Friday, August 30, 2013

Of Bumps and Rumps

The only thing surprising about Myley Cyrus’ act at the VMA is that anyone much noticed. It must have been a slow day for gossip, which takes up so much even of what we call “legitimate news” nowadays. It wasn’t a slow day otherwise – e.g. Syria and worrisome economic data.    

Fame always has been accorded to a favored few in human society, but “celebrity” in the modern sense began with the 20th century. The difference between old-fashioned fame and newfangled celebrity is the sense of familiarity made possible by modern media. Prior to the 20th century, even a dedicated theater buff might see a favorite actor a handful of times; a presidential candidate might be seen by a voter once, if at all. The famous always were distant from the rest of us, and, unless wildly distinctive in appearance, unrecognizable to us when out of context. The movies changed all that. The faces, personal mannerisms, and, with the advent of talkies, the voices of the famous became as familiar to us as those of our neighbors – maybe more so. Celebrity, in consequence, became much more a province of entertainers and artists than of industrialists, aristocrats, and politicians. Television gave the final push by taking celebrities off the big screen, cutting them down to human size, and bringing them into our living rooms. Successful actors, hosts, newscasters, and “media personalities” (people more famous for being famous than for doing anything in particular) became present in our homes more often than most of our actual friends and family. They became what film critic and documentarian Richard Schickel called Intimate Strangers in his influential 1986 book of the same name.

The familiarity was all one way, of course. In the early days of the Kennedy Administration, JFK buddy Frank Sinatra was buttonholed by Sam Rayburn (D-Texas). Rayburn was Speaker of the House of Representatives, as he had been for years, and the second most powerful man in the United States; the current House Office Building is named after him. Sam was a man sure of his importance, and accustomed to recognition and deference in DC. Frank Sinatra had no clue who he was, and simply said “Hands off, creep!” It was a sure sign to where social power and importance had shifted. Far more ordinary people fantasize about being like Frank (and his successors) than like Sam.

Schickel was prompted to write his book in large part by the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan that injured four, including, most grievously, James Brady. The shooter, John Hinckley, Jr., had no special beef with the President. Hinckley had no political point as did the anarchist Czolgolz or the Confederate sympathizer Booth. In a sense, the President, who himself owed his position to his celebrity, wasn’t really the target. The point was celebrity itself, and the target was an actress whom Hinckley wanted to impress.

John Hinckley, Jr.: “Jodie Foster may continue to outwardly ignore me for the rest of my life but I have made an impression on that young lady that will never fade from her mind. I am with Jodie spiritually every day and every night. I have made her one of the most famous actresses in the world. Everybody but everybody knows about John and Jodie. We are a historical couple whether Jodie likes it or not.”

It’s an appalling statement, but is it wrong? By the 1980s, even our assassins and psychopaths had become shallow celebrity-grubbers. In the decades since, the trend only has intensified. In the arts, celebrity is sought for its own sake, and with an entirely good conscience. Thousands struggle to claw their way onto the stage of American Idol and its clones.

It wasn’t always this way with celebrities. There had been a foretaste of it in the 1920s, to be sure, but in the 30s and early 40s celebrities went to great lengths to pretend they were just folks. OK, maybe they could afford a tennis court in the back yard as we couldn’t, but they weren’t so very different really. In Stage Door Canteen, starlets were happy to date innocent-eyed Midwestern privates en route to the war. (Uh-huh.) After this phase, artists of all types from the late 1940s until the mid-1960s became possessed by the notion that they were on a mission – that they served a deeper social purpose. (Yes, really.) Marlon Brando captured the imagination of the intelligentsia because he seemed to reveal the human soul in his roles rather than just follow George Burns' advice, “remember your lines and don’t trip over the furniture.” The puzzling scratches and splashes of the Abstract Expressionists were supposed to mean something, and critics argued over what it might be. The Beat Poets took their poetry seriously – as did their listeners. The worst thing an artist could do was “sell out.” Oh, it was perfectly OK to accept a big paycheck, but only for something that didn’t violate one’s integrity as an artist. It all sounds so incredibly quaint and naïve these days, but so many people really thought that way. It sometimes reached ludicrous proportions, as in the fierce reaction against Bob Dylan for going electric, which seemed to acoustic folk purists to be the same as going commercial – as selling out. Pete Seeger at the Newport Folk Festival reportedly said, “If I had an axe, I'd chop the microphone cable right now.” (At the time, the argument was afoot that acoustic folk music was the authentic “voice of the people” – which begged the question “which people?”) Dylan simply thought amped instruments enriched his sound, as indeed they did. I doubt it bothered him that he sold more records on account of the change.

In the ensuing decades, we shrugged off all that. Even Brando was happy to do a bit part in Superman for a paycheck by the late 70s and to ham it up in The Island of Dr. Moreau in the 90s. We’ve never re-shouldered those Beat Era burdens. No one worries much about selling out anymore – in fact, the opportunity to sell out is precisely what we desperately want.

I don’t mean to say there are no longer new artists with integrity and no new works of artistic significance. Of course there are, and many individuals appreciate them. But we no longer think of them as a broader and deeper social force in quite the same way as was once common. Few people aspire first and foremost to be “an artist of integrity.” The money and glam are more than adequate, thank you very much. If twerking a teddy bear can up our buzz and screen time, so be it.

Bob Dylan on the Response to Going Electric


  1. You make a good point about that views on art changing over the decades. One of the things that goes along with that is a shift in appreciation for art of the past. The interest in abstract art in the 50s and 60s ended up turning into an elitist stance that any art that actually contained a recognizable image was not really art at all. That mentality really hung in there, forcing very talented folks to struggle for recognition because they could draw or paint actual humans, landscapes with great skill. It also ended up with whole galleries dismissing anything not created from 1950 forward. I'm scared to think how much other art was just tossed away.

    Ok, I'll get off my high horse now. It basically all swings on that big old pendulum. I'm seeing more and more appreciation for art that actually captures recognizable forms and figures. Wonderful work from the 1800s is no longer considered "non-art". Heck even film music has swing on that pendulum going from atonal and jazz inspired in the 50s to full blown orchestral thematic in the 80s. And guess what, we're swinging back into atmospheric themeless right now. :)

    As for Cyrus and her teddy bear, as my wife pointed out, if Lady Gaga had done the same routine, no one would have cared. It must have been a slow news day indeed.

    1. I have to give credit to Andy Warhol for upturning all that, though I doubt he planned any such thing. (If Andy was a deep thinker, he went to great lengths to hide it.) I think he just did what most artists do – made and did stuff that seemed kind-of cool to him – and was as surprised as anyone when it took off. Pop art brought representation back, albeit in a parodic way. This re-opened doors for others. (One wonders if the irony and parody were intentional – in the case of his 8-hour silent movie “Empire” consisting entirely of a slow-motion single angle shot of the Empire State Building, I certainly hope it was a put-on.)

      If the generational theories of Straus and Howe have merit (“Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069”), the generation after the Millennials will have a lot in common with the Silents who dominated the arts in the 1950s. We’ve got a bit of a wait to see if that’s true.