What the Oscars tell us, about us

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The Oscars; are crucial news, I’m sure you know.  The early part of this week’s media reported little else. We get invited to view (though we’ll never be allowed in) a big ol’ glittery TV show. It takes hours to show us not a lot. But the hosts do their best to make us  feel welcomed, as we watch the Western world’s best actors, buffed and booted and looking their Sunday best, pick up a golden statuette.

Of course it’s nice to get recognized for doing a good job.  And award ceremonies offer good ways to applaud talent and achievement. These work in many industries.  But most aren’t beamed around the planet, dressed up as really important information.

So why do the Oscars make such headline news?

Well put simply – stardom is still a powerful cultural magnet (seemingly much more than politics, economics or science).

There’s the classical view: Celebrities have given us an outlet for our imagination, just as the gods of ancient Greece and Rome once did. They are our myth bearers; carriers of the divine forces of good, evil, lust, and redemption. “The wish for kings is an old and familiar wish, as well-known in medieval Europe as in ancient Mesopotamia. The ancient Greeks assigned trace elements of the divine to trees and winds and stones. A river god sulks, and the child drowns; a sky god smiles, and the corn ripens. The modern Americans assign similar powers not only to whales and spotted owls but also to individuals blessed with the aura of celebrity.” Lewis Lapham, The Wish For Kings.

There’s the anthropologist’s view: As a hyper-social species, we acquire the bulk of our knowledge, ideas and skills by copying from others, rather than through individual trial-and-error. “Prestige is a form of social status that is based on the respect and admiration of members of one’s community…it seems to be a unique characteristic of our species, and something that is universal to all human cultures. In other primates, social hierarchies are typically based on dominance, which is different from prestige because it implies fear, and the threat of violence…How did such systems arise? The most convincing theory suggests that prestige evolved as part of a package of psychological adaptations for cultural learning. It allowed our ancestors to recognise and reward individuals with superior skills and knowledge, and learn from them.” See article: Viewpoint, BBC

This backs up the psychologist’s view;  “It’s kind of like a legitimate voyeurism…These are people who we pay attention to because, in one way or another, they influence our lives. How they dress, how they speak, what they like, what roles they play — they are profoundly influential … These people are really so much a part of our cultural layers of who is important and who is less important.” (Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at California State University and senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology.). See article: Oscar Psychology, Huffington Post

There’s the “image is everything” view; “The hero was distinguished by his achievement, the celebrity by his image. The celebrity is a person well known for his well-knownness. We … have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so realistic that we can live in them.” The Image, Daniel Boorstin.

Indeed image is manipulating our days (fuelled by the second on social media platforms). This is feeding into the narcissist’s view; ” The narcissist identifies with individuals of grandeur, because he believes he is like them”.  The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch.

Then there’s a philosophical view: So the need to hero-worship a famous person is not demeaning or childish or an indication that we have no idea how to lead our lives. But “the impulse to admire is an ineradicable and important feature of our psyches. Ignoring or condemning it won’t kill it off; it will simply force it underground, where it will lurk untended and undeveloped, prone to latch on to inappropriate targets. Rather than try to suppress our love of celebrity, we ought to channel it in optimally intelligent and fruitful directions. A properly organised society would be one where the best-known people were those who embodied and reinforced the highest, noblest and most socially beneficial values, and hence one in which an admission of reverence for a celebrity could be an occasion for pride rather than a prompt for shame or self-deprecating laughter.” See article Don’t despise celebrity culture – the impulse to admire can be precious, Alain de Botton

What appears true is that today our national passions, cultural watersheds, sexual mores, gender and political climate are viewed through a kaleidoscope of stories about people. As a result, our whole culture has come to be defined in terms of the personal, exemplified through the lives of celebrities (Keeping up with the Kardashians, are you?)

The Oscars viewing figures in the US  declined again this year (down to 34m from 43m in 2014). Is our fascination with these Hollywood greats on the wane? Are we looking for something new – we can be a fickle bunch –  maybe we want different (more worthwhile, more clever, more witty?) idols? A final thought from Samuel Johnson: “To get a name is one of the few things that cannot be bought. It is the free gift of mankind, which must be deserved before it will be granted.”

 

How do other artists look at other artists?

Documentary film arguably provides the best form for analysing celebrity culture. Of course Amy won this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (made by Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees). There are many other good celeb docs –  a list of  recommendations.

Hollywood has produced a rich seam of movies about celebrity obsession. And never more so than last year – 8 recent films about fame.  Other films include The Truman Show, Being John Malkovich, To Die For and Sophia Coppola’s  The Bling Ring  starring Emma Watson (but this take on the dark side of a shiny world was criticised for not delving deep enough).

Photography – There are many photographers known for working with celebrities – reverentially usually. But Alison Jackson has made her name using photography to subvert celebrity culture. Hear her talk about her work – https://www.ted.com/talks/alison_jackson_looks_at_celebrity

The art world has been less productive in recent times – time to update Andy Warhol/PopArt?  Museum of Modern Art, New York learning resource.

Biography – celebrity memoirs are the lifeblood of this genre.  Non-fiction top 10 lists are full of them – and so they perpetuate the cult of celebrity.  A list of US favorites here and UK bestsellers 2015.

Fiction – There’s some kids fiction (and non-fiction academic texts) exploring the theme, but there’s not much evidence that acclaimed adult novelists venture near the subject, that I could find. I wonder why?

Sculpture? – well, there’s always Madam Tussauds.

 

 

 

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