Art, history, and “Kim Kardashian. Break the Internet”

“Carolina Beaumont, New York, 1976”

Image originally published in Jean-Paul Goude "Jungle Fever" (1983)
Image originally published in Jean-Paul Goude “Jungle Fever” (1983)

The above portrait by Jean-Paul Goude is a pretty loaded image both in terms of its history, recent and and distant, but also because of its composition.   As a result, it challenges the way in which we not only define “what is art” but also how we view it.

Aesthetically and technically, “Carolina Beaumont” is striking.  The color balance, lighting, and composition pull you in.  It’s has a wonderful relationship with space that I enjoy in photography.  Personally, I find it much more hypnotic that Kim Kardashian’s homage in Paper, also shot by Jean-Paul Goude.

Kim Kardashian by Jean-Paul Goude. "Paper" (Winter, 2014)
Kim Kardashian by Jean-Paul Goude. “Paper” (Winter, 2014)

Historically, culturally, and socially, it’s problematic.  It is a black body on display for a (presumably) non-black audience.  It is also a pose that recalls a specific individual, Saartije Baartmen, and the ways in which her own body was displayed and depicted.

Moreover, this type of viewer/subject relationship between white viewers and black subjects has been going on for centuries in western art, as medievalpoc demonstrates again and again.  With that history comes all sorts of ideas and practices about how that body can be displayed (and the ways in which it can’t), the language that’s used to describe the pose, and who ultimately is making the image and for what market.

Because this image is both aesthetically beautiful and historically and culturally problematic, us the viewer is in a tough spot. To what extent are we culpable of consuming and perpetuating racist and racially-charged imagery?  To what extent can we be excused for our historical ignorance?  When we feel uncomfortable, what should be that trigger?  Is it the way that nudity has different associations and language based on race and power?  Is it nudity within American culture? Is it because the apparatuses that produced and police the image are rooted in traditions and practices that objectify women of color but honor white women with the exact same pose?

And when we decide that the image of a black woman in a pose that relies on historical degradation and cultural stereotypes is problematic despite how visually striking, aesthetically pleasing, technically innovative or just plain satirical it is, what does that mean in terms of artistic license and censorship?  Should the imagined ideal of “art for art’s sake” take precedence over the historical reality?  If so, what does that mean for our preservation and interpretation of the past and our understanding of the present?  Do we step in as moralists and point out all the ways in which our ancestors were horrible — in a manner not unlike the sanitizers of the Victorian era (to name just one example), who used their own ideas of moral propriety to colonize those who lacked it?

Moreover, is the moral argument the only way in which people can examine, critique, and criticize inequality and racism?  After all, inequality exists because there is a cultural system underpinning it, not because people simply have different things or experiences.  Those experiences mean nothing unless there is a cultural lens assigning a particular meaning or interpretation.  After all, having a different skin tone the the product of biology. Having a different life because of that skin tone is the product of culture.

Thus, in order to process both images we need the ability to read images from multiple perspectives all at once.  One can’t read “Carolina Beaumont” through a single lens, just like one can’t read “Kim Kardashian” through a single lens either.  We have to appreciate the aesthetic and technical compositions while remembering the social, historical, and cultural differences at play in each one in order to understand how the image came into being, was discussed, and ultimately, resigned to history.

Otherwise, we end up staring at both our past and present, ignorant of our own surroundings and unable to understand the conversations.  It’s a position of the powerless, and it’s one that the powerful go to great lengths to maintain.

It’s how you also end up on display, clutching a champaign bottle and balancing a glass on your ass.

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