April’s book-club theme is celebrity—fame, stardom, idolatry. Today we’re closing out our monthly discussion with reflections from Atlantic writers. If you haven’t been following along with the book club, here’s what you’ve missed.
In an expansive conversation on the forums, members discussed the nature of celebrity with insight from Rosa Inocencio Smith, an editor on The Atlantic’s Books desk, and guest comments from Taylor Lorenz, Megan Garber, and Jemele Hill, Atlantic writers on the powerful and famous. In this issue of The Masthead, Rosa spins out a big idea inspired by the discussion and shares some extra readings to explore.
What do you think of the book club? Share your feedback, as well as any suggestions for our next discussion theme, here.
The Celebrity and the Man
By Rosa Inocencio Smith
This Easter, Kanye West performed a “Sunday service” at Coachella. There was an organ, a harp, and a choir of dozens in purplish robes on an outdoor stage shaped like an eyeball. Both inevitably and improbably, there was church-themed merchandise, including $165 sweatshirts that said Holy Spirit and $50 socks reading Jesus Walks. There was an audience of thousands, including nearly all of West’s Kardashian in-laws. There was a live-stream, filmed through a peephole camera that framed the scene in darkness, making it impossible for bemused and frustrated viewers to forget that this spiritual encounter had been crafted for the public eye.
The whole spectacle seemed to weave together several threads from this month’s book-club discussion of celebrity. The convergence of superstar worship with actual worship, first of all, seemed to underscore what @Barb_Didrichsen calls “the cult of celebrity that seems to have taken over all aspects of our culture.” The Kardashians, so infamously famous for being famous, stand in for the democratization of fame, in which, as @megan puts it, “anyone can be a star, or feel like one.” And those expensive sweatshirts illustrate the commodification of celebrity brands that leads @kyle.cissp to observe that “so much of the economy seems to be linked to celebrity.”
Most of all, though, watching screencapped images of the event flit across Twitter, I was reminded of the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which helps to explain how celebrities come to seem, simultaneously, superhuman and shallow.
Benjamin’s basic argument is that works of art, including artists’ performances, lose some of their unique cultural significance, which he calls an “aura,” each time they are reproduced by mechanical means. The first works of art, he writes, were religious objects, valuable for their use in rituals. But once technology made it possible to copy art exactly, those copies began to take on identities of their own. The “cult value” of the original object as something unique and precious was diminished and replaced by its “exhibition value,” so that what the work could communicate would become more important than what it was. In other words, when everyone can look at a photograph of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it doesn’t matter quite as much whether people travel to Vatican City to see the real thing.
Benjamin saw these historical changes as potentially revolutionary. Technologies like photography and printing could make information more accessible, and the separation of cultural touchstones from their hallowed contexts could shift a society’s balance of power. At the same time, he worried about what reproduction could mean for artists—particularly screen actors, objectified by the camera’s gaze and alienated from their audiences. “The cult of the movie star,” he wrote, “preserves not the unique aura of the person”—or the individual labor and personality of the actor—“but the phony spell of a commodity.” That is, the artificial personas that fans idolize have little to do with the people they purportedly represent.
Today, as Benjamin predicted, the spread of information has made a lot more people powerful—and famous. Celebrities’ public personas have indeed become separate from, and larger than, the stars themselves. But the cult value, or the air of divinity surrounding beautiful objects and glamorous people, hasn’t quite gone away, even as those objects and people are “reproduced” more and more. After all, we still refer to famous people as “idols” and “icons,” words that, in their other meanings, describe objects that represent gods. This sort of lingering reverence is perhaps why today’s democratization of celebrity through reality TV and viral videos can be so alarming to people. We not only expect celebrities to have glorious gifts that justify their glorious status; we also don’t expect to see the people or processes behind that status much.
In the current information revolution—the age of digital reproduction, of memes and selfies and viral fame—the cultural shift that Benjamin describes has arguably accelerated, and that shows in language as well. We’ve begun to speak not of idols, but of influencers—to value stars not simply for their static public images, but for their exhibition value, or how much they can say to how many people. What’s more, social media have blurred the lines between private behavior and public communication, restoring some of stars’ original aura to their reproduced images.
All this seems to add new layers of complexity when it comes to West, an undeniably talented musician whose personal and political antics have often seemed to eclipse his art. There’s West, the celebrity, reproduced over and over in screenshots, inside the frame of his Sunday service live-stream—and then, at the center of all these images, there’s West, the man, crying in church. It’s hard to tell where the stardom ends and the person behind it begins.
Here are more cultural works on celebrity, inspired by Rosa’s piece.
🎶 Listen to Okkervil River’s “Song About a Star,” who gets transformed by fame into someone his loved ones don’t recognize. The money line: “Think you see him? He’s not there / That’s just light that’s not yet dead.”
📖 And speaking of places where fame lives, the recent novel The Dakota Winters follows a young man who, in 1969, returns from the Peace Corps to live with his talk-show-host father and hang out with their neighbor, John Lennon. If you’ve read it, let us know what you thought.
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