THE ART OF FAME AND THE SELF-DEPRECIATION OF THE SUBJECT.
Drive from my breast that wretched lust of praise.
The Temple of Fame. Alexander Pope 1688-1744.
It is often said that fame has its other in tragedy, but the person aspiring to attract fame feels gifted and unique, s/he thinks little of the intra-psychic factors that might be driving the desire for mass recognition or the dissociation that can come from it.
In the 1950s the word fame was hardly in common usage, at least not amongst the mainstream populous. Moreover, there was a marked difference between those endowed with celebrity status and those who acquired true fame. Traditionally, fame was only afforded to people who selflessly served humanity. In the aftermath of the Second World War fame was more or less attributed to dead heroes. The dead were, by definition, beyond any kind of rapprochement for the life they may have lived or how they gained their fame. Awarding fame to individuals after the armistice was good public relations because it made heroes out of victims.
By the 1960s the understanding of fame shifted to become an accepted part of the cultural paradigm. Social values and community expectations had changed, religions and traditions were seemingly oppressive, family units were disintegrating; mobility had increased as had the availability of labour saving devices which provided more leisure time. While many devoted attention to the rich and famous amongst others there was a heightened social awareness.
In the 1970s fame became dislocated from its sentiments of altruism and respect when the entire notion of the rational human being was called into question. Fame was then linked to novelty, revolt, money and as much scandal as any one person could create. In this climate many popular actors, politicians, writers and artists became eligible for fame. Many aspirants jumped on the bandwagon to glory, more frequently to their peril than to their success.
Economic and environmental changes made fame into a commodity fetish. Fame was democratically advantageous in a society that had become regionalized, segmented, compartmentalized and fully commoditized to suit the logic of international markets. Ambitions towards fame did not have to extend to the global stage; one could be a famous ‘big fish’ in a small pond and still feel a similar sense of empowerment. Fame was also integral to a Human Potential Movement which opened the way for consideration of the individual (‘I’) in relation to its other. Fame could only occur through engagement with the other.
Fame does not lend itself to a simple definition, but those who gain great fame experience extraordinary lives of power and wealth. As evolutionary theory would suggest fame can only occur when the appropriate material conditions are in place to create it as the solution to a problem. The problem in the 1970s was how to open up Western society to the world without losing power to foreign entrepreneurs. The famous were good ambassadors; they were multi-skilled and culturally productive. Fame was the ambrosia of a progressive post-war economy and today more and more people seem to be achieving its distinction.
Fame has proven its usefulness, but it comes at a cost. Many famous people have resorted to suicide upon reaching their goals; they include Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemmingway, Sylvia Plath, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, Robin Williams and so on. The downside of fame is that it has its binary opposite in the obfuscation of the corporal body, albeit not always ending in death, but certainly in the depreciation of the primary Subject.
Fame appears to eschew feelings of obscurity and shame, but it also repudiates the primary identity that keeps human beings integrated into the normally stable social structures. Fame is a transcendent state that separates itself from the primary body and it must therefore be constantly reinvented along a chain of often unrelated signifiers, this causes the original Subject/Thing to disappear. Fame is not a material realty. Rather fame is a story, or better still, a phantasmagoria.
In a 2012 interview for the American television program 60 Minutes reporter Anderson Cooper asked pop star Lady Gaga (real name Stefani Joanne Germanotta) how she felt about having so much fame (see the interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suu47LOvCs4). Gaga is constantly in performance mode, she cannot go anywhere without the paparazzi hot on her heels. She must constantly change her dress, style and persona to keep her audience interested, but she never seems to tire of the task. Gaga, refers to herself as a ‘performance artist’ and the ‘Master of Fame’.
Notably, Gaga’s meteoric rise to fame has been predicated on the artist’s outrageous costumes, which have included a raw meat frock, a monster snake and bridesmaid’s outfit. She dons ten inch high-heel shoes and often appears in scanty underwear that it is designed to shock. Gaga is renowned for her outrageous behaviour as well as the overtly expressed desire to empower her followers. What is little known about Gaga is that she is an avid scholar, an intellectual, and a classically trained and talented musician.
Gaga enjoys fame and she has created a life in a separate space to her personal and academic existence because she wants to protect what she refers to as her ‘soulfulness’. Here is the conundrum; the protection of ‘soulfulness’ must inevitably include the corporal body upon which it is based, but the creation of the other (Gaga) must also include the constant depreciation of the body corporal. In every performance Gaga erodes the very substance that sustains its constant re-invention.
The artist always already makes his or her own production problematic as if it were a separate entity to the ‘Subject/Thing’ because it can only survive when it is open to the other, whereby making the other responsible for the ultimate depreciation of the ‘Subject/Thing’. Gaga takes this idea to the edge by covering herself with blood and is seen hanging from a rope and dying before her audience. Asked why she performs this role Gaga says, ‘people want to see decay…They want to see people who have it all and lose it all’. She is right! How many people flock to a disaster to witness the injury or death of the other, thus pre-empting the horror of their own possible misfortune?
The urge towards demise in the other harks back to Freud’s death instinct, ‘the task of which is to lead organic life back into the inanimate state’. In classical psychoanalysis this is a re-submission into the primary identification and the first separation from the mother. The philosopher Julia Kristeva calls this dynamic ‘agape’. Agape means ‘Love’, but Kristeva contends agape is a varied source of comfort, for instance ‘…to be challenged by art is to be confronted by a void of non-meaning and the prospect of our own hell, our own suffering’. Kristeva argues ‘the unsettling element and its strangeness might become the basis for another self’.
When the primary body is rendered obsolete or it becomes the disappearing body it also becomes the unnameable and that which is simultaneously the foundation of a phantasm. The dilemma is clear, to use another metaphor, if one removes the soil from under the mountain, the summit will inevitably collapse and disappear.
Undoubtedly, performance art (in all its forms) presupposes the limits of a binary system and operates in an elevated psychic spectrum where all the various domains can be grafted into an object. Hence, every work, performance or fame invokes a detachment. Detachment from the Subject/Thing requires clarity for the production of its surrogate which forms its own identity. Detachment gives the melancholic control over the depressive states; it transforms fears into calm and creates opportunities out of disappointments. By enacting the expressions of loss in psychic space, other domains can be preserved. Put differently, by relocating suffering into performance the artist gains resurrection.
In Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem The House of Fame 1379 and 1380, the author devotes three books to the dream state. While sleeping in a glass house Chaucer is guided by an eagle to the House of Fame which is sound, light and a pathway to Heaven and the Gods. Today the Heavenly God is dead, but the phantasmagoria lives on.
Julia Kristeva, 1983. Histories d’amour. ICA documents page p21.
Sigmund Freud, 1987.Metapsychology. (Middlesex, Penguin) p. 316.
Kathryn Lynch, (Ed). Geoffrey Chaucer (2007). Dream visions and other poems. N.Y. W.W. Norton.
I have always been interested in the dark side of human behaviour that surfaces from the oldest and deepest part of the primal brain.
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