Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Why Do We Care About Celebrities?

Are you obsessed with celebrities? Do you anxiously await the next installment in the Britney drama or the Paris Hilton legend? Are you scouring the internet to find every last tidbit of delectable information about Tiger Woods?

If you do, you might well feel slightly guilty about your solitary indulgence. As a sentient and intelligent human you might feel diminished by your uncontrollable lust for the latest in celebrity gossip.

Not to worry. The new issue of Newsweek leads with a thoughtful and engaging cover article by Neal Gabler that explains that we need not feel guilty about watching the latest tawdry celebrity psychodrama.

Our taste for celebrity does not make us prurient voyeurs taking joy in the misfortunes of others. In truth, we are possessed of an advanced aesthetic sensibility. We are not watching a circus; we are not reveling in escapist entertainment. Celebrity news, Gabler explains, is really just a new art form. Link here.

When you agonize over the saga of Michael Jackson you should not think freak show. You should be thinking Greek tragedy. And as you delighted at the antics of Britney Spears and Kevin Federline you should have been thinking of Shakespearean comedy.

Anyway, Gabler argues that celebrity is all about narrative. Make your life into an interesting story, induce the media to cover it from dawn to dusk, and you can become a celebrity.

In his words: "celebrity is a narrative in the medium of life."

This is slightly problematical. Surely there are narratives that are not art. The lives of the saints come to mind. As do the parables that fill up Biblical and other religious texts.

And after all, the gods and goddesses of mythology, to say nothing of legendary heroes and heroines, live out narratives without anyone's having imagined that their stories are art.

An artist might well transform a god's story into art. But, without the hand of the artist we are not dealing with a work of art.

Art requires work. It requires an exercise of intelligence. Making a fool of yourself to elicit media coverage does not demand very much work or intelligence.

More than that, art requires a frame. By definition, art exists in a space that is separate from that of everyday life. We relate to art as though it were real, all the while knowing that it is not. The painting's frame, or the fourth wall in the theatre, protects us from the temptation to mistake art for reality.

While art produces aesthetic pleasure, celebrity antics do not. Art gives pleasure because it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And it has a script that the characters follow. Better yet, great art resolves the conflicts that incite it.

When we are hooked to celebrity narratives, as Gabler suggests, there is no such resolution. Once we have exhausted the material of this or that celebrity train-wreck, we simply move on to another.

The lust for celebrity is insatiable. The love of art produces a form of enjoyment that surpasses the gratification of needs.

I agree with Gabler when he says that art teaches us something, but I am not so sure the same applies to celebrities. Aside from showing us how not to live our lives, what life lessons were we supposed to learn from Paris Hilton?

Gabler is correct to say that celebrity seems to capture cultural moments and to stimulate the imagination. Yet, I am less comfortable thinking that celebrity narratives provide us with: "a glimpse of transcendence."

What form of transcendence have we all glimpsed in Robert Downey Jr.'s alcoholism or Lindsay Lohan's bizarre behavior?

Gabler seems to come closer to the truth when he grants to celebrity a therapeutic role. During the Great Depression, he writes, gossip columnist Walter Winchell made celebrity: "the basis for an ongoing national conversation that also served as therapy to a wounded country, albeit with a savage subtext of revenge."

Gabler sees celebrity functioning as something of a social ritual, a set of commonly held myths that we can talk about around the water cooler or the coffee bar.

In his words: celebrities provide us with: "a common experience around which we can form a national community."

Gabler has a point here, but one that needs clarification. In the first place, art does not provide a common experience around which we form communities.

That role is more suited to ritual and ceremony. While celebrity scandal does not quite rise to the level of ritual, I think it makes sense to find the basis for what is happening to Tiger Woods in the practice of ritual scapegoating.

I was circling around this point in my last post about Tiger Woods. Link here. There I suggested that Lee Siegel was on to something when he suggested that the Tiger Woods saga showed a rapacious capitalist (Woods) being brought down by a pure and decent Swedish socialist (Mrs. Woods).

From failure to sacrificial victim is not too big a leap.

Surely, scapegoating does exist within a narrative structure and it does bring a community together. Scapegoating is a purification ritual, a means of cleansing a community of a toxic element.

And yet, ritual sacrifice is not a work of art. The goat that is sacrificed really does die. In the world of art the sacrificial victim, e.g. the hero of a Greek tragedy, does not really blind himself.

Real life is not the same as make-believe. When real people or animals are getting hurt, it is not art.

As we know, Greek tragedy does derive from primitive goat sacrifice. The word "tragedy" comes from the Greek expression that translates: "goat's song." Yet, the experience of community provided by a real ritual is not the same as the individual catharsis experienced by the spectator at a tragedy.

In principle, those who witness a ritual sacrifice are participants. Those who witness a stage-presentation of a tragedy are spectators.

If our mania with celebrity involves ritual sacrifice then we are more participants than spectators. Thus, we are not watching a new art form but are participating in the revival of a primitive ritual.

No comments: