least I hope that’s so.

Kim and Kanye are performing as a couple all the time — they perform the idea of what love and parenthood are in 2015, what art and fashion look like as a constant dialogue between two people, and what two people who have a joint vision can do when they decide to rise higher and higher in cultural esteem, beyond what anyone thought possible. Kanye chooses to call this performance art, out loud; Kim stays silent. But no matter what we think of them, they constantly cause people to confront their own ideas of what taste and beauty are.

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