I do not know for certain if the apparent contemporary public obsession with the idea of ‘celebrity’ is any more intrusive on our lives now than it ever was in the past – but I suspect it is. There clearly was a time when the notion of a celebrity was a more localised and small-scale phenomenon, but because of the nature of our modern globalised media it has mutated into an exaggerated cult of a rotating register of a few hyper-celebrities.
Undoubtedly I will be accused of being at best a curmudgeonly Jeremiah, or at worst a cultural elitist but personally I think this obsession is damaging not only to cultural growth but also to general social well-being and development. Also I would not place all the blame at the foot of all the individuals in question, who are inevitably (primarily because of the incessant media and corporate driven demand for novelty) also at risk of being victims to the machine. I would also like to clear up that I have no objection to individuals seeking recognition when working in any clearly very public arena; that is the nature of that beast.
My personal objections are reserved for the extremes of what I consider an industry that operates in an increasingly moral vacuum. The uber-celebrities that crave simultaneously absolute media attention and personal privacy; that see the idea of celebrity simultaneously as both the ends and means; that crave public sympathy for their plight as a celebrity; that have achieved and maintain recognition for no other reason than their capacity to spend unearned wealth; that expound to a general public on the morality of charitable donation whilst simultaneously doing their best to avoid paying taxes; that expect to be lauded and deified; that declare authority in arenas they are clearly unqualified for and most insidiously, the uber-celebrities that present their lives as a realistic aspirational goal that all should aim to emulate.
Digging for ideas and inspiration for the upcoming Hollywood show around the theme of these socially dysfunctional ‘beautiful people’ and the sometimes self-destructive nature of celebrity culture I half-remembered a line of a phrase in the last Shakespeare play I saw at Stratford. Looking it up properly I came across:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t! ”
They are the last words spoken by the character Miranda in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ – and seemed to have an ironic relevance to the modern notion of the eternally solipsistic uber-celebrity.
Then of course this (or my notoriously goldfish-esque attention span) led me to Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ which I read nearly thirty years ago and have sadly more or less forgotten about.
I used to worry that the world (particularly Britain before we left) was slowly sinking into an Orwellian morass of state-surveillance and excessively prescriptive legislation. I can remember writing in the wet paint of one of my pieces (‘You’ll be wanting a happy ending then’) something along the lines of how, at school at the start of the nineteen-eighties, I used to laugh at the implausibility of 1984’s super-surveillance world – just as it seemed to be fulfilling itself as an increasingly accurate prophesy of twenty-first century Britain. All this time worrying about the potential of George Orwell’s novel to predict our future social and political course and I had forgotten Huxley…
In 1931 Huxley imagined a future world where the population are pacified through mental conditioning, state supplied drugs and, more relevantly now, through the encouragement and celebration of consumerism to the ends of eradicating personal dissatisfaction.
Huxley suggests that if a population is significantly distracted by a culture that obsesses over physical appearance and recreational, responsibility-free sex; is contented and free of unrealisable aspiration, then the state will not need to prepare to crush dissent in the manner Orwell predicted. There will be no need for the Thought Police if the population’s thoughts are permanently directed at nothing more than pursuing accomplishable, hedonistic, self-serving, ends.
And to my mind, the excesses of our celebrity obsessed media exemplify that corporate (replacing state) attempt to control through a culture of inanity and disposable distraction.
In terms of where we are now I think it is clear that Huxley was nearer the mark than Orwell – even if I do frequently consider the incessant celebrity onslaught to be the potential cast list in my own personal room 101.
And on the subject of room 101, there was one final little irony turned up whilst I was wandering around this thought from nowhere of little real significance (a novel is a novel – real life is real life).
Interestingly (for me at least) dates in Huxley’s future world are defined in their time from the first major instance of mass production for consumerist ends, using assembly line methods: the introduction, by Henry Ford in 1908, of the Model T Ford.
The novel is set in 2540 which in this consumerist driven dystopia translates as “The Year Of Our Ford 632”.
Well, I so liked the idea of incorporating that idea of the Year Of Our Ford into a painting that I had to calculate the current Anno Ford.
“fucked up celebrity #1” 2009