Marxist Tales, Part 1: The Lives of Stars

Posted by Charles Reece, December 11, 2007 02:00am | Post a Comment
The celebrity, the spectacular representation of a living human being, embodies this banality [pseudo-individualism by way of what you want to buy – think of a hippie rebelling by driving a VW] by embodying the image of a possible role. Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the object of identification with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations which are actually lived. Celebrities exist to act out various styles of living and viewing society unfettered, free to express themselves globally. They embody the inaccessible result of social labor by dramatizing its by-products magically projected above it as its goal: power and vacations, decision and consumption, which are the beginning and end of an undiscussed process. – Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle #60

I’m always left slightly annoyed every time I hear some star kvetching about how he or she is stalked by the paparazzi.  It’s as if a piston suddenly started to resent its function within the engine.  More often than not, a star is designed, by luck of genetics, familial ties, or modern surgical techniques for fitness to Hollywood’s nature – pop culture's own form of eugenics.  It’s rarely based on a meritocracy.  Not that there’s no inherent talent, or craft, involved, but similar to choosing a good dentist on a friend’s recommendation or insurance coverage, some other beautiful guy would’ve been People’s most eligible bachelor had the astrological rules played out a bit differently.  When stars start complaining about being photographed or gossiped about, it’s because they’ve bought into the myth of the spectacle (image as consumable reality), believing that their position in popular culture is one of true individualism, rather than a simulation of individualism.  They’re assuming control of their image, rather than their image being a mediation between an individual and reality.  It’s the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, confusing the map with the mapped.  Their image is there to be consumed like every other product in the market; the shinier and newer it appears, the more likely it’ll be desired.  The trick of the publicity machine is to perpetually churn out novel-seeming stories about stars that don’t fundamentally alter our desire for the star.  Stardom isn’t sustained by the films in which the actor is in, but by our interest in the stories being told about that actor that keep us returning to his or her films, regardless of what kind of shit they’re getting paid to be in.  The star represents who we’re supposed to want to be.  And with exceeding frequency in our media-saturated culture, we do want to be that star.  Hell, even the celebrities desire their star-images.  As Debord pointed out, it’s a dream of pseudo-power, the ultimate ability to consume without any real control over what the caviling star mistakenly assumes is his or her image of selfhood.  Ultimately, the star is nothing but the photograph to the culture industry’s camera, a postcard of a place where we’re all supposed to want to visit.

It’s inevitable that as soon as some artist creates something, a representative image of the artist and his supposed intention begins to form which mediates the way the audience and the artist himself relates to the art.  To the degree that this image becomes more important than the art is the degree to which the art becomes a commodity.  The image tells us what to think about the art, its sign-function within the culture, making it easily digestible before we even encounter the art itself.  This is particularly evident in pop culture, where every movie, book or tv show is defined by ratings, box-office, genre, etc., which delineates the target audience a priori.  When art begins to be created to fit these mediating images, it’s d.o.a..  That’s the central dilemma of creating meaningful popular art.  In order to play in the pop arena, the artist has to play the game, sell his or her art as an established spectacle, safely consumable, or risk being defined out of the picture, possibly as some dangerous, but more often, irrelevant form of “avant-gardism.”  But it’s not just purveyors of pop cultural junk who use such containing images, however; this strategy can be found even in the aerial perspective of socalled high Modernist art. 

In his book on 20th century music, The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross relates a story of the avant-garde composer Arnold Schoenberg ranting to a friend in a Brentwood market about how he didn’t have syphilis.  He was referring to Thomas Mann’s recently published novel, “Doctor Faustus,” which tells the story of a composer based on Schoenberg who makes a compact with the devil in the form of syphilis.  Both men found themselves in Southern California after fleeing from Nazism.  Mann was lamenting the fact that an important composer like Schoenberg had through his own aesthetic choices been “reduced” to having his compositions played before a small coterie of like-minded admirers.  The std in question was a metaphor for the story artists like Schoenberg tell themselves of willingly taking on the suffering of not being appreciated by the stupefied masses in the service of real art. 

From what Ross says, Schoenberg did tell this story in service of his atonal compositions, as a progressive breaking the shackles of tonality and oppressive demands of the traditional classical music audience.  However, he did so after creating the music, that is, as a counter-story to the reactionary one which attempted to exclude his music from the classical tradition, presumably as a matter of common-sense.  Mann was missing the days of German Romanticism and so depicted his fictionalized Schoenberg as a cold intellectual monster, rather than one possibly following his own romantic muse.  In fact, many of Schoenberg’s earlier atonal pieces were written at a time when his wife was cheating on him, suggesting a good deal of passion in these supposedly cold compositions.  Given that his music has had such an impact on the development of 20th century music, from the developments in the classical avant-garde to jazz and even rock music, while still not being used in car commercials, there seems to be a good deal of truth in the story Schoenberg and other like-minded artists tell.  It serves as something of a viral inoculation to the dominant images placed upon artists in order to make them more palatable to a “target audience,” even when this audience is the rarefied one of classical music.  This is another way of saying it becomes necessary for the serious artist to often reject the dominant discourse, with its surfeit of mediating spectacles, in order keep on keeping on.  That is the moral responsibility of an artist to his art.  All of which brings me next to Bob Dylan and his own deal at the crossroads.

Parts II and III.

Relevant Tags

Thomas Mann (1), Alex Ross (1), Commodity (1), Spectacle (9), Star (3), Celebrities (5), Guy Debord (3), Eugenics (2), Arnold Schoenberg (3)