Biography 24.3 (2001) 675-678
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Economist Tyler Cowen sets out to explore the relationship between fame and merit in the celebrity marketplace. In his brief examples, Cowen covers a wide historical period, from ancient Greece to the present, and a wide range of star systems: sports figures, Hollywood stars, classical and popular musicians, war heroes, scientists, politicians, artists, authors, even Catholic saints. Another entry into the culture wars, the book optimistically argues that a "successful society . . . is bound to separate fame and merit to a large degree" (163), and that the modern production of fame promotes, rather than suppresses, greater creativity and diversity. Although Cowen gives some credence to recent arguments that the economy of fame makes for looser morals and a debasement of public discourse, he believes that overall, modern consumer cultures benefit from it. But the book ultimately fails because of its reductionism in representing stars and audiences, its ignorance of political influences in the marketplace, and its inability to grasp fully the social construction of merit. Merit remains elusive throughout and is often confused with morality.
Cowen begins by analyzing ways in which fame has been disjoined from merit under modern capitalism. Stars are not chosen for their contributions to bettering society. They may not meet the highest "moral and aesthetic [End Page 675] standards," and "herd behavior" often overrides fan preferences and standards (8). The book has a low opinion of popular audiences, often describing them as enthusiastic and stimulating to new markets, but misguided and confused, unable to discern true merit. Seemingly addressing an audience who will automatically recognize merit, namely academics, the book poses many comparisons such as "is the super-famous Andrew Wyeth really better than Jasper Johns or Roy Lichtenstein?" (9). Clearly, the author believes the answer is no, and expects his elite audience to believe the same, relieving him of the burden of actually explaining why Wyeth's fame is overrated, and thus defining artistic merit.
Cowen analyzes the economic mechanisms of fame among critics who are supposed to decide questions of merit. Critics are divided into two groups: gatekeepers and motivators. Gatekeepers, such as literary critics and Halls of Fame, set standards for who becomes famous, but the transaction goes both ways. The reputation and economic success of gatekeepers themselves are at stake when they promote an artist's work, and so they resist debasement of standards and tend to be conservative in their choices. However, Cowen argues that the proliferation of new market specialties, such as rap music, stimulates critical innovation and risk-taking. He is less kind to motivators, who encourage quantity rather than quality. These he blames for debasing the language with over-generalized praise. Still, he says, the "relatively degenerate level of public speech" is outdone by a commercialism that provides "an extraordinarily wide realm of private symbols, standards, and trademarks, and so on, all of which express meaning" (99). This open market enhances language and encourages innovation and participation.
Similarly, Cowen denies that mechanical reproduction allows for only a narrow range of performers to dominate the market at the expense of diversity and local live talent. Instead, he suggests a trickle-down effect, in which the fame of one superstar stimulates interest in his or her field of endeavor, and thus attracts attention to other players and performers. Rather than being a zero-sum game, fame expands in response to demand, as can be seen on blockbuster album charts, in which fewer albums now dominate over long periods of time. Furthermore, this tendency enhances the quality of performance, with superstars only narrowly better than competitors who can be watched with equal enjoyment. Cowen finds fame to be a growth industry, expanding to a global phenomenon: "As the world becomes wealthier and more diverse, standards for fame become more complex and heterogeneous" (117).
This kind of generality is precisely what is wrong with the book. Not all the world, or even all inhabitants of modern industrial cultures, are growing wealthier. And it is not...