Media and Popular Cullture

Wrestling with Fame and Beauty, Our cultural obsession with fame and “immortality” no matter what the price.


In her book “A Massive SwellingCintra 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.


3 thoughts on “Wrestling with Fame and Beauty, Our cultural obsession with fame and “immortality” no matter what the price.

  1. LVB says:

    Hi Percy,

    This is a great essay. It appears that you really enjoyed Cintra Wilson’s
    book, as I did.

    “Judgments of beauty are sensory, emotional and intellectual all at once.”
    – Unknown

    As we watch our society degenerate further and further into the abyss of
    fame, “reality shows” and such things that increasingly reinforce and actively promote what you speak of here – people who are famous for doing very little or nothing that contributes anything to our world that has any artistic value or even the slightest resemblance to beauty – I can’t help thinking that there is more involved here than just crass marketing and maximum cash flow. I will explain my thoughts in my usual, longwinded fashion and hope to add something worthwhile to this aesthetic discussion. 🙂

    I could not agree with you more that the notion of beauty being in the eye of the beholder is counterintuitive, at best. In my estimation, PREFERENCE is in the eye of the beholder, but true beauty is, or used to be, clearly recognizable. This is not to say that any one of us or a grouping of people, say musicians, have any sort of lock on defining what beautiful art is for anyone else. However, I do think it is more than fair to say that those of us with a more advanced knowledge of music, for example, do have a much greater understanding of what constitutes
    beauty in our area of endeavour and passion, just as a physicist knows (or should know) more about subatomic particles and such than I do. I guess it is something that crosses the barrier of the subjective and tells me that there is an actual and meaningful difference – the difference between 2 + 2 and E= mc2, in rational terms.

    Obviously, art and beauty are the opposite of the cold, logical and rational, but what I’m saying, I suppose, is that even so, there is a clear boundary between the steaming mounds of crap; i.e., a Crucifix or Qu’ran dunked into a jar of urine, pretending to be “art”, and a Van Gogh painting or a Beethoven piano sonata. I don’t know if that is a lucid enough argument, but hopefully you get my point in the comparison of the two. The former is certainly an EXPRESSION OF AN IDEA, but just because a person expresses an idea, that most definitely does not constitute ART, and certainly does not come close to attaining BEAUTY, in its true sense. I think you’d agree with me there.

    Within the wide spectrum of art, there is such a wonderful variety avaiable that there is plenty of room for all kinds of people and their diverse tastes. Guys like you and I understand very well that something we might love and admire deeply, such as progressive jazz with complex time signatures and more dissonant tones, are not usually as palatable or enjoyable to an average person who has no interest in the technical aspects or dynamics of music as an artform. As one of my professors
    once put it, “Most people just want to bathe in the beautiful tones of music”. And this, to me, is the wonder of music. This “tonal bath” is accessible to anyone on the planet, and can be a very pleasant and transformational power to all people, perhaps even most often in its simplest form of a basic rhythm and melody.

    As a musician with, I’d say, an above average musical gift from a very young age and with no formal training until many years later at a university (accepted at Berklee, the Boston one, but couldn’t afford it lol), I learned at a tender age how one’s abilities in music can affect and move other people, in very dramatic and wonderful ways. And, sometimes, odd and downright creepy ways.

    I think what bothered me at times more than the creepy, annoying or possibly dangerous obsessive fan stuff, was the just plain sad stuff…those people who loved my music and therefore the “me” they thought they knew, and wanting to dress like me or think like me – to literally be a part of me and my world. This phenomenon made me bounce between thinking “this is great, they love me and I’m so cool” when I was younger and much less wise, and later, more humble and confused thoughts, like
    “hey I’m just a regular person who plays an instrument pretty well, what is all this weird stuff about?”.

    I think of how the fictional character, Harry Potter, when faced with this type of awe and admiration for his being “the chosen one”, looks truly confused and says, “but…I’m just me…just Harry”. Indeed, we musically and otherwise talented folks are special in certain ways, but so is everyone, in certain other ways. I guess what I’m getting at is the fact that this drug of fame, this feeling of having others love and admire us for our music or whatever reason they do so, is addictive as hell, and can easily get out of control, even with the most humble person. I have seen it
    happen many times, and in many different ways. And, far from being on the global level like a Michael Jackson or Lady GaGa, any such fame and admiration that I have had the opportunity to enjoy and study, was on a much smaller scale. But, even in a smaller pond, being the big, cool fish can and will do strange and bad things to one’s mind and soul.

    So, given all this, I reference your point on even us “talented people” feeling self-doubt and thoughts of “am I really any good?”, especially upon receiving another rejection letter from an ivory tower (record company) A&R executive! Add to this the fact that many in the music business, and more disgustingly so with the “reality” tv celebrities, have to KNOW somewhere inside themselves that they do not have any talent
    to speak of, or contribute anything meaningful or beautiful to the world. But, they know they are seen and/or heard by thousands or millions of people, and they get some amount of the similar fan mail, groupies and hangers-on that bona fide rock stars and the true masters of musical and theatrical arts receive…well, those masters who got a record contract and are even known to the masses, that is!

    I join you in refusing to accept that something is “good” simply because some people or even millions of people think it is “good”. Not so, not by a long shot. And your comment on Van Gogh and others being ahead of their time, and therefore completely unrecognized as wonderful arsits in their own lifetimes, is very true. It is analogous to the tree falling in the forest with no one around…yes, it does make a sound! And, yes, if a Beethoven or a Percy Howard, or a me creates a musical masterpiece of some sort, but Warner Bros. et al never sees fit to help it be heard by the masses, it is still a masterpiece of musical beauty, just as so many things in music these days which do receive mass funding and distribution are rubbish, no matter how many people “like it”, or think that they should like it because it is ubiquitous on radio and MTV.

    Luckily, for younger up and coming artists, there are wonderful possibilities for them to be heard and propagate their art via mediums like Youtube and Myspace, etc., which were not available to artists in my generation. I think it’s a great thing, but I also see that the opposite problem is occurring…that is, before the internet Youtube age, guys like me couldn’t get our music “out there” to millions of people, but now that
    these things are available to struggling artists, they make it such that anyone and everyone can put their stuff out there and get their 15 minutes, thus increasing the size of the “steaming mound” of crap we must wade through to find the rare and beautiful gems moreso than at any other time in human history. Still, it is a great tool for artists to be seen and heard by many.

    It is inescapable that, as you said, this irrational and I’m sorry to say pathetic behavior of seeking fame for its own sake, and fame by association with the famous, is going to stay with us, probably forever to some degree. And, to see it deliberately amplified and celebrated by the forces in media, makes me sad and also convinced that it may involve more than just the everpresent quest to make mountains of cash.

    I remember the time when the “reality” shows started. It struck me as very strange, and also angered me, that the FOX network abruptly cancelled a couple of shows that I thought were pretty good, X-Files and MilleniuM. They both had exceptional quality for tv shows, involved complex ideas, and came close to being like a feature film every week; exceptional filming at a variety of locations, etc. I won’t say they were the greatest tv shows ever or anything, but it really struck me at the time that these would be cancelled in favor of, let’s face facts now, really stupid and crappy “reality” shows and American Idol. Friday nights were never the same on FOX, and when the other major networks saw what
    FOX was doing, they quickly followed suit, ruining all that was good in television! LOL

    Over a decade later now, things have recovered somewhat, and there are once again some very good shows that receive bigger budgets and good timeslots, which is a good trend to see.

    I knew then and I know now, that one part of this strategy was simply money – making an involved and well done, cinematic tv show with pretty good actors costs significantly more than grabbing some “regular people” and filming them doing, what appears to the viewer to be some everyday “reality” type stuff – albeit very scripted and far from actual reality. I can say somewhat proudly that I didn’t watch any of these shows for several years after they began their onslaught into our society, but in recent years I, too, have fallen prey to their constant presence on tv networks, and have watched a few, mostly with disgust. But, I admit to enjoying a few, if even just for the comedic value, such as the Gene $immons’ Family Jewels show, probably due to my identifying with him being a musician and his marketing genius. It’s amusing and mindless,
    and there’s nothing wrong with that, or the people who find the same enjoyment in other shows that I may not care for, personally. But, in either case, it’s not meaningful art.

    As an aside, I’d like to see or hear Cintra Wilson’s commentary on the reality show phenomenon, which did not realy exist at the time she wrote “A Massive Swelling”. Maybe she has already done that on bu now, I don’t know. I’m certain it would be very interesting to say the least. Perhaps you would consider doing the same, Percy, in the context of this “fame by association” monster we are confronting – food for thought for your fertile mind!

    I do feel on some instinctive level, knowing a fair amount about the entertainment business, that this is an integral part of the “dumbing down” of our increasingly sick and twisted society. I don’t think I need to tell you who benefits from the masses being dumber and therefore more
    compliant and easily controlled, having been spoonfed drivel for years.

    In the 1700s, a book called the Federalist Papers was written for the “common man”, farmers and blacksmiths, so that he might understand and contemplate the proposed US Constitution, after the
    Revolutionary that gave us our great nation. That book is now college level reading material, and not simply because of the “thee and thou”type expressions of the English language at that time…but because the concepts contained therein are deep and require serious, critical thought and consideration. Such things are no longer encouraged or treasured in our society or world as a whole…not in politics, and certainly not in art or music.

    It really is tragic to me, that such things as the Federalist Papers or a Mozart symphony, from only a few hundred years ago, have become incomprehensible to current generations, not because such things have been properly evaluated and then rejected by individuals as a matter of preference, but they simply never even reach the masses because they are generally too dumbed down to begin to understand things of such complexity, and therefore tend to adopt an attitude that they “don’t
    want to learn about such boring old things anyway”. Granted, this is not entirely their fault, it lies in the education systems that are not rigorous they fail to achieve by working more to indoctrinate young minds, rather than develop them as autonomous individuals who think and feel and decide for themselves what is what in this world.

    But, all is not lost…we will survive, us thinkers and artists, and so will the many beautiful works of art that are still being created by so many wonderful people in our world. They may just be harder and harder to find in the ever growing, steaming mound of crap that you speak of, which commands and receives the attention, lust and idolatry of most of the world’s entertainment consumers.

    The everlasting and eternally beautiful works of art have very little choice now but to be lost, or at least hidden, in the increasing noise and glare of the multitude of “15 minute famers” and those they inspire to perpetuate this tragic state of ignorance.

    In the words of a current artist that I think we mutually enjoy:

    “Fame, fame, baby, the fame, fame…we live for the fame, fame, baby. Isn’t it a shame, shame, baby?”.

    Yes, it really is a damned shame, baby. 🙂

    I tend to think, and want to believe, that this particular artist is in on the joke, and is shamelessly mocking the monster. She’s also quite kind and humble to her fans…something she certainly no longer has to do to sell records or acquire fame. That shows me something very refreshing.

    Please keep up the good work, Percy. I have really enjoyed your website and correspondence.

    Oh, and here’s a pretty cool interview with Cintra Wilson, done around the time she released her second book, “Colors Insulting to Nature”. I haven’t read it yet, but apprently it also carries on with the theme of fame, but done in a fictional story. She’s a cool and interesting person.

    Here’s a brief quote when she is asked about the advent of reality tv shows…

    “Now is the time, really, that people need to realize that TV is not your friend.”

    Enjoy, and take care, my friend.

  2. Thanks for the usual frank analysis! Stay tuned for a conversation between Cintra Wilosn and myself in this space. She has consented to an interview on this topic as well as others.

    • LVB says:

      Hey, that is incredibly great news!! I can’t wait. It is so cool that the two of you, as intellectuals/writers/souls that I admire, can come together for what I’m sure will be an amazing exchange and interview for you to share with us.

      Here’s another interview she did in Dec 09, the most recent one
      I’ve found with her. It’s generallly about her fashion column in the NYT, but as always, her wit and charm produce some great thoughts that meander out of the main focus of the fashion world, etc.

      Here’s hoping it might serve as some prep for your interview with her. If a suitable moment arises, please tell her you know a guy in Phoenix that is a great admirer of her mind and writing, and the true genius who was her dear friend, Kevin Gilbert, may his soul rest in peace.

      Thanks again and take care, Percy.

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