- The Star as Icon: Celebrity in the Age of Mass Consumption
Aestheticians have tended to focus their attention almost exclusively on high art, on museum painting and sculpture, classical music and literature, and architecture, leaving the popular arts to their colleagues in cultural studies. That seems a big mistake, for like it or not, popular movies and television attract enormous audiences everywhere, including very many people who take little interest in high art. This mass art creates stars, actors, and musicians who are so famous that everyone recognizes them. And celebrities such as Princess Diana are also stars. Because stars straddle the boundary between politics and popular art, they deserve attention from our philosophers. Even if your favorite leisure reading is the Journal of Philosophy, when you leave the supermarket, you see how many publications are devoted to celebrities. And if you look at YouTube, you see how much attention is devoted to them. Anyone who wants to understand how our culture works needs to look at these stars, who are omnipresent.
Writing as a philosopher, Daniel Herwitz offers an exemplary analysis of celebrities. What is required, he plausibly argues, is to understand the “systems that produced Diana: the star system, originating with the tabloid, then the media of film and television, and finally the nature of consumer society” (49). Wise enough not to take altogether seriously the concerns of cultural studies, he offers a clear, marvelously brief account. Starting and ending with an account of Princess Diana, with special focus on her famous funeral, he also comments instructively on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, The Philadelphia Story, The Truman Show, and the ending of The Sopranos. He has suggestive critical discussions of Erwin Panofsky’s pioneering account of film; Kendall Walton’s much-discussed view that photographs allow us to look into the past; and the way that Walter Benjamin’s famous account of the aura needs to be revised, in light of the ways that new technologies change our concept of celebrityhood. Nicolas Poussin’s world is distant, and so an account of his art needs to identify its sources, which have become exotic and describe seventeenth-century society. But since contemporary popular culture art deals with concerns shared by everyone, what can interpretation tell us? It is much harder to interpret the Beatles or Radiohead interestingly than Poussin’s paintings. These musicians attract enormous worldwide audiences precisely because they speak to all of us. In saying that, I am not claiming that their music is as good aesthetically as his paintings. But certainly it is very different.
Cultural studies tends to adopt a critical leftist viewpoint. Sometimes Herwitz also does this, as when he critiques Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic [End Page 117] remarks; notes how film is kinder to aging male actors than to their female counterparts; and describes the greed of the photographers who pursued Diana even onto her death. Here, however, he is preaching to the choir; insofar as his book has an academic audience, these observations are really dispensable. Herwitz writes: “I am a child of television” (99). I am not, which perhaps explains why I hesitate to moralize in his terms. His account of the way that television series involve repetition and the odd relationship we have to celebrities, who are both close to us and, of course, very inaccessible, is much more interesting. From his songs, I know a lot about Bob Dylan, but he knows nothing of me. I may feel close to him, but he is far away from me, like a distant star that looks bright. When an image is repeated, Herwitz says, it “seems unreal, as if it were an artifact of the screen rather than of life, as if it never really happened” (120). I am not sure this is correct. In my experience, repeated images of the fall of the World Trade Center Towers, one of his examples, always look all too real. But he is surely onto something significant, which deserves more discussion.