Kimye’s recent Vogue cover got me thinking. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the culture of images that has proven its influence by the reaction caused among fashion’s closest Internet followers. Where many have written about what it means to be in Vogue and the appropriateness of Kim Kardashian’s place on the cover, I haven’t been able to escape notions of work, labour, and creation.
How does Vogue fit her work? What is that work? Does she even have a job?
So much of the (annoyingly) negative reaction towards Kim’s recent cover spot has centered on her apparent lack of talent. Critics charge that she doesn’t merit her spot, citing an illustrious lineup of past cover subjects, including everyone from Hillary Clinton to Michelle Obama to Beyoncé. I find it puzzling that these critics have asserted a Vogue cover as a thing of true merit. As Haley Mlotek explained in her rich writing earlier this week, the cover of a magazine is not about what readers want; it’s about what a magazine wants us to want. The focus on meritocracy dangerously maintains our attention on Vogue as a reflection of culture instead of “most powerful shaping tools [of] cultural values,” she writes. Put otherwise, our current chatter is rarely constructive.
To move away from the deserving/undeserving debate, I’d like to suggest that the Kimye cover’s most important function as is part of Kim Kardashian’s broader career. My questions about what career actually is and what she does are unpacked by thinking about how our world has structured value around images. What we consider prize-worthy is determined by images that are widely seen, collected, exchanged, and used as a currency for defining relevance and negotiating desire. Celebrity culture and fashion are no exceptions — they define the rule. Both celebrity culture and fashion demand us to ascertain value in what we see. We welcome and crave the satisfaction role, and we actively play into it, watching the Oscar’s red carpet, reading glossies, and looking at street style blogs. Lacan-influenced artist Mary Kelly anticipated where I’m going with this idea in a 1986 issue of Wedge: “Since the fascination in looking is founded on separation from what it seen, the field of vision is also, and most appropriately, the field of desire.”
However, where Kelly sees this field as potentially problematic, Kim embraces it. Kim goes to work in this very field of vision. She makes her money by consciously engaging it. Her business is rooted in our insatiable desire to consume. I’d suggest that this is her savvy and the source of her relevance. She locates her labor at the nexus of commodified images and our desire to see more of them. To boot, so much of her status is based on the frequency with which she is seen. She churns out looks like an industrial magnate. She is without doubt one of the most photographed people in popular culture. Yet critics have read this endless count of images as dangerous; not even President Obama could resist this tempting critique. The breadth of these images has gone underappreciated for what I think it is: a form of production, of creation. Kim’s work is the creation of relevance through the rapid proliferation of her presence in the visual media we care about and invest in, emotionally, psychologically, and economically.
This creative labour isn’t new or innovative. Conquering the field of vision and desire is a practice that predates Kim Kardashian and other contemporary celebrities. But since its introduction into American culture, it has remained intensely relevant. After the male gaze had been theorized in the 1970s, artists began to interrogate the position of being looked at. To my mind, Cindy Sherman and Grace Jones stick out most readily, but this search for the value of being rippled beyond them, throughout high art and pop culture. For discussing Kim, however, Sherman and Jones seem relevant because they not only emphasize being seen but also the act of performing a role or subjectivity. As both Jones and Sherman make clear, this performance is made available to us through clothing and makeup. Sherman acted out her creative work within the normative position of being the object of the gaze; she is actively photographed. Jones, in her performance art and photographs with Jean-Paul Goude, enacted racist and colonialist stereotypes of black bodies by lodging herself in the dangerous image-machine that constructed them. Clothes play a role in both bodies of work, but, more broadly, Jones and Sherman defined a special methodology for making something out of being looked at.
No one in celebrity culture has quite engaged the field of vision like Madonna. Working not long after Jones’ prime, Madonna introduced earlier methodologies of being seen to the pop music scene. Madonna’s career throughout the ’80s and ’90s was about the artistic (and, of course, economic) value of being looked at by the masses. The amount of deliberate creative moves Madonna has made to make herself seen are worthy of an analysis that the present writing cannot accommodate. That said, if we look briefly to her video for “Material Girl,” we see the very model by which Kim Kardashian has defined her brand of labor. In it, Madonna dresses up as Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes–a sort of transhistorical performance that draws immediate parallel to Jones. In one particular scene, she wears a pink satin gown. The way the fabric captures the light effects an immediate sense of commodification. She is as illustrious as the diamonds she seeks; it refracts light like something seen through a Benjaminian shop window. She manifests the promised conflation of “material” and “girl” of the song’s title in an incredible way.
Vogue’s decision to put Kim Kardashian on the cover is thus an acknowledgement of her “job.” I’ve tried to show that this job is part of a rich strategy on the part of female creators. If Mlotek’s claim that this cover signals a new direction for Vogue holds true, it’s a direction I support. It is a Vogue that has its finger aggressively on culture’s pulse. Oxymoronically, it is a “realist” Vogue, inasmuch as fashion’s greatest repository of printed dreams can be real. Kim Kardashian is the most mobile person in American pop culture. Vogue has signaled its willingness to track her movements.