Watching Kanye West’s “Bound 2” is about as joyous as romping through a stock photography website. The generic sprawling sunsets, mountain vistas, and gradient backgrounds are airless. Our two protagonists are large as gods, with Kim Kardashian reclining in the buff—though her nipples are airbrushed—playing a human hood ornament atop Kanye West’s motorcycle. These two celebrities, and a growing cadre of other stars, are unlike their predecessors; they like art, and they’re getting treated like artists.
The images from “Bound 2″ are wholly without depth, and yet Jerry Saltz has not only named the phenomenon but given it his approval. It’s the “New Uncanny,” and according to Saltz it’s “a freakish act of creation and destruction by appropriation” that’s “as bizarrely gonzo and creepily asexual as Jeff Koons’s hyperrealistic 1991 paintings of himself having sex with his then-wife Cicciolina, John Currin’s 1989 paintings of Breck girls, and Marina Abramovic’s staring at spectators at MoMA in 2010.” While you can compare the video to art—West’s 2007 video “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” tells us he’s not lacking in self-awareness—these aren’t the primary references in the video. Those allude more strongly to the banality of life.
In “Bound 2” what rolls off the tongue are pop cultural references: Michael Jackson and Lisa-Marie Presley’s “You Are Not Alone” moment; the entire hot girls sitting on motorcycles industry; or stock photography websites. It appropriates nearly a full range of low brow culture.
For Saltz, this range is part of what makes the video remarkable, which at its most basic, is about acting like you’re not aware, but are:
The New Uncanny is un-self-consciousness filtered through hyper-self-consciousness, unprocessed absurdity, grandiosity of desire, and fantastic self-regard.
In the New Uncanny, Kim Kardashian’s “nippleless boob” becomes the pinnacle of a “grand gestural show of doing away with concealment, modesty, and self-consciousness, in ways that leave us only with two truly concealed, rather than revealed selves.” Kim and Kanye are giving us their all, but we’re still left with surface and gloss.
That’s nothing immediately new for celebrities, who’ve been at this game for a while. It’s a heightened version of vacuousness with the hope that those aware of the gesture will do some reflecting; Harmony Korine’s empty opus Spring Breakers provides one such example, as does Joaquin Phoenix’s psuedo-documentary I’m Still Here, in which he pretends to leave acting for a career in rapping. In both cases, the false image is so clear that no message is possible. Just because we can identify an art reference or two, bad film and performance isn’t made any more valuable.
In Saltz’s case, he goes on to liken the couple to Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic for their veiled attempts at sincerity—which is fine, but by continuing to generate a list of people to compare the Wests to, he fails to examine the questions that might tell us why art critics have to talk about celebrities’ artiness in the first place. Rather than giving a new name to a movement, we’d be better off figuring out how critics ended up here.
And the answer may not be that elusive; blame it on the rise of the collector class. Now more than ever, the world’s wealthiest have taken to art as a plaything and pastime; they’re the reason why art fairs and auctions can stay afloat—and keep blue-chip dealers affluent—for most months out of the year. Celebrities have joined the ranks of the hedge-fund managers and barons of industry in their year-long parties and purchasing. (Kanye West just bought a Basquiat, just another ornament to add to the Tree of Wealth.) They’re now part of the art world—talking about their Corbusiers, hiring artists to commission album covers—with art as a branding strategy, a signifier of clout and class.
There’s plenty of additional reasons for wanting to be part of this uber-collector class. Dealer David Zwirner explains one of the rarer rationales as such: “It’s the greatest couples therapy. You see the most wonderful marriages.” I wish Kim and Kanye all the best of luck in that regard, but I’d prefer letting the tabloids keep track.