Why Study Popular Culture? Why Study the Kardashians?

“When I got my first television set, I stopped caring so much about having close relationships.” — Andy Warhol 

“In the future, everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes,” is without a doubt Andy Warhol’s most famous quote. Eerily predictive of the twenty-first century’s stars who are famous for “being famous,” this quote encapsulates the seemingly democratized nature of celebrity created by reality television, the internet, and social media. Despite his embrace of pop culture, Warhol’s oeuvre fits seamlessly into the Academy’s notions of “high” culture and specifically, “high” art. Even as Warhol’s work subverted the modernist cannon and the teleological evolution towards abstraction, this very critique cemented its value among cultural critics and academics, as well as the market.

Only recently, has the study of popular culture become an important touchstone for Academic inquiry. Scholars of media studies, material culture, and visual culture (a field in direct opposition to art history in concept, if not in practice) have certainly led the charge on this front.  However, others in the Academy still question the relevance of pop culture and address studies of it with skepticism, if not disdain. And so the question still remains: what is the value of studying popular culture? Why should Praxis spend a year thinking about and studying the Kardashian family and their media empire? Part of our goal for this project is to explore this question in its own right, but in the meantime, here are four reasons why it is critical that we study the Kardashians now

  1. In 2015 the season premiere of the Kardashians was the most viewed Sunday cable program—notably ahead of the finale of AMC’s Mad Men—averaging about 4.24 million viewers, ranking it the number one Sunday night program for adults 18-34, and women 18-49. By ignoring and degrading such a popular program, we are not just looking down upon the tv program in question, but disregarding its audience.
  2. Television, a medium based on repetition, reinforces dominant social meanings and prevailing ideologies. Reality TV creates the illusion of a false intimacy between spectator and subject through the repetitive depiction of everyday tasks and conversations. If we understand television as a medium that cements dominant social ideologies through repetitive viewing, Reality TV and its pretense of the ‘real’ reinforces these ideologies two-fold. But upon closer look at the themes prevailing throughout Keeping Up with the Kardashians complicate what we might perceive to be dominant social norms. The Kardashians have subverted the traditional family sitcom in favor a matriarchal family structure, transforming the traditional private sphere of the home into their center of business, while maintaining heteronormative assumptions about the objectification of women. Considering the popularity of the Kardashians, what can this tell us about dominant American social ideologies? 
  3. Studying the popular is political. Audiences often make and remake their identities, in terms of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and any other mode of intersectionality, in response to the popular culture they consume. Those identities, in turn, inform their personal political choices. If we want to understand the political culture of any historical moment, we should understand its popular culture, too. And, love them or hate them, the Kardashians are popular. They constitute a large portion of the ubiquitous feed of mediated information that the populace consumes through social media, tabloid journalism, music, and reality television. While the definition of popular culture as the cultural activities of “the people” has been scrutinized by scholars such as Stuart Hall for its essentialist view of the binary between “the people” and “the elite,” the  old Arnoldian meanings of the terms “culture” and “art” developed in response to early industrialization, mutually reinforcing the aesthetic, intellectual, and social values of an anti-bourgeois elite class. By studying popular culture, by giving it space alongside more traditional subjects of study, we push towards eradicating this long established distinction between high and low.
  4. As noted in the previous bullet, Stuart Hall rejects this essentialist definition of popular culture in favor of a definition which stresses a constant tension between high and low (and between the hegemonic and counterhegemonic). Popular culture is dynamic, constantly shifting from marginalized to widespread acceptance, at times assimilating into “high culture” or vice versa. This understanding of a dynamic relationship of give and take between high and low culture is especially important in the 21st century, as the internet and mass media have converged these themes, see for example, Lady Gaga’s Collaboration with Jeff Koons. In fact, the Kardashians are no stranger to the contemporary art world. Kim Kardashian’s book of Selfies was widely praised as a pop art exploration of selfhood and identity construction.

Alicia is a doctoral candidate studying eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European art and material culture with Professor Sarah Betzer.  Her dissertation, “The Matter of Sculpture: Étienne-Maurice Falconet, Marble, Porcelain, and Sugar in Eighteenth-Century Paris,” poses the Academic sculptor as a nexus between Enlightenment aesthetic theory and the mass-production of sculpture during the burgeoning consumer culture of…

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