Goodbye talent, hello celebrity: the fall and fall of popular culture

Kate Kretz‘s painting of Angelina Jolie as the Virgin Mary (‘Blessed Art Thou’) has been getting some well deserved publicity this weekend. Inevitably a number of ‘high art’ commentators have complained that the piece is part of the ‘dumbing down’ of culture, without taking the time to understand her motivation:

“Our culture is deifying celebrities, but in the bible, it is the meek who are blessed, so the title presents a question for the viewer to ponder.

I chose a setting where the cycle begins: psychologically oppressive environments like this one are one of the feeding sources for the consumer, hungry for “information” about the celebrity’s private life. I am interested in the psychological ramifications of celebrity worship, particularly as they relate to class.”

It is incredibly hard to avoid the all-pervasive stench of celebrity culture in the UK. Every TV show, magazine and pub conversation is littered with people who – to be frank – I couldn’t care less about. In the new millennium a big celebrity catalyst has been Big Brother (the TV show, not the Orwellian panopticon, though the two are intimately linked), which raises the ‘average’ person to the level of ‘celebrity’ – or in the case of Celebrity Big Brother, brings the ‘stars’ down to earth.
The 2006 edition of Celebrity BB in the UK was notable for the fact that it was won by a ‘fake’ celebrity, who by the time of leaving the BB house was every bit as celebrated in the UK as the ‘real’ celebrities who her entry into the house could possibly have satirised. Now the 2007 edition has started, and as the most read BBC entertainment news suggests, the demand for Z-list celebrity news is as insatiable as ever:

Singer escapes from Big Brother

Stars begin Big Brother journey

Celebrity Big Brother 5 launches

All can be famous in the ever-expanding eyes of our media… all that it takes to reach celebrity status is enough eyes upon you, and the number of eyes this requires is dropping all the time, thanks to the multiplication of media online and off (a youtube video with 5000-10000 views might be enough now to propel the creator to the exulted ranks of celebrity status).

Naturally there is no real need for talent, even in Simon Cowell’s self-proclaimed ‘talent’ shows. Indeed the lack of talent (and intelligence?) is almost a prerequisite for celebrity status in the UK today (cf. every winner of Big Brother). Commentators have observed that Brits do not like these character traits – this could be tall poppy syndrome, or more simply jealousy of those perceived to (unjustly) have more than we do, and a desire to take them down a peg or two. More charitably, our national preference is for the underdog, in this case the person or persons with no discernable talents to help them scale the glittering heights of celebrity culture.

Adorno and Horkheimer’s classic disection of mass culture suggested that culture not only mirrors society, but also takes an important role in shaping society through the processes of standardisation and commodification, creating objects rather than subjects. The culture industry claims to serve the consumers’ needs for entertainment, but conceals the way that it standardises these needs, manipulating the consumers to desire what it produces. The outcome is that mass production feeds a mass market that minimizes the identity and tastes of the individual consumers who are as interchangeable as the products they consume. And as we see today, the culture industry is very adept at incorporating individuals into the system as the ephemeral standardised objects to be consumed. We can expect the trend to continue: the video sharing sites will further flood the celebrity waters with one-trick ponies desperate for their 15 seconds of fame.

The positive side is that the generations growing up with celebrity culture may not be as susceptible (read stupid) as Adorno and Horkheimer assumed. Far from aiming to be famous at all costs, a recent survey suggests that teens are more likely to see parents as good role models than celebrities, and that “young people are more cynical, or at least unconvinced, about the influence of celebrities on their lives and indeed feel that celebrities such as Pete Doherty are bad role models.” We can only hope.