“Where has God gone?… We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers…God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.’ (Nietzsche, The Gay Science)
How did we get from Oscar Wilde to Jordan? This may sound like the opening line of a cheesy joke, but in actual fact the cult of celebrity has a lineage, an evolution which, like any cultural phenomenon, can be historically mapped. When we engage with this mapping process we discern a move away from the artist, to the personality, a move away from the notion of fame as a by-product of talent and towards the phenomenon of fame for its own sake.
Even as recently as the 1980s this idea was unheard of. Those in the public eye had to have a talent, usually but not necessarily, an artistic ability, in order to ascend to the status of celebrity.
Yet the seeds of this evolution were sown by Oscar Wilde, who once said, “I have put my genius into my life, only my talent into my works.” Indeed, the public’s fascination with Wilde’s life has often overshadowed the immense talent he possessed, with filmmakers and biographers concentrating upon the tragic story of his downfall rather than his works.
But with Wilde, there still is a body of work, a legacy by which to remember him, now that all those who knew him are dead. These days, with modern celebrities there is often no such thing. So hungry are we to adopt new idols that we have removed the years of hard work devoted to developing a talent in order to facilitate the quick, easy acquisition of fame. Reality shows such as Channel Five’s Big Brother, along with internet sites like Star Now, mean that almost anyone can pursue and achieve celebrity.
It is plausible that the current obsession with ‘instant fame’ and the cult of the personality may come be regarded by future historians as symptomatic of cultural indolence; a reflection of the trashy disposable society in which we presently live.
Indeed, along with flat pack furniture, high rise tenements and ready meals for one, it would be easy to regard the celebrity craze as something that shows our culture as just that: a disposable, empty and meaningless sham.
After all, remove the concept of talent from the equation and we soon have a free-for-all, in which the only criterion necessary to achieve celebrity is desperation: the desperation to be on camera and to be immortal.
But where has it come from, this need to turn our lives into a perpetual performance, to play out our lives in front of the cameras, to film, scrutinise and record every aspect of the human experience, from the day to day goings on of the contestants in Big Brother, to the D.I.Y. projects of ordinary people?
Has this impetus to observe ourselves and be observed always been there? Is it something wired into the human psyche, or it is a superficial thing, a result of the rapid expansion of media culture?
Certainly the need for idols and heroes stretches back to Hercules and beyond and is an innate human need, but the criteria defining such figures – bravery, struggle, intelligence, strength – was narrow enough to exclude most of the population. Now, what we are seeing is an expansion of the criteria defining the hero so that to be famous is to be a hero, regardless of whether one possesses the requisite qualities of courage, vision and strength.
Mythologist Rollo May was quick to point this out, arguing in The Cry for Myth (Doubleday 1991) that one of the problems of our time is that, “we have confused celebrities with heroes.” May is undoubtedly correct in this claim. We have confused celebrities with heroes.
But why? And why the restless, almost frantic search for fame on the part of those who want to be celebrities and, I would argue, the equally frenetic search for idols on the part of the public? It is suggestive of a culture that has lost its way, one that has lost the ability to navigate through the labyrinthine paths of existence towards some kind of meaning.
As I discussed in my last article, the waning influence of religion in the late nineteenth century has contributed to the search for guru figures. The gradual erosion of monotheistic culture in favour of a polytheistic one has paved the way for the egalitarian celebrity culture in which we now live. As Andy Warhol observed, “everyone can be famous for fifteen minutes.”
In the last few decades, as the search for idols and the quest for fame has increased in momentum, the criteria defining the guru figure has expanded, making it possible for almost anyone to become famous.
To desire fame is to desire immortality. That much is obvious. But it is also to desire for one’s every thought, movement, action and response to be observed. Why? Because human beings are innately theatrical. Because human life is inherently a performance, in which we need to be noticed and acknowledged in order for our lives to have meaning and if God can no longer fulfil the function of continual audience; if the hereafter can no longer be the route to immortality, then something else must fulfil those functions, otherwise what is the point?
This is where the camera comes in. If Heaven and Hell are just concepts invented by humans and not places we go to when we die, then immortality must be rethought; the afterlife re-invented to mean being captured for posterity on camera – or at least for fifteen minutes.
In addition, the ever-burgeoning human population and the rise of technology renders us more faceless and impersonal than ever. Tired of being lost in the crowd, we want to feel valued again; we want to feel as if we matter as individuals.
In the faceless bureaucratisation of our society and the equally faceless life of the cities in which most people live, people are looking to find a way back to an essential humanity. For some, the way to achieve this is by being known to everyone. Of course this is inherently narcissistic, since it is not a two-way process. Celebrities do not care to “know” their public, simply to be known by them.
Yet what the modern cult of celebrity shows is an essential discontentment with everyday, contemporary life. It is a reflection of the need to re-inject meaning into our existence, to replace what has been lost through the slow decline of religion – meaning, certainty and value – and to replace it with something more radical, egalitarian and liberating. However, whether this is a positive thing is perhaps a question only future historians will be able to answer.
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