If one had to name or describe the dominant theme of our cultural epoch, it would almost certainly be celebrity, and the public’s obsession with fame; what we have come to call the cult of the personality.
Never before has a culture been quite so fixated with fame: the quest for it; the acquiring of it, and the dealing with its pressures and demands. We are talking not simply about fame as a by-product of talent, but as a thing in itself; for its own sake. We are talking about the search for cultural icons and the making of them.
In the first part of this article I am concerned with tracing the history of celebrity because, like most contemporary themes and concerns, there is usually a history. Nothing is ever quite new, but merely an old idea cloaked in a different form.
The second part of this article will be concerned with the contemporary phenomenon of celebrity and the cult of the personality.
While it is tempting to see our cultural epoch as entirely unique, the phenomenon of celebrity and the cult of the personality can be traced back to at least the late nineteenth century, to the figure of Oscar Wilde, whose quote, ‘there is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about,’ can be taken as a sort of mantra for contemporary publicists and the celebrities whom they represent.
Oscar Wilde was famous before he had published his best work, largely due to his flamboyant dress style, but also because of his razor-wit and his ability to, as he put it, ‘sum up all existence in a phrase.’ Wilde was the master of the one-liner, the sound-bite, of what was then referred to as the epigram.
Oscar Wilde made himself known by going to the right parties and impressing the right people and he was lampooned in Punch Magazine for his extravagant nature and distinctive style and for his conspicuous association with the newly popular Aesthetic Movement. Contrary to popular belief, Wilde did not ‘invent’ the Aesthetic movement. Yet he has not only come to be thought as synonymous with it: he has come to be thought as its leader.
Wilde’s big break came in 1882, when Gilbert and Sullivan produced Patience, an opera which satirised the Aesthetic Movement. The main character, Bunthorne was said to be modelled on Wilde, with his long hair, flowing cravats and velvet knee-breeches, yet it could just as easily have been modelled on the painter, James Whistler, another conspicuous ‘fan’ of the Aesthetic Movement.
The interesting point here is that the ‘aesthetic’ image was already an iconic one, which the savvy Oscar Wilde adopted for himself and inhabited, for the sole purpose of securing himself some useful publicity.
In support of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera, Wilde was invited to embark on an American lecture tour, an affair which bore many similarities to the world tours of today’s stadium rock bands, both in the press attention it received, and the public hysteria surrounding his arrival in the States. Wilde’s lectures were packed to the rafters with fans and detractors and Wilde writes of being requested to send locks of his hair to adoring fans, confessing that his manager, to whom he wisely delegated this unfortunate task, was now, ‘quite bald.’
In the manner of today’s celebrities, Wilde knew how to make controversy work for him. At one lecture, Wilde was confronted with a row of undergraduate hecklers, who had decided to mock him by turning up dressed in knee breeches and cravats. Wilde was, however, tipped off in advance and arrived for the lecture attired in a conventional suit.
Wilde worked and thrived within a society where the cult of the personality was at its nadir, yet when we examine the socio-cultural conditions of his time, we find that, running parallel to the rise of celebrity culture, is the decline of religious faith, the demise of organised religion and the rise of the self-nominated guru figure.
By the 1880s, Madam Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, was spreading the popularity of Eastern religions and had made several trips to India, where she brought back many ideas involving mysticism and the occult; including the use of various forms of divination such as Tarot cards and magic. The movement quickly grew in popularity and amongst its members were the author Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance.
Integral to Theosophy was the idea that there is no single god, but many gods; that spirituality is accessible to everyone regardless of religious creed, and that, in the manner of the ancient Gnostics, true wisdom is to be found within, by tuning in to the inner self, rather than looking without, to a preacher, or to God.
In this sense, what we have here essentially, are the seeds of the modern New Age Movement. But what we also have is the foundation for a spiritually egalitarian culture, in which the role of the guru is open to anyone with something insightful or controversial to say.
The significance of this for the cult of celebrity is that the self-nominated guru may not necessarily be a religious figure but simply one who espouses a creed and accrues followers, and what is more, who does so through the machinery of the media, through publicity.
Thus we are beginning to see the rise of popular culture, replacing and usurping organised religion, or at least, offering an alternative. The transition from a monotheistic culture into a polytheistic one paves the way for the rise of the artist-as-guru, ‘preaching’ his creed to an adoring or outraged public.
According to many cultural historians, including Joseph Campbell, art is the spirituality of our time. It facilitates the exploration of our inner selves and can act as a moral compass; expressing the ‘soul’ or spirit of the age.
But it can also be the means for the artist to achieve celebrity and more importantly, immortality. With the prospect of ‘heaven’ and the hereafter looking less believable to many, celebrity may the only way to feel we can cheat death.
For us in the contemporary world, however, the phenomenon of celebrity has evolved into one in which the artist, or other person of talent, is often removed from the equation, thus making celebrity possible for anyone who knows how to manipulate the media. This will be the subject of Part Two.
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