Kardashian Selfies, Warhol Superstars and "Famehood"

Kim Kardashian
Kim Kardashian

1.

Is Kim Kardashian this decade’s Andy Warhol?

Whoa! Don't get me wrong. Before you disabuse this equivalence of two media-obsessed narcissists, don’t picture the Andy Warhol we know today, whose paintings sell for tens of millions of dollars at Sotheby’s and Christie's. Imagine, instead, the schlumpy kid from Pittsburgh, a slight, wan man who became so obsessed with the idea of celebrity that he “manufactured” his own cult at “The Factory,” rendering his now sought-after paintings and graphics almost a sidebar during his lifetime. It's hard to deny that Kardashian, today's queen of media self-promotion, is anything less than Warhol's wet dream of "fame" come to climax.

Warhol was a shy and introverted nerd who rose out of Manhattan's underground culture, his star-fucking Interview magazine presaging the 1983 revival of Vanity Fair, whose annual Oscar afterparty is the locus primus of today’s celebrity cool.

2. warhol self portrait polaroid
Warhol Self-Portrait

The marginalized, grungy wannabes Warhol transformed into “superstars” anticipated the reality-TV stars that now clog our television screens in an unending cavalcade of banality. It is tempting to fantasize how Warhol could have played Pygmalion in molding Galatea/Kardashian (though you could easily argue for a role reversal). Imagine his Jackie O and Marilyn silkscreens usurped by ones of the Armenian-American diva.

Warhol with "Superstars" (Credit: Sam Falk/New York Times)
Warhol with "Superstars" (Credit: Sam Falk/New York Times)

If there was a true star of 1960s celebrity as a state of being rather than of talent or accomplishment, it was Edie Sedgwick. Born in Santa Barbara, she gained fame in her early 20s in Manhattan as a trophy of The Factory, starring in several of Warhol’s films and evolving into one of the few of his rag-tag acolytes to break into mainstream culture — as a model. A victim of the era’s helter-skelter drug lifestyle, Sedgwick died at 28 of a barbiturate overdose — ironically, back home in Santa Barbara. She may well have become the Kim Kardashian of her time had the New York underground scene come of age in the era of social media.

Edie Sedgwick, March 1966. (Credit: Conde Nast Archive/Corbis)
Edie Sedgwick, March 1966. (Credit: Conde Nast Archive/Corbis)

One of the fantasy images that lies in the more macabre recesses of my brain features Kim Kardashian, but it’s not one of those sleazy, near-nude photos that link to pop-up adverts on celebrity-stalking sites that have absolutely no relevance to your life. If you think of Kardashian as the poster girl for narcissistic body worship and social-media obsession, the image lurking in my head may surprise you.

It’s no secret to regular readers of this blog that I have an abiding interest in the daring work of men and women conflict photographers who risk their lives, too often dying as witnesses to human trauma in violent zones of our rapidly warming planet. The imagined image I see is Kardashian, Selfie Stick and iPhone held high as she flashes one of her provocative poses, and the background is not a celebrity watering hole in Beverly Hills, but an arid field strewn with pleading eyes and withered limbs in some sub-Saharan killing field. It’s an image of the primal struggle for life as an anti-trope to the self-indulgent, narrow focus of our culture, its field of view foregrounded by a self-portrait thick with indifference to the obscene irony of its privilege within the human community.

Okay! What’s the point of jeremiad against folks who just want to have fun? It’s not easy to cruise time-wasting TMZ-type Internet dreck when just one click away lie reminders of the awful fate of hundreds of millions of our fellow citizens. Yes, this uncomfortable nexus of privilege and privation has been on my mind since I wrote about the recent death of Mary Ellen Mark, a photographer who devoted so much of her life and work to documenting the disenfranchised, but who also published a best-selling book of celebrity photos.

And even as we lament the Kardashians’ usurpation of the Internet, the clan has begun to gain more substantive relevance, as noted by Oliver Jones in a recent piece in The Daily Beast:

In the past several weeks, the clan has brought as much attention to the century-old Armenian genocide as that atrocity has ever received in pop culture. Plus, Bruce Jenner’s deeply felt and perfectly pitched revelations about gender identity have done more to further the national conversation about the trans community than just about any other story in recent memory.

4. caitlyn jenner

The moving Jenner story aside, just what is a reasonably mature adult to make of this conflation of vapid celebrity fixation with urgent issues of humanity? I’m not at all certain, but for each narcissistic celebrity whose trivial musings become the stuff of daily blog updates, there also is one who toils quietly, doing what he or she can to relieve others’ suffering. I still recall the sight that surprised Carol and me in the midst of the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya: a girls’ school created by Angelina Jolie, who is quietly working in Africa with no public fanfare.

5. angelina jolie school

Carol and I were with an AMPAS International Outreach group that was visiting this camp on behalf of FilmAid, which supports Kakuma camp youth who shoot and edit orientation, health and service videos for the ever-changing camp population. These youths, living at the margins of possibility, write, direct, edit, photograph and star in movies for their own community. “Fame” is a relative term.

2.

The selfie is hardly an invention of the iPhone age. The first photo self-portrait was purported to be by Robert Cornelius in 1839, around the time photography was invented. Cornelius, an amateur chemist living in Philadelphia, is said to have run into the camera’s field of view after taking off the lens cap, sitting for a full minute of exposure.

At the beginning of the 20th century, F. Holland Day’s platinum, one-of-a-kind images of himself as Jesus Christ almost rivaled Stieglitz’s photos in popularity.

6A. f holland day 7 last words
From the series The Seven Words by F. Holland Day

The recent discovery and almost immediate canonization of Vivian Maier’s obsessive self-portraiture, possibly an outlet for her near solitary life, forces us to understand on a deeper level the hows and whys of the individual’s need to frame his or her very existence.

Vivian Maier
Vivian Maier

I’m not about to equate the self-defining struggle of a recluse like Maier with the antics of a self-promotion hound like Kardashian, but there must be some kind of congruence flitting along the spectrum of personality that finds satisfaction in making and looking at images of ourselves — something beyond the ephemeral zeitgeist or bandwagon adoption of a new fad. No less than the U.S. president has fallen into line with the cultural trope of the Selfie Stick.

8.Obama-Selfie-Stick

And the selfie has become the new “I am here” tourist’s record …

9. Mideast Emirates Selfie Sticks

… as well as a visual anthem of youth worldwide.

10-multi

But how do we explain a sociocultural phenomenom like Keeping up with the Kardashians? (Who in their right mind would want to?) Or the even more bizarre artifact Selfish, Kardashian’s “book” of more than 300 photos published by Rizzoli, which was once a publisher of high-end art, photography and design books, but is now apparently trolling the befouled ditches of low-end pop culture?

A May 2015 book signing in New York.
A May 2015 book signing in New York. (Credit: Jim Spellman/WireImage)

The Selfish images are categorized by year from 2006 to 2014, but an introductory double-page spread shows 4-year-old Kim in a fuzzy extreme close-up with this caption:

My very first selfie was taken in 1984. I put my mom’s clip-on earrings on Khloé and found a disposable camera and took a picture to capture this memory.

Selfish is compact but pretty thick, not unlike — in size at least — the venerable Everyman’s Library volumes (irony intended), and can be slipped into your Kate Spade New York Satchel. The book is mercifully free of much text, though there is the occasional confessional caption:

I was in Miami and forgot to bring a bathing suit, so I borrowed Kylie’s. She wasn’t getting it back.

This reads like a tweet to her 32.3 million Twitter followers. Here is an actual tweet from early June:

12-tweet

Promo copy for Selfish explains:

Widely regarded as a trailblazer of the "selfie movement" — a modern-day self-portrait of the digital age — Kim has mastered the art of taking flattering and highly personal photos of oneself. For the first time in print, this book presents some of Kim’s favorite selfies in one volume — from her favorite throwback images to current ultra-sexy glam shots — and provides readers with a behind-the-scenes look into this larger-than-life star.

What do you suppose a “larger-than-life star” is? Kardashian is not a movie star with a body of work like, say, Meryl Streep, nor a literary one, nor a new visionary of the art world, nor a rising star in politics (though these days, who knows for sure?), a rocket scientist or brain surgeon. She is simply a star because she is famous, a tautology if ever there were one. (You’ll forgive me if I don’t properly acknowledge her clothing line, K-Dash, available on QVC.)

You can’t help but hear an echo of the old query, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The culture’s reply today seems to be, “I want to be famous.” What is fame, anyway? Is it a hard-won goal or "a condition or state of being," like sainthood, a secular imprimatur blessed by the media? Maybe call it “famehood.”

The proliferation of personal YouTube channels, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Imgur and Vine— not to mention by-now-traditional outlets like Facebook — seems to give more than lip service to the oft-misquoted Warhol quip about 15 minutes of fame. Many Warhol colleagues cite themselves as the source of the quote (easy to do after he’s dead). Here is a likely source, according to The Independent:

'In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.' Andy Warhol’s famous quote predicted fame’s fleeting nature in our celebrity-saturated culture. But the Pop Artist, who built a fortune by mass-producing other people’s creations, may never have actually said those words, it has emerged. The original aphorism has been traced back to a 1968 brochure Warhol distributed at one of his exhibitions in Sweden.

However, after investigating the statement’s history, art critic Blake Gopnik believes Warhol was not its originator, even though he became firmly associated with the quip. Gopnik discovered that the Stockholm show’s creator Pontus Hulten included the quote in the catalogue’s compendium of Warhol quotes. 'If he didn’t say it, he very well could have. Let’s put it in,' Hulten told an assistant, Gopnik reports on the Warholiana blog.

 One is reminded of the famous quote from the John Ford film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:

This is the West, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

These days, who the hell even knows what is fact? The mashup of publicity, marketing, entertainment, infotainment and sponsored ads next to the incipient orphan of “truth” rocks us all back on our Nikes. I don’t know where to seek refuge anymore. Pop-ups and fake news links on the Internet make this ever more problematic. The only reason we’re still able to use the Web at all is because marketers can’t keep up with its evolution.

The reach of the celebrity machine extends ever further; the reality is that many of us are so mesmerized by our own potential for celebrity that we become willing addicts of the drug. From this perspective, the Kardashian phenom is not simply something to divert you as you browse headlines over a soy latte while seated at your laptop, but an avatar of something darker. It used to be acceptable, even desirable, to be nothing more than a decent, contributing member of the social fabric, that our dedicated work be part of the warp and woof of the cultural garment. Social media, the cult of the celebrity, and selfie-ness not only question this modest ambition, but actually suggest we may be failures if we don’t hunger for some kind of fame. Even in children’s games and junior sports competitions, everyone must somehow be a winner: Get a prize, no one loses. That doesn’t seem to me to be the way to send a child out into the world, a world where so many others are fighting for selfie-hood.

Sedgwick’s life was a cautionary tale about the possible consequences of “famehood,” though she did seem to be developing acting chops before she died. The collision of underground and mainstream culture that she represented is less likely to happen today. In an age that no longer celebrates an avant-garde, where the intersection of obscurity and celebrity has been reduced to millions of “likes,” someone like Kardashian is not an accident, but an inevitability, almost Hegelian. Here is a brief look at the arc of Sedgwick’s career, which looks utterly askew next to the Kardashian phenomenon:

3.

In late November 2010, I was completing production in Anchorage of the movie Big Miracle, an under-appreciated ecological rescue tale about a family of whales trapped in early sea ice near Point Barrow.

Big Miracle
Big Miracle

The Anchorage Museum had a Warhol exhibition, Manufactured, that featured one room of video screens showing his famous “Screen Tests” of the mid-1960s. At the entry, there was an old-fashioned photo booth that beckoned visitors.

Intrigued by the conflation of the 16mm 3-minute film portraits and my own iPhone photo of the booth’s taking lens, I made this:

16.-john-in-booth anchorage

And last week, I decided to create a selfie like those default images that populate pages on IMDb when the user doesn't supply a profile picture. It may be my next thumbnail for this blog.

17. john selfie

I doubt any of us will get out of this closed loop alive, so I may as well crew up as an able seaman on this Ship of Fools.

Perhaps Kardashian will reinvent herself in a surprisingly stripped-down persona, showing us all the way to canonized non-selfhood, even anonymity. Or maybe we all will simply fulfill Warhol’s prophecy. Let's face it: In today’s media circus, 15 minutes is more than a complete cycle of fame.

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