This past May, Kim Kardashian once again set the internet alight when the multi-hyphenate stepped out at the Met Gala in a nude illusion dress once sewn onto Marilyn Monroe’s body ahead of her infamous 1962 performance of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” at Madison Square Garden. The gown had spent the last 50 years in pristine archival conditions, only to be exposed in a matter of seconds to every contaminant conservationists had warned such a historic garment should avoid.
Much of the public saw that moment, and the gala’s Gilded Age theme – an event that took place as news leaked that the Supreme Court would overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision – as proof that late-stage capitalism had officially jumped the shark.
Yet, the move was also classic Kardashian. The celebrity has spent a lifetime seeking out ways to accumulate increasingly exclusive cultural capital.
Kardashian, however, is far from the only star today to flaunt exclusive access to priceless objects as a means of burnishing their own image. Increasingly, the famous are looking to museums and artistic masterpieces to separate themselves from the rest of us.
As usual in recent decades, Kardashian and her ex-husband Kanye West led the way with the debut of a Hermès Birkin bag in 2013 the rapper had customized with a painting by George Condo — the same artist who created the cover art for his seminal 2010 album My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy. For other albums, West has collaborated with Japanese mega-artist Takashi Murakami and artist Wes Lang. His 2019 IMAX film Jesus Is King was filmed inside James Turrell’s land-art installation Roden Crater.
In the years since, numerous hip-hop artists have mimicked West’s playbook. In 2015, West frenemy Drake used knock-off James Turrell installations in the music video for mega-hit “Hotline Bling.” Last year, he collaborated with Damien Hirst, one of the richest artists in the world, on his emoji-laden album cover for Certified Lover Boy.
In 2018, Beyonce and Jay-Z released the music video for their song “Apeshit” (off their surprise collaboration album Everything Is Love) that featured the imagery or recreations of over a dozen major art pieces in the Louvre, where the video was filmed. And five years earlier, Jay-Z featured legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic in an adaptation of her work The Artist Is Present for the music video for “Picasso Baby.”
These art world collaborations are about more than set decorations or flexing the power of a celebrity’s rolodex. They speak to a deeper shift in how celebrities present themselves to the public – and it first started in fashion.