On May 5, art-house publisher Rizzoli drops the most hotly anticipated (in some circles) literary debut of the year: Selfish, by Kim Kardashian. More than simply a collection of selfies from the genre’s most prolific proponent, the work is a monument to the culture of overexposure—that obsessive, social-media-fueled need for self-chronicle and self-publicizing—by the woman who (now literally) wrote the book.
What Rizzoli bills as an intimate, behind-the-scenes look into the life of a major celebrity at the very least promises nearly endless opportunities to look at Kim’s hair. The title, a pun with tongue firmly planted in cheek, teases at self-awareness and deeper issues—of branding, authenticity, objectification, and self-definition, but also of self-empowerment, documentation, and the breaching of boundaries—intricately bound to both Kardashian and the broader cultural zeitgeist. It’s with heavy hearts, then, that we relay the following news from the front lines of critical inquiry: Selfish is a mess. Whether you’re a closet (kloset?) fan of Kardashian or merely looking to laugh at her expense, the book will disappoint. Yet, as is fitting for a woman who’s always been one step ahead, its very failure may presage a new turn in the cultural landscape: a retreat from exposure.
Selfish starts promisingly enough, with what Kardashian refers to as her first selfie: a funny snapshot of younger sister Khloe wailing while little-girl Kim mugs placidly for the camera. But that’s about as close as we get to intimacy. Most images are presented without context or commentary, save the occasional deeply personal one-liner: “This is the day I met my makeup artist. So fun. Love it.”—an insight that’s apparently more revealing than we realize, because Kardashian shares it three times. (Copy-editors FTW!) The font, meant to mimic Kardashian’s handwriting, is evocative of an early 2000s cruise ship flyer for a Teen Dance Party! that ends at 8—the kind of faux-intimacy Kardashian had previously turned into an art-form.
In fairness to Rizzoli’s hype, the book does offer a peek “behind the scenes,” insofar as most of the shots were taken behind the scenes—literally, at photo shoots. True, there’s a wedding selfie and a few with Kardashian’s daughter (why is she making duck-lips at North?); but not quite enough to balance the parade of pictures of Kim looking at herself in the mirror. As a reward to those who make it halfway through the book, there’s a series of nudes; yet even that is a sight that is, at this point, pretty passé. Whether via Vivid or Paper, haven’t we all seen Kim naked?
As a display object too, the book is weird. Little thought seems to have been paid to order, apart from grouping shots by year, and photos are arrayed strangely on the page, with faces—including Kim’s—often running off the edge or into the fold. In what might be a bid for lo-fi cred, the images themselves, taken mostly on cell phones or first-generation digital cameras, harken back to the early days of internet over-sharing: when people posted un-retouched shots to Facebook with little regard to artistry or aesthetics, shiny foreheads and breakouts intact, captured by cameras that did not also send text messages. Low-resolution being a limitation of the medium, the book is much smaller than your standard coffee-table fare. It’s also thicker; Kardashian, who may indeed be the most prolific self-photographer of our generation, has selected more than 300 pages of selfies. The result can only be described as stocky, fat, and sloppy—words that have been used to describe Kardashian exactly never. One can’t help but wonder how two powerhouse brands—Rizzoli and Kardashian—missed the mark so widely.
In many ways, Selfish is the latest iteration, perhaps the apex, of a pervasive trend that has become the subject of countless bereaved think-pieces from the guardians of the art-world gates: the meshing of previously impenetrable cultural institutions with pop icons, the deification of hi-lo. The borders have always been porous; today they no longer seem to exist. It’s a truism that culture as a whole can only benefit from the comingling of creative forces, and the overlap of high and pop culture shouldn’t be any different: It’s birthed a rising tide of collaborative performances and exhibitions, including Jay Z’s Marina Abramovic-inspired Picasso Baby at Pace, Bjork’s hot mess of a show at MoMA, Lady Gaga’s ArtPOP flop, and literally everything James Franco has done in the last five years.
In the best cases (Picasso Baby, Warhol's covers for the Velvet Underground, Picasso and Chanel's collaborations for the Ballets Russes, the entirety of Kanye's oeuvre), artists swap genres, techniques, and ideas; in the process, they generate something electric and new. Popular forms, like rap, are subjected to a level of inquiry and examination they’ve long deserved, and popular audiences are introduced to new avenues, like performance art, and the people who make it. But when these collaborations don’t work, the primary exchange between the keepers of the culture and the pop personalities headlining their shows seems to be that of creativity for commercial value—and an increasingly desperate bid for relevance on the part of major cultural institutions. It’s hard not to be skeptical when Miley Cyrus has a sculpture show blessed by Jeffrey Deitch and, over in Miami, Chris Brown is selling his graffiti through fine-art auctioneer FAAM.
It would be easy to toss Selfish onto the second heap. But the truth is that while it is certainly a product of our high-low obsession, it also marks an important departure. Until now, efforts to mix elite and popular culture have featured partners who at the very least consider themselves artists: people who, with varying degrees of success, attempt to create art. Kim does not. Kim is just…Kim.
Perhaps even more problematic, in this collaboration, there’s been no actual mixing, no exchange. The book is neither beautiful nor interesting. It's not particularly “high” and not particularly “low” either. The photos and layout show no sign of the publisher’s aesthetic influence, and what little text there is bears no editorial mark. No one even bothered asking Jerry Saltz to prop up the conceit with a self-aware yet academic introduction.
Kardashian’s own introduction heralds the book as a bildungsroman of a very modern sort; it chronicles, she writes, not the “development of myself,” but the “development of my selfies.” The book is a literal reflection: not of Kardashian’s evolution or that of the culture of exposure, but of the evolution of camera phones. (Spoiler alert: they get better.) As such, the book says little about celebrity, art, narcissism, technology, or any of the other things it could, in the right hands, illuminate—including Kim herself. It’s hard to know whether Rizzoli has conflated authenticity with lo-fidelity, and lo-fidelity with low-quality, or whether the publisher has simply joined the swelling ranks of purveyors—of reclaimed wooden furniture, artisanal ice cream, selfies—for whom “curation” means, simply, “pick some.”
In the nearly ten years we’ve known her, Kardashian hasn’t changed all that much. She used to wear Juicy and now she wears Lanvin; where she once posed nude for Playboy, she now poses nude for Paper. Big deal. But things have changed around her. In 2006, when Kim got her TV start, the incipient culture of overexposure was already deplored, but it was also a novel and thrilling concept. Now the overshare isn’t just assumed, it’s a fact of life—the base line. With her reality show and pioneering social media presence, Kardashian was instrumental in creating that shift, and the transformation of the broader culture seems nearly complete. But it would be a mistake to think that all Kardashian has to offer is her oversharing. She’s a massively successful businesswoman with a sui-generis empire spanning television, retail, fashion design, digital gaming, and beauty. (Have you tried her dry shampoo?) We, at least, would welcome a collaboration with her that explored the bigger ideas that swirl around her: celebrity, documentation, race, sexuality, feminism. This isn’t it.
At the end of the day, selfies of another person, presented without context, are just pictures of another person. In this case, they’re pictures of Kim Kardashian, and the reader struggles to see how this makes Selfish any different from Kardashian’s Instagram feed. Having already seen all of her, what is there left to look at?
Maybe that’s the most important takeaway: There’s nothing left to see here. The culture Kardashian helped create, and which Selfish is the culmination of, is on the downswing. Last year, for Facebook’s tenth anniversary, a Pew Research survey revealed that, while the young aren’t quite abandoning the site in the droves feared, their number one complaint was about acquaintances sharing too much. Last week, the stock of a trio of social-media sites, including Twitter, plummeted amid concerns they couldn’t maintain growth.
Kardashian’s generation—ourselves included—have stopped posting their every suntan, avotoast, and belfie; we’ve been overexposed to overexposure. Or, rather, we’ve started carefully curating what we share, selecting items of substance over self-chronicle: the perfect Biennial shot, the politically conscious hashtag. We hunger once again for mystery—or for true connection: After all, is the image of Kim brushing her hair really as compelling as Bruce Jenner’s transition? It’s fitting that the woman who popularized the self-chronicle of the everyday would now announce its end. Kardashian has finally jumped the shark.
Image Credits: Courtesy of Rizzoli