If you asked someone in 1920 to name the most famous people in the United States, they would have come up with names like Thomas Edison and William Randolph Hearst, Rudolf Valentino and Clara Bow. You would’ve heard Will Rogers’s name next to Amelia Earhart’s; Louise Brooks’s next to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. It’s hard to believe that if People magazine were around ninety years ago, entertainers would have shared its pages with physicists, circus performers, and war heroes. Moving pictures were still a novelty, and though “celebrity” wasn’t an altogether new concept, the cult of celebrity was just getting warmed up. Since 1920, it has evolved from a secondary attribute to a primary one, a self-justifying goal rather than a moniker ascribed to someone worth celebrating.
A few weeks ago I made the mistake of Googling health insurance and filling out an online inquiry. The next day I received approximately four million calls, give or take a hundred thousand, from shady salespersons trying to strong-arm me into buying equally shady health insurance policies. My polite denials were met with incessant badgering that degenerated into insults when I interrupted their pitches. I was shocked to find out such practices were legal in the United States of 2008. The experience left me watching my back, looking out for knee-breakers in black Lincolns with tinted windows. I couldn’t help but wonder where my elected officials on the House Subcommittee on Commerce Trade and Consumer Protection were while I was being harassed. I watched the Vice Presidential debates later that week and got a pretty good idea about the general nature of the problem.
The prospect of someone who reminded many of a catty high-school cheerleader becoming our Vice President distracted much of our attention from the other podium, where Joe Biden seemed to be auditioning for the part. Biden looked poised, intelligent, and stately, not as a civil servant, but as a performer competing on a reality show to be the next political idol. I didn’t get the feeling he was any more interested in civic duty than Clay Aiken was moved by the ballads of Celine Dion, or Emmitt Smith was devoted to the velvety, sexual grace of the tango. But all played their parts well enough to lead viewers to forget the terms of the charade, or worse, to concede that substance was secondary, that merit lay in the performance, not the content. Where were my representatives, then, as I was being harassed? I guess they were somewhere in Georgetown getting facials before heading off to their debate coaches.
Depending on which side of the Hobbes vs. Rousseau debate you fall, you believe that the first form of exchange was physical, which then evolved into more delicate systems of trade: bartering goats, swapping paper currencies, leveraging social and cultural capital to acquire goods or sex, or using sex to acquire cultural capital or goats. But only since the emergence of the moving image have we seen celebrity turn into such a marketable commodity. And it has been since the birth of the moving image that life began to imitate art, not the other way around. Anyone would agree that it is preferable to have a Vice President or congressman who understands policy and government, and who can use that knowledge in the best interests of their constituents. But those candidates who don’t possess enough star quality to be cast in a movie role of Vice President or congressman are doomed to work in private law firms or as circuit court judges for the rest of their careers.
Art has historically found itself at the center of the greater debate around the power of the reproduced image. Walter Benjamin’s seminal argument about the shattering of art’s aura by film and photography in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is a touchstone for any discussion about the fugitive value of a reproduced image. Thirty years after Benjamin, Jean Baudrillard posited that in the later stages of capitalism, reality would be inevitably replaced by a mythical, market-driven simulation he called simulacra. Not surprisingly, Disneyland was his favorite example of a representation without an actual referent in the real world. Countless artists have since reacted by seeking to interrogate and recalibrate signs and signifiers that have been perverted by the media: Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, Alan McCollum, et al. Thinking about the works of such artists during the Vice Presidential debate, I had to wonder how different Joe Biden’s polished political persona, which signifies “vice-presidentialness” but not the ability to solve our nation’s problems, is from one of Richard Prince’s ranchless, cowless cowboys, or the starlets in Cindy Sherman’s film stills.
Later in the week I took a trip to the New Museum to see the mid-career retrospective, “Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton.” In light of my recent concerns, the show turned out to offer some necessary guidance. Peyton has made a leisure sport out of painting loose and flattering portraits of friends, celebrities, and icons from history. They are luscious, personal, and often captivating; they are also fawning and self-conscious. Her portraits simultaneously demonstrate the artist’s prescribed methods of idealization and the sincerely rendered characteristics of an individualized portrait: all the jaw lines are sharpened to the same degree, the lips all equally ruddy and youthful, and the hair consistently silky and lustrous. But each portrait also reflects an intimacy and uniqueness of Peyton’s own creation. For instance, Kurt Cobain’s image has become almost as iconic as that of Chairman Mao and Las Vegas-era Elvis Presley, yet, Peyton’s portrait challenges the viewer to disregard the powerful forces of universal branding and reexamine the late rock star’s face. As the media rampantly de-individualizes its subjects, Peyton manages to re-individualize her Cobains and Liam Gallaghers, retrieving her sitters’ auras through the act of painting.
Seeing Peyton’s work brought to mind Bob Colacello’s book Holy Terror, which characterizes Andy Warhol’s obsession with automating and “plasticizing” as a philosophy derived from his desire to mitigate his own physical and intellectual shortcomings. Warhol, one of the few visual artists whose celebrity transcended the high-art world, hoped that the sheer multiplicity of the images he created, including his own likeness, would eventually subsume the integrity of the original. His actual subject, much more than the electric chairs and the Bianca Jaggers, was the elevation of the artificial over the real. That may have been a brilliant conceptual conceit in 1968, but forty years later, his prophesy of emptiness has been so completely fulfilled that celebrating it seems not only passé, but irresponsible.
Still, in the cramped, cage-like gift shop of the New Museum, as I was leafing through a catalogue of the show, I realized (embarrassing as it is to admit it) that while I recognized most of Peyton’s sitters, I didn’t know what Elizabeth Peyton herself looked like. And somehow this gave me comfort for the fate of the art world.
Celebrity was more grounded in 1920 because it was attained more through actions than through name or face recognition. This being the case, contemporary art has been presented with a unique and instrumental social responsibility. Art as a practice has retained the capacity to administrate and create reality even as its practitioners remain largely insulated from the spotlight of a popular media that has become the primary distorter of reality. Our politicians spend a majority of their time bouncing around the media pinball machine, racking up recognition scores until they’re high enough to secure book deals and readings at Barnes and Noble. At the same time our best artists are busy sorting through the endless supply of mass media images, but stopping the pictorial buck where they stand, reinvesting it with the character and individuality that got lost in transit through the airwaves. Elizabeth Peyton might come across as a love-struck fan at times, but she is always a devoted and searching artist. If my congressperson spent as much time parsing public policy as Elizabeth Peyton does painting portraits, I might not be running from crazed telemarketers who have had their way with my phone number. If our society could somehow summon the objectivity to avoid being mesmerized by media-generated stereotypes, we would have a lot fewer talking heads and a lot more people doing their jobs with integrity…and Elizabeth Peyton’s adulation might be redirected to nerdy bureaucrats and gray-suited administrators, capturing their furrowed brows and intense stares in effortless passes of translucent oil paint. You probably wouldn’t recognize any of them, but you wouldn’t suffer from that at all.