It seems to me that, as the economy has become increasingly unequal, most fields of human endeavour have reduced to a “winner takes all” contest, where the winner gets all the spoils and the rest barely subsist. I’ve noticed this concentration of success in the arts too. Nowadays, it seems to be the case that the only really financially successful artists, who can work on their own terms, have had to become celebrity artists in order to do so.
If they’re not already celebrities, they are intent on becoming minor celebrities, in the hope of raising their profile to that of full celebrity, at which point they don’t have to worry about starving, as an artist, any more. This has been a successful tactic for many artists. There is a long history of artists who make more money from personal appearances and product endorsements than they do through sales of their artistic output. The recording industry is full of them. Perhaps acting is, too. Some artists make far more money making a television documentary, which endorses and publicises their art, than they do from their art itself. So, are they television presenters, at that point, or artists? What takes primacy – their celebrity or their artistry?
At some point, regrettably, being a celebrity takes over and being an artist takes a back seat. Being a celebrity and being an artist are two distinctly different things, in reality. One is concerned with public image and exposure. The other is concerned with perfecting an imaginative vision in tangible form. I don’t deny that there can be some overlap, but which tail wags which dog?
Some celebrity artists stop developing, as artists. Their art becomes an afterthought, to sustain their celebrity career, instead of vice versa. You can see this for yourself. Records stop being made. Paintings become less frequent. Chefs stop cooking. The old hits are trotted out repeatedly, like some grotesque, gothic exhumation from a long-forgotten crypt and their new work is a shadow of their earlier work. This isn’t because they got old, or because they forgot how to be artists, it’s because they’re distracted with the travel, the schedules, the appearances, their appearance and a set of concerns wholly divorced from making their art.
It’s amazing that their art gets a look in at all, in reality. Even if they struggle to maintain an authentic artistic career, they devote less and less time to preparation and to actually producing their art. Time becomes too expensive to devote to inspiration, refinement, musing, jamming or experimenting. They have to produce their art quickly, on schedule and move on. It resembles factory production, more than artistry.
Sometimes, they hire assistants, who are the real artists now, while the celebrity artist looks on, issues directives and claims authorship of the work of other people’s hands, intellects and experience. Their celebrity commitments won’t permit otherwise. Consequently, the quality of their output stagnates and even plummets. There is little integrity in becoming a thinly-disguised marketing machine, just because everybody knows your name and face.
Of course, with our current political economy, our monetary value system is such that artists that make it big are so rare that they’re bound to become celebrities, for that feat alone. Their celebrity derives as much from their unlikely success and the scarcity of similarly remunerated peers, as it does from the quality and appeal of their artistic work.
Knowing that celebrity is the route to some type of economic independence (at the expense of a public private life), some people start out as deliberate celebrities, who become famous for being famous and then they graft a thin veneer of artistry on, as an afterthought. We all know of musicians that couldn’t play a note or write a song, until long after they achieved acclaim.
The problem with this strategy, as a starving artist, is that celebrity is distraction and that’s why the powers in charge pay big money for it. Distraction has value to them, in that it prevents the population from thinking important thoughts about deposing their illegitimate rulers. Celebrities are there to make you think you could make it big, too and to help you forget that the world has important, pressing problems to address. Instead, you are meant to be entertained by celebrities, so that you forget all about these things.
If that’s how you derive meaning from the world, as an artist, then by all means follow the celebrity path. I think it’s a pretty shallow substitute to making great art, which has some real truth and radical ideas behind it, though, personally speaking. That’s the sort of art that tends to have longevity. Of course, this consigns me to the ranks of the starving, not to those with enough money to live as an artist, or at least a pastiche of one.
That thought leads me to the burning question: How do you become a successful artist without becoming a celebrity? Is there a way, or is celebrity the only path out of obscurity and penury? How do you protect your art practice, once celebrity status is foist upon you? I don’t know the answers. I’ve never been remotely close to becoming a celebrity to have a perspective worthy of the name, on any of these questions. I do wonder, though.
Maybe celebrity artists see it entirely differently. Perhaps they share a secret I don’t. I’d be fascinated to know.