Celebrity — The Great New Art Form of the Twenty-first Century

In his book, The Image, Daniel Boorstin defined a celebrity as a person who was known for his well-knownness. That was nearly fifty years ago, in 1961. He noted that citizens were increasingly enthralled by imitations of reality, rather than by reality itself. It was Boorstin who coined the phrase “pseudo-event.”

In an article in Newsweek (December 12, 2009), Neal Gabler, the author of Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, brings this notion up to date. In his view celebrity is not an anointment of the media of unworthy subjects. It is actually “a new art form that competes with – and often supersedes – more traditional entertainments like movies, books, plays and TV shows, and it performs, in its roundabout way, many of the functions those old media performed in their heyday, among them distracting us, sensitizing us to the human condition and creating a fund of common experience around which we can form a national community. I would even argue that celebrity is the great new art form of the twenty-first century.”

In that sense, he wrote, being famous was not enough. Queen Elizabeth was famous without being a celebrity. Princess Diana was a celebrity. A person was a celebrity only as long as he or she was living an interesting narrative, or at least one the media found interesting. Once that was no longer the case, the ex-celebrity was relegated to “Where are they now?”

No doubt – this is no longer Neal Gabler speaking – celebrity-narratives can be taught at Celebrity Art Academies. From one such institution the virtuoso Tiger Woods probably graduated summa cum laude. The concept of art, of course, could easily be stretched to embrace this new application. Many people play golf as well as he does, but only he, thanks to his specialized training in creating a narrative, has become the Supreme Master of Celebrity Art.

It would not be hard to devise a curriculum for the Celebrity Art Academies. There would be courses in conventional public relations, cosmetics and sexiness. In graduate school, media-manipulating and scandal-manufacturing would be taught, plus advanced studies in charisma.

Celebrity Art Academies can only prosper in the context of the Internet in which universal attention deficit, rampant shallowness and galloping fragmentation prevail.

Their boards of directors would naturally be drawn from the monstrous regiment of bloggers.


6 responses to “Celebrity — The Great New Art Form of the Twenty-first Century

  1. It was Germaine Greer who observed (I don’t know when) that “‘Reality television’ is not the end of civilisation as we know it: it IS civilization as we know it.”

    • The reason for the prevalence of reality television is that the Zeitgeist (thanks probably mainly to the new media) is opposed to works of the imagination. Fiction in book-form does not sell except for big names. Publishers HATE it. (Novels are read mostly by women, anyway. No comment.) As to TV, there is another reason. Reality is CHEAP to produce. Plays are not.

  2. Gabler’s argument reminds me of the old (and not very long-lived) character in the cartoon strip ‘Peanuts’ named something like 536013t03, known for short as 5. When asked about his name, he said that his father had long ranted about how people were just becoming numbers to be processed, rather than being recognized as human beings.

    Someone commented that 5’s name was his father’s way of protesting this trend, and he replied ‘no, it’s his way of giving in.’

    Treating media celebrity as an art form – much less as a ‘great art form’ – seems to be to be giving in. I don’t find it persuasive.

  3. Alan Pearson

    There are no people who play golf as well as Tiger Woods (at least up until his recent hiatus). Check his record. He became famous — and remains so — because of his outstanding performance virtually every time out. David Duvall used to play in Tiger’s league but suffered a meltdown from which he has never recovered (though he does now appear on the PGA Tour, after a long absence in abysmal-performance obscurity). I doubt that Woods’s fame would survive a similar meltdown, since he seems to have a personal preference for seclusion. He doesn’t have Paris Hilton’s God-given talent for vacuous self-exposure.

  4. Yes, yes, yes, I know, I know. But to make a point I wanted to assume that there are modest and humble people in Tiger’s league who are playing quietly and unrecognized on my little neighbourhood golf course.