Saturated by Celebrity

I first noticed the effects this morning. As any of my regular readers know, I’m a news junkie of the highest order. I like to know what’s going on in the world at any given time. That usually involves several sources for my curiosity to be satisfied, even after I’ve downsized my intake in recent months. This morning, I scanned some headlines, and stopped. No streaming CNN or BBC. A quick browse of the New York Times and I was finished, and I knew it was for one reason.

The only thing that anyone was going to cover was Michael Jackson’s death.

I know this because I was watching CNN when the news broke on Thursday that Jackson had been transported to the hospital. I first learned of his death from Twitter later that night. The next morning, that’s all that anyone seemed to cover. Everything else going on in the world, economy and environmental bills in the works, Middle East sabre-rattling, and everyone seemed primarily interested in Jackson.

I have to say that I just don’t get it. As an artist, Jackson certainly had a prolific career, and I enjoyed listening to clips of his songs Friday morning and remembering the times (no pun intended) from childhood and college that were connected to various songs. I respect that three generations of people can connect with his music; certainly, staying power can be a measure of an artist’s success. Jackson did his share of sketchy things, as well, however, things that seem more distant from the public memory. I understand remembering the life of an artist that was influential to our culture, though, and even dwelling on the positive instead of the negative. What I don’t understand are lines of people waiting to place flowers on his star in Hollywood, or people grieving and crying upon learning of his death. Why? It’s not like they knew him or anything.

I suppose that connecting with someone’s art leaves you with the feeling that you know them. Certainly, I remember the surreal experience of first seeing a music star on stage, and the first time I met a star for an autograph. The fact that they were actually human was almost a surprise. I also suppose that this is less the case in the age of social networks…a year or so ago, I sent a Facebook message to the author of a book I found to be an exceptionally good read. The author messaged me back. I still have the message…because, still, there’s something surreal about her dialoguing with me.

That being said, the phenomenon of celebrity worship seems to have taken Western culture by storm in such a way as to cause concern. An oft-quoted HealthDay article that has circulated since Jackson’s death attributes a history of celebrity worship dating back to Chopin and Liszt, stating that we identify our hidden desires with celebrities, and that it is a healthy experience to do so, especially in the consideration of “faltering” religion. While I’m all for some healthy catharsis, I disagree with the article on more than one front. Firstly, religion is not faltering, and secondly, worshipping an artist in the public spotlight is a very poor substitute, even if it were.

Still, celebrity worship is a phenomenon to be reckoned with, even earning the infamous distinction of being coined as a syndrome in some circles (although I’m not aware of any actual diagnosis for such a pathology). I tend to fall more in the camp of Richard Marcus’ 2006 BlogCritics post that celebrity worship is a mark of an intellectually declining culture.

Historically, difficult economic times and war times lend themselves to a public increasingly seeking entertainment as a distraction, as something to take their minds off of the problems that beset them in their current daily lives. I’m not going to take a highbrow approach and say that the art that results from the profit-seeking push to satisfy this impulse is poor (although in some cases it speaks for itself), but I will say that, in the absence of the glamorous life that many of us seem to wish for at some point, it is normal to attach ourselves to a celebrity’s life and work. I had a crush on a music star or two in my adolescence, just like everyone else. The difference is that I grew out of it…many don’t seem to do that, and I think that not doing so is developmentally an issue.

When this happens, the “entertainment industry” (the fact that there is one is an issue of its own right, but one for a different post) pushes to satisfy the public’s desire for more of a star, or a type of star. That, after all, is how they make their profit, and that profit is far more important to them than artistic substance. Thus, not only is an enormous amount of attention focused on an artist, but artists are created by the media, and ones with what Marcus describes as having “dubious talent” at that (at the risk of insulting anyone here, I’ll simply point you to his apt examples on page 3 of his post). With this, mediocrity reigns supreme, and artistic substance declines as a culture becomes much more interested in vicariously living lives of caviar dreams than of appreciating quality, to say nothing of engaging in reality.

My intention is not to debate whether or not Jackson’s work falls into a definition of substance or quality, or even to offer a definition for either within this limited space. I simply wonder if, in our media saturated age, we aren’t failing to outgrow that emotionally developmental period in which we feel the need to follow, and even duplicate, every aspect of an artist’s life. I’ve expressed here before that, when this occurs, we feel as though we own that artist, that he or she owes us something, leading to their publishers or studios to see potential profits and take control of what that artist is producing. This leads to a universal loss of artistic quality in the name of money.

This also leads to individuals being grief-stricken over the passing of one whom they did not actually know, to a point that their own lives with those that they do actually know are affected.

Catharsis and dreams aside, folks…this just isn’t healthy.

The Evolution of Expression

Is literature evolving?

That’s a stupid question, I suppose. All art forms evolve with time and the societal context in which they exist, but I find myself wondering if literature is evolving a great deal more than the intelligentsia would like to admit. Specifically, I wonder about it’s function of maintaining a record of society. Tillich said that, in it’s artistic expression, a society conveys it’s spiritual substance. While I question his concept (as I understand it) of “ultimate concern,” I agree with him on at least the level that a culture’s artists communicate what is prevalently on the collective mind of that culture. That being the case, and depending on the definition of art that one would like to use, it is suddenly easier than ever in our Web 2.0 culture for anyone to contribute to the permanent record in which our culture will be remembered generations from now.

This comes to mind, among other ways, through a comical connection I had a few moments ago with a family member on Twitter. To eschew a great deal of backstory, the haiku has recently been a subject of casual attention for me, and I was experimenting with writing two haiku this afternoon. Of course, I tweeted that I was doing this (Why, you ask? It’s sort of like a “Jeep thing;” if you don’t do it, you wouldn’t understand). This prompted a family member to tweet a joke back at me in haiku form. I replied. Then he tweeted in iambic pentameter. We were joking about the limitations that Twitter would theoretically place on writing poetry. Similarly, a recent venture came to my attention called twit_play, “a story told entirely through Twitter updates.” The concept is essentially a play told through tweets. These sorts of expressions are experiments for me at first blush, sort of a social “what if?” game played out to satisfy hobbies and pose interesting social questions, among other things.

What if they’re more than that, though?

Suppose for a moment that your tweets are a part of a literary collective of sorts, in the sense that you’re answering the question, “what are you doing?” moment-by-moment. Sociologically, a collection of tweets appearing on Twitter’s public timeline from individuals in the same country from a defined period of time could prove a reflection of the social consciousness. Many users of Twitter post reflective and, yes, poetic updates to the micro-blog, lending to the possibility that this could be a sort of new literary genre, generated in real-time, reflecting the thoughts of a culture as it exists right now.

By the same logic, then, bloggers are contributing in the same way, reflecting in detail their thoughts and reflections on various topics and considerations that are deemed important at a given time period in a given culture.

If, then, the interactive Internet is generating a new art form as it streams words, images, audio and video from our shrinking world instantly, thus reflecting the consciousness of humanity at any given moment, then we are all artists easily capable of contributing to this giant work.

Now, this theory would naturally prove irritating to many an artist, especially those who only recognize work in a hard, tangible form. There are those who think the way Ray Bradbury thinks as he is quoted in a recent New York Times article: feeling that the Internet is unsubstantial, floating in the air somewhere, and unreal.

These are two extreme ends of the spectrum, and I’m not sure I’m ready to subscribe to either of them as of yet. I think there is more than a strong likelihood, however, that we are observing the next shift in modality of artistic expression. My concern is that, as we watch a new form of expression evolve, we must be cautious to not permit it to detract from those forms of expression that preceded it. In the same way that film became it’s own medium by standing on the shoulders of the stage, so digital word-play must recognize it’s literary parent as it grows into adulthood.

How Much for Amnesty?

I was writing an opinion column for my campus newspaper near the end of my undergraduate studies when the civil suit against OJ Simpson was settled. I remember writing about the results, frustrated in a less-than articulate way about the fact that the life of a person had been reduced to money. In more recent history, I remember the U.S. offering to pay restitution for civilian casualties during the endless war in which we are currently engaged. I remember scoffing at both instances for exactly the same reason: how can anyone possibly think that a human life can be reduced to a financial sum as “restitution?”

When I was involved in a car accident last summer, the insurance of the person at fault included a hefty sum of “pain and suffering” restitution in the settlement. I complained to the insurance adjuster. All I wanted was the reimbursement for expenses resulting from the accident, costs that I would not have otherwise incurred. Whatever “pain and suffering” I had experienced could not by quantified by a figure, and any money received for it, whatever it may have been, wouldn’t have made it go away. Wouldn’t even have made me feel better about it. So, what’s the point? It’s punitive and powerless.

This weekend I listened to an outstanding lecture in the 2009 series of Reith Lectures on the BBC. The title of the lecture was Markets and Morals, and it was given by professor Michael Sandel. He talked about ridiculous American tendencies, such as paying students for school attendance. A fascinating case he discussed was that of an Israeli daycare center that began imposing a fine on parents who picked up their children late. The rate of parents who were late increased after the fine was imposed, because they began seeing their tardiness no longer as a lack of courtesy, but as a privilege for which they were paying. I experienced something similar in college: on a certain semester in which I had a night class, I began seeing the cost a $10 parking citation as paying for the privilege of parking closer to class. The point is that we can’t monetize morality and ethics. Think about it: how many drivers slow down because of a speeding citation? There’s no real stigma attached to the offense, it’s only something we pay for, and then we move forward. After all, it’s only money. We can always make more.

I think there’s something important to be said here, something beyond a rant against free market capitalism and crucifying how it connects with health care and education. I think the larger issue at hand is that we have, as Sandel theorizes, permitted our morality to be reduced to money, our virtue to dollar signs. This is why court cases go in favor of the person with the most expensive attorney. This is why elections go, among other reasons, to the candidate who can pay for the most airtime. This is why greed has run amok and created a culture of power-mongering, a culture that de-humanizes each of us by reducing our value to what we have and what we can produce.

This is a culture of “retail therapy” as a quick emotional fix.

I’m no economist, and I’m not attempting to advance an economical paradigm shift to rectify the issue. I’m presenting the opinion that when a society submits to the base desire to quantify ethics by what one can afford in lieu of remorse or, to use a more spiritual phrase, repentance, then we’ve drifted into what I fear may be an irreparable state of moral chaos.

In future lectures, Sandel promises to incorporate spirituality into a proposed solution. I’m anxious to hear his conclusions. In all likelihood, however, I am accepting of the fact that, whomever proposes whatever, little will ultimately change in the entrenched American tradition of being able to purchase anything, tangible or otherwise. Because, while it is true that it is only money, it is also true that money has become the god of our society.

On a good day, I’ll find my pessimism misplaced.

What Was It Like…?

In a recent blog post, Ashley Diaz Mejias, a staff member at UVA and blogger for The Other Journal, mentioned the instant access of anyone of any age to any part of history in modern society. Granted, this was not the thesis of her post, but it was the part that grabbed me. She discusses this specifically in the context of music from any era suddenly being relegated to someone’s iMix, downloadable as a “classic,” or described in generic terms in a Wikipedia article. As readily accessible as any part of our history is, it is presented in a cold and detached manner: anyone can read any part of any event, but they are reading about it, not experiencing it, and I’m convinced that this is no substitute.

Music is an excellent example, using Mejias’ own example of Kurt Cobain. To describe Nirvana’s influence on the history of music is to digress into genre descriptors of “post-punk,” or “grunge rock” or something similar. This is far from listening to the music, experiencing the music. And even if one does experience the music now, they are experiencing it outside of a social context. Similarly, I observed with interest the New York Time’s publication of an apparently never-before-seen photograph of the Tianeman Square protest this week. It was a transporting experience to see that event frozen in time by a camera lens, but I am still seeing it almost without a referent. I need a narrator, someone who can lend their experience, their story to the events that I witness…to put the image in context, entrench it deeper in the sounds and smells that were actually there that day, in order to provide an accurate frame for the picture. Without understanding the angst of the day, one would fail to appreciate all of the layers of Nirvana. Without understanding the tension of the war, one would fail to appreciate, as I did, the sounds I heard this week of the BBC reports of the D-Day invasion of Operation: Overlord.

Where I think this leaves us is a recognition of the importance of storytelling. The best history is borne of the stories of those who lived through the events, kept alive and in the spirit of it’s telling by those to whom it was told, as well as through technological means. With this, we can avoid the idiocy of those who would claim that the Holocaust never occurred, or at least minimize the uneducated masses who would believe such nonsense. To lose the art of storytelling is to lose knowledge of history, which is already taught through a lens of propaganda in our public schools to a generation that is relying on us for accurate information of the history that preceded it. When we lose the knowledge of history, it will repeat itself in all of its bloody and senseless violence, robbing us of any progress we may have made.

Technology is a beautiful tool, but it is only a tool. The availability of music from my childhood for immediate (and legal, of course) download is a wonderful thing. The immediate access to any desired historical knowledge from my desktop is invaluable. All things being equal, however, it an important but singular piece of the puzzle that cannot stand alone, because it is only the skeleton that requires the flesh of story, a report without essence, a body without soul.

Because, for all of our facts and boundless prose, we are still in desperate need of substance to fill it. If we lose our story, we lose ourselves.