"They own their own image. In a world where image is everything, that's a very serious kind of ownership."
One of the longest-running reality TV shows in network history, Keeping Up with the Kardashians debuted on the E! network in 2007. Since then, it has come to represent, for many, everything that is wrong with American culture: its obsession with celebrities; its financial empires built seemingly from nothing; the increasingly blurred demarcations between on-screen and off, personal and private, online and IRL; not to mention talent versus personal and family connections. The list could go on and on, the groans endless.
Since the show is such a cultural touchstone, and so reflective of our time—for better or worse—I thought it particularly apt to launch BOMB Daily’s new interview series Anything but Art with a lively discussion—moderated by BOMB contributor Brienne Walsh—between artists Chelsea Knight and Elise Rasmussen on the Kardashian dynasty. Anything but Art features artists talking about whatever they want, ultimately, as long as it’s not about their practice. The gambit’s kind of a joke, but kind of not. When not working, what are they doing and talking about? TV? Star Wars? Happy Hour? What are the side-interests that somehow have nothing to do—and everything to do—with their “practice,” proper?
Elise and Chelsea together taught a class on the Kardashians for the New School, ReKasting the Kardashians: A Critical Approach to Contemporary Popular Culture and Media. Pairing them with Walsh, a self-avowed reality TV junky, there was a lot to say when they gathered at Elise’s Clinton Hill apartment.
— David Everitt Howe
Brienne Walsh So. Tell me, how did you start watching the Kardashians?
Chelsea Knight Um, I don't know. I visited home in Vermont years ago, and my mother had cable. I saw an old episode of the Kardashians. Maybe season 2 or something. And I was struck by how much chemistry and intimacy they had, even though the subject matter at hand was things like appearances and objects they wanted to buy. But I remember someone dragged Kim down the hall by her leg, and they all piled up on top of each other, and all of them were there, and they weren't yet totally made up. And I remember feeling jealous that I didn't have a big family that pulled each other down hallways and things. And then when Elise and I taught the Kardashians class, we went back and looked at the very beginning of the show, and then we looked at the very end. Their masks have changed so much over the years. It's really useful to take a class studying pop culture through those kind of phases, of what it means to become increasingly mediated so that all there is left is a surface without an original. So we were watching all these things and not wanting to deny the pleasure that's obvious about these interactions, even if the subject matter is Kourtney couponing.
Elise Rasmussen Well, and also the question of, “Why do I get pleasure from this?” And to actually take a look at what is it about the show that I actually find so enjoyable. Because, “I should know better than to enjoy this and watch this.” But yet, I do. And it's also trying to find—especially for Chelsea, who’s always trying to find moments of authenticity—the few moments where there's a slippage and you can see the real fight they're having, despite the façade and the PR machine.
CK They break character.
ER Exactly, and that's the moment that you're waiting for.
BW I always wonder if there's anything real left in them, though. What I find about them that's so interesting is that they've always been boring; you're right that there's intimacy, but they don't do anything interesting. They don't travel places, they don't read things, they don't talk about ideas, and then they're also not that smart. So I don't know how much they're aware of the mediation that they've gone through.
CK I would disagree that they're not that smart.
BW You think so? I think they're smart in specific ways, but they're not intellectual.
CK No, definitely not, in the sense that they're not having conversations that are highly layered.
BW I remember reading “A Day in the Life of Kim Kardashian” in Harper’s Bazaar. She has the most boring day. I would kill myself if every one of my days was like that. It’s the same when you watch her being interviewed, she doesn't ever break into somebody who looks as though they're introspective. I think this actually ends up helping her. She doesn’t intellectualize her fame, so it doesn’t break her. You see a lot of reality stars crack, most of the time, at some point, especially in The Real Housewives; there you see them crack all the time. They have liquor around. But the Kardashians never crack, at least not in public, and definitely not on the television show.
CK I think that the crux of it, or the thing that keeps it interesting for me, is the quantity of labor they're doing for their appearances. I mean, this is no joke, you know what I mean? They roll out of bed with talons on.
BW I loved that cover you sent me, with the Kardashians and all the men that they've ruined.
ER Well that's the thing. I think there's a real fear of powerful women like Kris Jenner.
BW Like they're going to ruin a man.
ER It's become this idea of the castrating woman, right? It's such an old, antiquated notion. But it's still very much resonant today.
BW It’s interesting that the Kardashians, who are perceived as being so stupid or silly by the general public, can still have that power just by virtue of being women. It’s the same power we ascribe to Hillary Clinton.
CK I think also it's important to really fracture or break down the kinds of power that women are mocked for having—feminine power, or sexual power, or let's say the most important thing about you is your appearance, so you use your appearance to have power, rather than subvert that in other ways. The most depressing thing about the show for me is just that there's never a critique of what beauty is, and how it operates and what it's used for and what it means to them. It's just super conventional, but with larger asses. They still look like models. I mean, even Kylie, who's maybe more plain than Kendall, has undergone this transformation. But it does make me sad that young girls who watch the show aren't asking, "But wait? What does this all mean?"
ER A lot of our students in the Kardashians class weren’t really thinking through the concept of beauty, they're just, “I want to make beautiful pictures or pictures of beautiful people.” And it's like, okay, but what is beauty?
CK And why is this word beautiful such a thing that we take for granted?
BW I guess because we live in a man's world still. And that is the way that women have, historically, been able to get power.
BW To be beautiful and sexually desirable. I mean, we've had a lot of revolutions and a lot of changes, but in some ways it’s gotten worse for women in terms of the physical ideal.
CK Yeah, but I would implicate women in that.
BW Oh, I'm not saying that we're not implicated in any way. But I do think that it's really important for us to somehow begin to reverse it. I don't know how or where. I mean obviously the Kardashians are not the root of it. But they offer an outlet for this feeling of wanting beauty. They’re not necessarily naturally beautiful, but they show that if you have enough time and money, even an average woman can make herself desirable. This brings me to something else I want to talk to you guys about—the idea of money. Did you guys see that New York Magazine article the other day, "Kylie Jenner Literally Imprisoned by Her Own Wealth"? It's about how she's trying to get her Cartier bracelet off, and she can't, and she's like, "LITERALLY GUYS LIKE I CANNOT GET IT OFF." And New York Magazine is like "SHE'S LITERALLY IMPRISONED BY HER OWN WEALTH." It was funny. But I find the two younger girls to be super sad.
ER Kendall and—
BW The two young ones, yeah.
CK Kylie's the capitalist though. Kylie's the one who's using competition to create content.
BW Kylie uses kompetition to kreate kontent—all in K’s. (laughter)
CK That's awesome. There we go. The fact that they've parleyed this modest reality television show into such an empire—through things like charging the media to go to their weddings—is brilliant capitalism. And it makes people think and it infects people—I’m projecting—it infects me with this desire to make something out of nothing too, which is sort of what capitalism is about.
BW I mean, why can’t I get people to follow me around and pay me money, you know what I mean? I don’t even want their things, I just want a back yard. They have these beautiful back yards where they have movie nights.
CK But then there’s this question of what is relative freedom then? To have cameras following you around, to be imprisoned in your Cartier bracelet? To have to put on makeup all the time and have your hair done every single day?
BW See I wonder if they're the perfect celebrities. I don't know, obviously I don't know them, but they don't seem to mind. I mean, I think Khloe minds, I think Kourtney maybe too a little bit, maybe Kendall. But I think that Kim and Kylie would be doing that anyway.
CK I think you may be right. I hadn't thought about it that way.
BW They would be made up like that walking around LA.
CK But isn't that the success of the show? That you can project onto who they are and who they really inherently should be? You know what I mean? We're embedded all together.
BW Explain that, I like that idea.
CK That we sit around and think about them in terms of their authentic selves, which they resolutely don't show us. Until they do, with those cracks, those moments, where they really are fighting, or they're really connected for whatever reason.
BW In the earliest ones they really did fight a lot. And I loved that, because I grew up with a sister and I was like, yes, I fight with my sister like that. Like, nasty fights.
CK I think that's why the show was originally possible.
ER Yeah, I think it was because of the family dynamic, and I feel like it was also Kourtney and Khloe kind of being like, "Ugh, Kim." And then everybody can identify with one of those characters, in a way. And I think it's also just this thing of wanting to pass judgment. People want to be able to figure out their own moral compass. Like, “Oh I would do that,” or “Oh I would never do that. I'm more like this.” I mean, my guilty pleasure is always picking up an Us Weekly on flights, because it's the best thing to pass the time. It's just pure trash, but I love it and the idea of gossip magazines. It's something that you can talk about. I'll text my mom, and she'll be like, "Did you know so-and-so dated…" There's a common element. And it's not hurting any of us to talk about it.
BW I mean, we're not talking about the Housewives, but I always think about why I watch them, because I love them.
ER Which one do you watch?
BW Every one of them. I mean, I have cable now. I'm like, on it. My husband will not watch them. I have to watch them during the day.
CK You're like, can you please put Bravo or E! on? What is this CNN?
BW CNN is just as bad though, right? I like watching the Housewives because there’s a part of me that gets catty or bitchy or whatever, and they're doing that on the screen and I can feel that and participate in that, and then I don't have to bring it into my real life.
CK But when someone like Theresa on Real Housewives of New Jersey flips that table over in season 1, or whatever, that was for the cameras, right? The wrath of the producer. Whereas I think with the Kardashians, it felt more authentic. It's just so ironic that something that pulled and teased out certain kinds of kinship bonds then became successful, and then to sustain the success had to become much more plastic and hyper-scripted.
ER Well because they're having to protect this huge empire that was built off of this, and that's ultimately what it is. So the stakes are way larger. It's not just about them, it’s about the people they're employing, the brands they're endorsing, all of these things that more and more they can't misstep with.
CK That's the thing, they're like politicians.
BW Do you guys have their apps? I have Kim and Kourtney's, and they do live streams. Your phone will chirp, and it'll be like, "Kim is live right now!" And you'll turn it on and just, like, there's Kim, on your phone. You could watch her for like an hour and she's just talking. It’s so boring. But I can’t stop watching. And also, I want to say, I love her.
CK They were promoting those at an Apple store when I ran into them randomly a few months ago. I wanted to ask a question, but it was clear that they had already pre-picked the people to ask the questions. But that didn't deter the people with their hands up. And then everyone's taking the same pictures of them, and then slowly I lost interest because they were so fucking boring. I left. I couldn't stay through it, even though I was like, "You're so beautiful Khloe," cause she’s my favorite one. She had this strapless onesie on, whatever that's called, with a cat suit. I was like, "Wow." I wanted more pizazz. But it just felt pretty flat.
BW I want to talk about their longevity. What happens to the Kardashians and what replaces them? I'd love to make a prediction. But first, I know your work, Chelsea, deals a lot with race [Editor’s Note: NO ART]. One of my friends at the time—she’s a white girl—said, "What I love about the Kardashians is that they've normalized interracial dating." And it's true, there's a lot of black men on the show. Do you think it has an effect on race? The Kardashians? Do you think it's saying something interesting about race? Or do you think it's not interesting at all?
CK I would just say that's a pretty involved question. But I will say that what I like about how they've dealt with interracial dating, or whatever you want to call it, is that they don't make an issue of it. It's not really talked about, though I haven't seen every single episode. It could be that it got talked about and I missed it. But from what I've seen it's just like, "Oh, well, is Reggie calling me or not?" or, "Is Lamar gonna die?" I like that it’s sort of leading by example, and that the characters form these ensembles, and suddenly Shakespeare is black, and why not? And it's not mentioned. Or it's a show of all women and that's not being trumpeted. But then it's also this question of people disavowing their race. Are the Kardashians white? I know that they're obviously half-Armenian, but what is white? How is whiteness constructed in their world? How does privilege change that, and the fact that they live in Calabasas, and all these things. I don't know, what do you think?
ER I think what's interesting—because there's such a wide audience—is that I think it probably does normalize it, or at least—I mean, I don't totally know—but I feel like that with some of the topics they talk about, all of these things that happen, if you're growing up in a very white, very Christian or sort of small town and if you’re watching this, that it is kind of presenting a new—
ER Absolutely. I mean, that's HUGE. And I mean there's so many issues with the trans community and Caitlyn.
CK We could have another two hours of conversation.
ER But for so many people, this is the first time they're ever been introduced to the idea of a trans person, and that person being Bruce Jenner, who was this masculine, sports [figure]. So I think that, in some cases, yeah it is huge. And because, like what Chelsea said, it's not discussed, "Oh your black boyfriend" or whoever, it's not an issue. They make it a non-issue, I think.
BW Yeah, that's interesting, but I also think that right now we’re dealing with how race being a non-issue can be an issue, too.
CK But there's this question I think in there also, about how the show deals with fetish. And I don't mean conventional sexual fetish. I mean, Kanye not letting North really be in the show and not being in the show himself. And then it creates this kind of allure or this illusion or this fetish for, who is Kanye? And who is Lamar? And who is Caitlyn? And Caitlyn Jenner being…they constantly revert to the most conservative kinds of racial and sex and gender-based stereotypes. It’s like how Sex in the City used to feel really radical, and now it looks really conservative. And I wonder—
BW And badly written, right? Like, oof, I can't even listen to it.
ER But remember watching it? It was so radical at the time.
CK Thirty-five-year-old women having sex and being SINGLE?! But oh wait.
ER But it was so shallow.
BW Now you watch it—
CK And it's just unwatchable.
ER I think Sex in the City is actually an interesting comparison with the Kardashians. Talking about what replaces what, I feel like the Kardashians did fill a little bit of the Sex in the City void.
BW Well it's the same fetish. That fetishization of clothes.
CK I think it's just the zeitgeist of the viewership that the Kardashians have become the Jesus of reality TV. We can take them as gurus, we can infantilize them, we can dismiss them, we can do all of these things. But they ultimately do feel like they have agency.
ER They do have agency.
CK And not just money-wise. And not just because they control the final edit—
BW How do you think they have agency? I'm just curious.
CK That they own their own image. In a world where image is everything, that's a very serious kind of ownership. And I've spent a lot of time thinking about images and copies, and this idea of an image with no original, trying to work that out. And yet I‘m so drawn to the show, I watch the show and I'm so deeply committed in that moment. And my mother just hates it and is so sad about it, and thinks it's my failure, because maybe I'm fetishizing them.
ER My mom hates it too. And my mom hates reality TV in general. I think it's also coming from my mom being a feminist. Your mom's a feminist from a different generation. And then feeling like, this is just bullshit.
CK But you know, once it's in the textbooks, which it now is, things are gonna change. This stuff is being theorized now.
Chelsea Knight is a video and performance artist working in New York. Knight completed residencies at the Whitney Independent Study Program (2010) and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2008), and was a Fulbright Fellow in Italy (2007). Solo exhibitions, performances and screenings include: The New Museum, New York; The St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, MO; The Brooklyn Museum; Aspect Ratio Gallery, Chicago, IL; Momenta Art, Brooklyn, NY; DiverseWorks, Houston, with Mark Tribe; Night Gallery, Los Angeles, with Elise Rasmussen; and Julius Caesar Gallery, Chicago, IL. Knight was a Spring 2015 Research and Development Artist in Residence at the New Museum.
Elise Rasmussen is a research-based artist based in Brooklyn. Working in photography, video and performance, her work has been exhibited, performed and screened at international venues including the Brooklyn Museum; Bard CCS Hessel Museum, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY; Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, NY; Night Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; Erin Stump Projects, Toronto, Canada; TRUCK Contemporary Art, Calgary, Canada; Standpoint Gallery, London; and most recently at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, where she was a recent artist in residence.
Brienne Walsh is a writer, critic, and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Village Voice, Art in America, ArtReview, Interview, Paper, Architectural Digest, Departures, PDN, and Forbes, among other publications. She is also the author of the blog "A Brie Grows In Brooklyn." She just finished So This Is Love, a collection of essays about getting married.