In her book “A Massive Swelling” Cintra Wilson wrote of the horrible impact of fame upon Michael Jackson. She says:
I was worried for a long time that Michael was going to die soon; nobody I knew thought that Michael could live very long, particularly in his disgraced Short Eyes state, like Wat, the no-nosed man in the King Arthur legend who lived in the woods and bit children. I had a pseudo mystical experience where I had a strange vision of Michael’s autopsy photo. In many circles, bootlegs of this would be a very hot item that would get passed around the sicko cognoscenti in LA the same way that color Xeroxes of the police shot of Kurt Cobain after his suicide secretly mad the rounds. Jesus I thought, it’s the only way the world will ever know what the poor little guy really looked like under those buckles, powder and paste.
As it turns out Wilson’s dream turned out to be somewhat prophetic, and unsurprising to conscious observers of one of our great cultural delusions; our unrelenting obsession with fame, getting it, being close to it, talking abut it, watching it, judging it. I will leave money out of the equation. It is simultaneously a byproduct and symptom of fame. I venture to guess that if many truly famous people were faced with the Faustian decision of choosing between fame and money, they would become poor and remain famous.
The world has become very tiny with the advent of current social networking technologies, and there are many positive benefits to this, and as such those are not my focus here. What concerns me is the massive amount of self-conscious input flooding cyberspace every second, like heat seeking missiles targeted on fame. How many hits did my blog get today? How many facebook friends do I have? I must suck because that new song I put up on my MySpace music page only got 22 hits this month… These are relatively new concerns for many people. Before the advent of these technologies, the obsessive anxiety concerning being known or appreciated was still present for many, but the media environment has put the whole thing on steroids. I am as much a problem as the next person, I admit. Not so much because I am obsessed with fame, I’d rather be dead that have the kind of never ending focus on my person of a Tiger Woods or George Clooney. It’s because as an artist, I dread being one-hand –clapping. Artists, even those with the most morose, anti-sellout, anti-pop star attitudes, dread being marginalized and not reaching their potential audience. The self-doubt creeps in, and the question that echoes in ones mind is “am I really any good”, even though what is under consideration are two completely separate issues, notoriety and talent. With more talent often comes more neuroses, especially if the art is dense, difficult to understand, or is not vibrating in tune with the cultural zeitgeist. This subset of the fame-affected is bad enough, but add millions of people that have no artistic inclinations and still suffer from the malady of not being known, well, just because.
What then happens is that the latter sub-group of people starts to create, for the sole purpose of being known, and some of them actually become very well known, not because they create anything of substance, beauty, inspiration, extrinsic or intrinsic value, but because they are clever. The machinery of fame has come to value the skill of cleverness more that at any time in history. This coupled with the theology of rock and roll which asserted 43 years ago that anyone can do this (so you wanna be a rock n roll star?), and you have an unmitigated hot global mess of fawning attention for no discernable purpose other than to potentially attract fame and or notoriety.
Ultimately, we have to have a discussion regarding the nature of beauty, and I know that I am decidedly on the outside regarding this. I lean more towards the dogmatism of a Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch, or Robert Fripp, who would demand that craft, preparation, history of technique, study, and the spiritual intangible of talent are necessary to create art that is beautiful. “Beautiful” is defined as that which tells us more about the human condition in a transcendent manner, which exposes truth or reality concerning our human condition, good or bad, and which appeals to the actual divinity or even the illusion of the divine in us. I cannot say that I am “right” about this in an absolute sense, but nothing resonates within me to verify that beauty is indeed, “in the eye of the beholder”. That view is part of the problem, the massive swelling, as Ms. Wilson so succinctly puts it. The fame machine has created an environment in which it is extremely difficult to have an aesthetic discussion. Something is “good” because other people, sometimes many other people, like it. I refuse to accept this. This would have negated Van Gogh, Rimbaud, Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, Simone Weil, and many others whose work time had to catch up to. There is a dark side to the philosophical view that beauty can only be created by a “special” sort of person. In short the Avant-Garde approach, of which I have also been guilty. All manner of horseshit is done in the name of “high art”. There is a point of diminishing returns.
It seems increasing clear that Warhol was being a bit of a Nostradamus with his assertion that “in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”
In short, we need to return to a posture of wrestling with beauty. Opening up our minds to writers that challenge our assumptions, musicians that intrigue and captivate while still pushing boundaries, film that inspires with visionary prowess, cultural and historical significance, and profound storytelling. To find the substance with which to wrestle, you may have to wade through a lot of virulent crap that is the progeny of the fame seeking machine. There is however, always a pony at the bottom of the steaming mound. This is the beginning of further aesthetic discussion regarding fame and beauty.