Thursday 10 January 2008

On People, Heroes, and Celebrities

About ten years ago I began to take an interest in photography. As usual, I pulled on my anorak and read up on techniques - arpeture, f-stops, framing, light, and so on. After a while I started taking photos that I thought were pretty decent. Then one day I was showing my holiday snaps to a friend, and she asked "they're great photos, but where are the people?".

Up till then I had kind of avoided portraits or candids of people. I felt that landscapes, architecture, nature, or arty were far more interesting. So people rarely featured in my snaps. But my friend's comment provoked a rethink and I began looking at other photos of people. I began to realise that I had been wrong from the beginning. People are far more interesting. In the end, an image which connects with the heart is far more powerful than a landscape, no matter how stunning.

I was looking at a site recently that described how to write a novel. (No, I am not writing a Novel, I hit on it by chance! Cogair, the short story is my favourite form and if I were to write fiction that's where I'd begin). The author of the site stated that "literature is about people". Obvious and self-evident but in my mind's eye I had never thought about it so bluntly. Yes, literature can be about politics, or history, or the natural world, but not really - only through people.

People then are at the centre of all great art. The question is, what kind of people? The answer to that has changed over time. Early literature was peopled with legendary heroes who were superhuman: Fionn MacCumhail, Odysseus, Beowulf. Shakespeare mastered the tragic hero - a protagonist who is great, but flawed.

19th Century Realism introduced the ordinary, by way of characters such as Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Modernism followed, and not only introduced the ordinary man and woman but attempted to portray the fragmentation and alienation of modern, particularly urban, life (For example TS Eliot - remember J Alfred Prufrock?). And it explored the mental landscape of its protagonist, often using innovative techniques such as stream of conciousness (for example Joyce).

All of the above applies to film as well. People at the centre of things, with a progagonist who falls along the specturm between ordinary person and super hero. We feel touched by the experiences of the common woman or man with whom we identify; or we admire the courage of those who are braver than ourselves; or we are fascinated by lives which seem behond the realm of the human;

Are these the impulses which lie behind our celebrity culture? The innate desire to explore the human experience? The urge to drop the weary yoke of reality and enter another world for a while?

In the early days of celebrity there were two kinds of famous people. Those who were truly talented or who had made some kind of impact in the social, cultural, political or sporting worlds: Monroe, DiMaggio, Elvis, JFK, etc. And those who were famous because they were exposed by the new mass media of first, hollywood, then TV. These people were often famous for being associates of the former category and having some additional charm. For example, Jackie Kennedy because she was glamorous and first lady. Even so, celebrity still had a scarcity value and there was at least some 'substance' to the idolatory. It had more parallels to the literary heroes. Some were great, others flawed, and it was compelling to see how each would deal with the vicissitudes of life.

But another component began to creep into the celebrity phenomenon: emotional attachment. As the media culture proliferated and advanced it developed a sophisticated ability to construct a seductive, if fanastical, alternative reality.

JFK was probably the first to exploit this during his election campaign for the white house - the first in history where TV was a crucial battleground. Kennedy used the medium to great effect by creating a myth around himself - young, ready for change, athletic, family man. In reality he was a womanizer, unhealthy and had political ideas which were far less radical than the message he relayed to voters. This is not to say that Kennedy did not represent a break with the past entirely, the point is that his presidency was the utlimate celebridisation of politics. The mass media combined with his charisma created the illusion of intimacy. Much of the outpouring of grief at his assisination was not because people thought a great political future was terminated, but because people felt they knew him. It was an early version of the Diana phenomenon.

Today the celebrity culture has become multi-tiered and is even ranked in common parlance - A, B, and C, etc. It is far more pervasive - fame is no longer the preserve of sport, politics, glamour, and film. In the current culture the myth is that celebrity might come your way too (even if only for Warhol's 15 minutes!). You too can now be a famous chef, or a famous gardner; a famous newsreader, or an infamous pervert. Celebrity now is far more vacuous and shallow. People are famous by self-promotion, by accident, or hell I can't remember. Or because for very quirky or shallow reasons, the media propelled them there. No need for greatness, for glamour, for tragedy, or the compelling plight of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The celebrity industry has become shamelessly voyeuristic, salacious, and truly banal. Yes, there still exists what you might call 'real' celebirty, but the vast bulk of what bombards is, to put it mildly, low grade. And more ephemeral. The media now indulge in the curious and often cruel game of creating celebrities and then destroying them.

Mass media and the 'success' of capitalism lie behind the phenomenon. Who can imagine the frenetic celebrity culture of today without TV, cheap magazines, and the internet? Thanks to the fruit of economic growth, the masses now have buckets of disposable income to access these outlets. In recent years too the media has perfected a very simple formula for sensationalising the gossip: sex, death, violence, obsenity, drugs, breakdown, crime. Anyone remotely well known who can do any of these things is destined for the cover of some trashy magazine.

Clearly though, the masses have a voracious appetite for celebrity. How much of that is innate and how much is created by clever marketing is hard to say. Perhaps our capitalist world has just found a way to exploit the instinct for watching others as a way of exploring ourselves.

Moreover, people have always had a desire to escape the travails and the tedium of everyday life. In the past people could exit reality for a while by accompanying Oisín to Tír na nÓg or Odysseus on his journey home. But after the trip, one would return to normality. Today, however, the manufactured unreality has become part of real life. It is no longer a temporary escape. The tears after Diana's death were real.

It's interesting to note the way in which the notion of 'personality' has taken over all facets of our lives. And how it seems to have become the ultimate value - the prime commodity. Using round figures: teacher 40k - Pat Kenny 800k; nurse 40k - premier league footballer 5m; engineer 40k - ceo VHI 500k; train driver 40k - popstar millions; And so on.

The whole notion of celebrity and personality has now taken over the business world (it's surprising they waited this long). I'm not talking about the top 5 CEOs in the US - all CEOs now carry an air of "a somebody" about them. They are innovative, smart, risky, and, we are told, scarce. It's a form of the celebrity culture. Surely this has contributed to the astronomic rise in CEO remuneration the US and, to a lesser extent, here is well. And now, since the public sector imitates the private, the same aura of "the indispensible hero" is forming around the leaders of state bodys here. Hence the machinations of benchmarking which will now essentially make sure that the elite layer in the state enjoy the same outrageous multiple of average earnings as does their counter parts in private industry.

Even if we ignore the debasement of culture and the dumbing down of society, our love affair with celebrity and personality comes at a price: inequality and structural elitism. Is it a price worth paying to watch someone undress on big brother?

1 comment:

Vince said...

The issue with culture and society has been on going for a while. And I'm all for the Galway method of dealing with it. Ignore all those areas which do not have a personal value. - There are people who spent 3/4 years in Gwy, who could not find the county GAA pitch, while how many know that there is a very good running track across from the Menlo. Almost all end up at Charlies for books having quickly found all others useless. And God help those who do not sup, one or two. As to music, it will depend on the mood your in on the day, ditto, to other things as well.
One of the good things with Gwy, its a cultural omniplex. But any stuck indoors watching BB.........

ET/AGUS, on the photo thing, humans forms in them are characters and so to the land/seascape. Think the painting of VINCENT van G, which is a landscape.