The Will to Fame or The 10 Commandments of the Mass Media (Artistic Strategies I)

November 21st, 2010 § 0 comments

“Of such mighty importance does it appear to be, in the imaginations of men, to stand in the situation which sets them most in the view of general sympathy and attention. And thus, place, that great object which divides the wives of aldermen, is the end of half the labours of human life; and is the cause of all the tumult and bustle, all the rapine and injustice, which avarice and ambition have introduced into this world.” Adam Smith (1767) The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 3rd. ed., London, p. 98.

Why would somebody want to be famous or well known? How would someone have achieved that goal during the last century, or at the turn of the century? In order to aid the work of those just flirting with the mass media, and assess of those who have work in more advanced stages, I have compiled — with the addition of some supplementary material — the musings of some philosophers, economists, and artists on the subject. With any luck, what follows will also throw some light on the state of the current local artistic scenes in (eastern) continental Europe.

The Mantle of Fame

Whether they have any say in the matter or not, it is clear that many people do not want to be famous, or to play out a public role. Adam Smith, in the work quoted above, interprets fame as surrendering freedom, fearlessness, and independence: “Are you in earnest resolved never to barter your liberty for the lordly servitude of a Court, but to live free, fearless, and independeant? There seems to be one way to continue in that virtuous resolution; and perhaps but one. Never enter the place from whence so few have been able to return; never come within the circle of ambition; nor ever bring yourself into comparison with those masters of the earth who have already engrossed the attention of half of mankind before you.” [Smith (1767), pp. 97–98.]

One of our contemporaries, Michael Schumacher, also came to a similar conclusion: “My kids are not known, and I think that is very important. So far they have lived a normal life, and will continue to do so. I feel they should have the possibility to live a free life without the burden of fame I have created.” [Howell (2003): So Michael, where did it all go wrong?, The Observer, 2 March]

Adam Smith and Michael Schumacher are famous people. They work hard, and are good at what they do. They attract lots of people: “Hard / Living near the source to quit the place.”[Martin Heidegger quotes Friedrich Hölderlin: The Journey, translated by David Constantine] The fame that comes with success (where “fame is the recognition of any person or group of people as being of some kind of value to humankind” [Fernando Pessoa, in Hungarian]) is something they must live with as a measure of their success, whether they are reluctant to, or willing to do so. On occasion (as in the case of Mother Theresa, for example), people use fame to further their overall cause. In any case, they are consciously willing to pay the price of fame. Thus, we should leave our judgements to Pessoa or the pope(1983): Divinus Perfectionis Magister], and if we can, at least we should leave them in peace.

However, there are other ways of getting famous besides this roundabout way based on merit.

The Naked Desire for Fame

We can get our hands on fame directly, and we may have the will-to-fame for three main reasons:

First: we may want it just for the sake of being famous, la célébrité pour la célébrité, by using the different means at our disposal (“When I started out, I didn’t have any desire to be an actress or to learn how to act. I just wanted to be famous.”[Katherine Hepburn]).

Second, we might want it as a tool which we can use to different ends. Just like sex, violence, money, and intelligence, fame is a universal equivalent that can be roughly converted for use in many different areas of life (or it may be converted into other universal equivalents). It can make you more desirable, influential, rich, or creative, and it can even make you more artistic.

However, we must not always be so sarcastic:

[Kriszta Nagy: I’m a Contemporary Artist]

fame, in principle, is capable of freeing a local inhabitant or community from the collective doldrums of cultural politics that are, for example, stuck in the socialist era. It may free them from Soviet-style, state-run, sectoral “universities”, and — to use a Stalinist phrase — from the “leading and guiding forces” of artists and their (also historically inherited) specialist trade unions, which are founded on different age-groups. Of course, fame is also capable of achieving the opposite, qualifying an outsider to enter that very swamp, so s/he may enjoy all the minor, but homely comforts that come from wallowing in it. The choice is up to you, according to your own tastes and psychological complexes.

Finally, we might want fame to help us occupy a special strategic position in the public eye: it may be seen as a path which leads you to heights from where you can prey at will upon the masses below as they graze, dazed and unwitting, using whatever pretext you like. When you reach the top “You start getting famous for being famous. […This is] the Paris Hilton effect.” [Kenneth Chang quotes Terence Tao (2007). Journeys to the Distant Fields of Prime, New York Times, 13 March]. The next step is to start using publicity: “Why conceptual artists became so aggressive in creating new practices in the twentieth century is a complex question. What appears clear, however, is that the explosion of new genres was triggered by the young genius who became the most dominant artist of the century. When Picasso invented collage in 1912, he not only made a specific contribution that soon led to extensions by Braque, Tatlin, Duchamp, and other young conceptual artists, but he also provided a new model of artistic behavior, that became an inspiration […] throughout the century […] many young conceptual artists learned the lesson that was a key part of Picasso’s legacy, that horrifying the art world could be a direct route to success.” [David W. Galenson (2006b). A Conceptual World: Why the Art of the Twentieth Century is So Different From the Art of All Earlier Centuries, NBER, p. 23.]
This approach is based on the manipulation of the masses — viewers and, followers, or fans. More generally, it is based on raising the political determination of the future to an artistic level.

Regardless of your motives, if for whatever reason (or for all of the above reasons) you have already decided as a young competitor at the turn of the century that you want to be famous, then how do you do it?

Forging fame

Let us examine how Benny, a character in the motion picture entitled Basquiat (1996) directed by Julian Schnabel (also a still picture artist) thinks about this:

“Basquiat: How long do you think it takes to get really famous?
Benny: For a musician or a painter?
Basquiat: Whatever. Famous. To where you can do your stuff all day without thinking about anything else.
Benny: Ummm… Four years. Six to get rich.
Benny: First, you have to dress right.
Benny: Then, you have to hang out all the time — with famous people — the right people, the right chicks, the right parties.
Benny: And you gotta do your work all the time when you’re not doing that. The same kind a work, the same style – over and over again, so people recognize it and don’t get confused. Then, once you’re famous, you have to keep doing it the same way, even after it’s boring — unless you want people to really get mad at you — which they will anyway.
Basquiat: Come on. I hate this. I’m no good at it.
Benny: Famous people are usually pretty stupid. You’re too smart. You’d get bored to death.” [screenplay]

What follows is an alternative recipe for shameless success:

1. Work for the Audience!
From our perspective, the 20th century is different from the preceding centuries because of the mass media, with its passive readers, listeners, and viewers. “The role of the individuals and communities vis-à-vis cultural artifacts changed, from coproducers and replicators to passive consumers. The time frame where elders might tell stories, children might put on a show for the adults, or those gathered might sing songs came to be occupied by background music, from the radio or phonograph, or by television.” [Yochai Benkler (2006). The Wealth of Networks – How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, New Haven, Yale, p. 296.]

If you decide to detach yourself from the taxpayers’ breasts as an artist, then you have to know who your main principal is. If you strive directly for fame, your first point of reference is the couch potato — or at least the audiences of the mass media. [Cf.] “Almost anybody can achieve some measure of fame nowadays (though often it is of a dubious sort, and not long lasting), whereas generations ago market forces moved more slowly, information being limited and disseminated relatively slowly.” [Review of Tyler Cowen: What Price Fame?]

Don’t worry: pop culture — in contrast to the symbiotic partnerships of culture politicians and artistic trade unions — is part of the artistic mainstream at the turn of the century:
“— How much Pop culture can a contemporary institution tolerate?
— The question itself is nostalgic. Pop culture has taken over all cultural institutions. Those who want to systematically make »a lot of Pop culture« »tolerable« in an institution reach an anti-Pop cultural condition of the Pop cultural. This would be counter productive. Pop culture is the basis and horizon of aesthetic considerations: It only becomes the normative culture where it combines intolerability with naively nostalgic projects. Pop culture is »now«. In this sense the institutions cannot get enough of it. Especially in Germany.” [Ulf Poschardt ( 2006), author and journalist, Berlin, 2 June]

Players on more smoothly running markets consider working for the viewer/reader as a given, and handle it as a limiting condition, a demand of the trade. Being aware of this, they coordinate their efforts in the interests of their whole industry: “Young artists, new galleries and old museums all seem eager to play their part in this Faustian bargain: loads of publicity, rising prices for contemporary art and good crowds for exhibitions in exchange for what a British art critic, William Feaver, calls »headline art«.” [Alan Riding (2000): Spurred by Long Lines and Headlines, London Museums and Galleries Shock Anew. New York Times, Section E, p.1., 25 September]

This professional approach is not without success: “Auction prices show that the YBAs [young British artists] do rule over their American rivals: both [Damien] Hirst and the English painter Chris Ofili have had individual works sell for more than $1 million, a level no American artist under 40 has achieved.” [Galenson (2005a)]

2. Move In on the Moguls!
“[M]echanical reproduction […] insert[s] a […] barrier between many dispersed individuals and the capacity to make culture. The barrier of production costs, production values, and the star system that came along with them, replaced the iconic role of the unique work of art with new, but equally high barriers to participation in making culture.” [Benkler (2006). p. 296.] Because of this, you will have to raise the interest of those who control access to the mass media (and thus largely to direct fame), just in the same way you did in case of that those people who now spend all the money collected from the taxpayer did. This means self-advertising and pushing your way in.

3. Make Your Move, Baby!
If the status or fame of your relatives does not guarantee you direct access to the masses, then you will somehow have to win some people, somewhere, over to your side. This is because in the mass media the decision of whether something is worthy of our attention or not is made for us by someone else. “[T]he filtering and accreditation function suffers from an agency problem. To the extent that the values of the editor diverge from those of the user, an editor who selects relevant information based on her values and plans for the users does not facilitate user autonomy, but rather imposes her own preferences regarding what should be relevant to users given her decisions about their life choices. A parallel effect occurs with accreditation. An editor might choose to treat as credible a person whose views or manner of presentation draw audiences, rather than necessarily the wisest or best-informed of commentators. The wide range in quality of talking heads on television should suffice as an example.” [Benkler (2006). pp. 170–171.]

This is why — if you want to become famous directly — you feel a strong internal or external

[Kriszta Nagy: The Only Chance for a Woman]

compulsion to suck or fuck.

The second that you are before the audience, you can start concentrating on them. You can make use of their curiosity and constant need for shock value and surprises. “[…] curiosity […] concerns itself with seeing, not in order to understand what is seen […] but just in order to see. It seeks novelty only in order to leap from it anew to another novelty. In this kind of seeing, that which is an issue for care does not lie in grasping something and being knowingly in the truth; it lies rather in its possibilities of abandoning itself to the world. Therefore curiosity is characterized by a specific way of not tarrying alongside what is closest. Consequently it does not seek the leisure of tarrying observantly, but rather seeks restlessness and the excitement of continual novelty and changing encounters. In not tarrying, curiosity is concerned with the constant possibility of distraction. Curiosity has nothing to do with observing entities and marvelling at them […] To be amazed to the point of not understanding is something in which it has no interest. Rather, it concerns itself with a kind of knowing, but just in order to have known.” [Martin Heidegger (1927) 1962, Being and Time. New York, Harper and Row Publishers, pp. 216-217.]

Finally, if you can, surprise your profession, too. As you like it.

4. Be Shocking!
Let the audience — the media masses — define your subject! On the one hand through things they like, on the other through things that outrage them. In a more innocent age, which was free from the mass media [Cf.: Paul Starr (2004). The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications, New York, Basic Books]: “[The Hungarian Poet] Petőfi made new fashions for himself. Once he donned Csokonai’s fur mantle, and wore it for the whole world to admire; another time he thought to have an Attila coat tailored from flowery atlas, with some randomly invented, unthinkably shaped hat — something like a round hat, but not quite that, either — to top it off, and thus Pálffy once said the following of him: ‘Whenever this Sándor comes before us he wears things so outlandish that one starts dreaming of them.’” [Jókai Mór (1872). Az én kortársaim]

In a less innocent age: “During the course of the past century […] major works have shocked many viewers, have often been considered tasteless or vulgar, and have been judged by many to be jokes. In many cases, these artists’ silence or deadpan denials that their works are jokes has led to extended and often heated debate over whether the works are serious contributions. Art scholars and critics who have studied these artists have frequently concluded that their behavior is deliberate. In this view, the artists have employed a strategy in which an initial radical contribution that has provoked widespread criticism, and often outrage, is followed either by the artist’s refusal to defend the work, or by statements in its defense that are obviously ironic. The result of this strategy has been to create a basic ambiguity, and the degree of its success can be measured by the number of admirers and detractors who subsequently become engaged in the debate over the significance of the work in question. […] Duchamp and his followers have taken advantage of their youth, often feigning naïveté and ignorance of tradition to heighten the public image of them as brash, arrogant, and impudent.” [David Galenson (2006c). You Cannot be Serious: The Conceptual Innovator as Trickster. NBER, pp. 31-33.]

The masses are relatively easy to satisfy. It is true that perhaps, on an individual level, their lives don’t revolve around pussy exclusively. But when they see one saturated in the sights and smells of cheap sex, they don’t switch channel. [Cf.: Benkler (2006). pp. 204–211.]

Enough said.

5. Be Sophisticated!
Show how complex and intricate your ideas are! Stand out from the crowd of onlookers and followers! Create! Open people’s eyes: innovate! The history of art in the last century is the history of innovators. “The 15 greatest artists of the [20th] century include nine conceptual innovators, who made their greatest contributions early in their lives, in their 20s and 30s, and six experimental innovators, who generally did their greatest work in their 40s and 50s — and even, in the case of Mondrian, in his 70s. Contrary to the belief of many humanists, the textbooks show that in art, as in all intellectual activities, importance is determined by innovation.” [Galenson (2005b)]

6. If Knot, then @ Least b amBIGuous!
On no account should you be didactic in your approach! In Eastern Europe, cross talk and ambivalence have been present in a clearly recognizable form since Socialism: these days it is enough for you just to modify the content of your work. Is that prick standing there all alone, or is it in quotation marks? Is that an affirmation or negation of pussy? Is that a desperate fuck? The bliss of rape? Shitart?
“In every […] case, a key element of [the] debate has concerned the motives and sincerity of the artist. The strategy of the artist as trickster is a twentieth-century innovation. […] just as the Futurists discovered that written manifestos, containing complex intellectual rationales for their conceptual art works, could be valuable tools in increasing the audience for those works, so the trickster conceptual innovators of the past century recognized that ambiguity, and the debate that it produced over the meaning and sincerity

[Kriszta Nagy: She Shit on the Parliament]

of their works, could be attractive accompaniments to their works for many critics and collectors.” [Galenson (2006c). pp. 32–33.]

This is why you don’t yet have to turn your nose up at the ambiguity of your work: “Dasein is always ambiguously ‘there’ — that is to say, in that public disclosedness of Being-with-one-another where the loudest idle talk and the most ingenious curiosity keep ‘things moving’, where, in an everyday manner, everything (and at bottom nothing) is happening. This ambiguity is always tossing to curiosity that which it seeks; and it gives idle talk the semblance of having everything decided.” [Heidegger (1927) 1962. pp. 218–219.]

From the point of view of being famous it hardly makes any difference whether you are meaningful or ambiguous. “Complexity and ambiguity [are] allowing an artist, for example, to be all things to all people (or at least some significant percentage of them). Both complexity and ambiguity allow for varied interpretations, with people adapting them to their own beliefs. […] Allowing for varied interpretations it appeals to a greater audience than if its message was more clearly stated.” [Review of Tyler Cowen: What Price Fame?]

7. Change!
“Only in the twentieth century did the increased value placed on sustained change in art allow a painter to make frequent, abrupt stylistic shifts without fear of alienating his audience” [David W. Galenson (2006a). The Most Important Works of Art of the Twentieth Century. NBER, p. 21.] And since then — there’s nothing you can do about it — you, too, have to change! If, when you are famous, you wish to make use of the information in the Basquiat film mentioned above — in a way that you don’t get bored — then make changes without completely confusing the audience! One fine solution is to be the innovator/enfant terrible from day one. “We have to take into account the continuity of a work of art, its lasting value (which is derived from the former), and above all else the wider genre of the artist, which in certain cases may cover years of work. In other words, it would not have been enough for Picasso to paint The Young Ladies of Avignon, one of the key works of Cubism, if he had returned afterwards to the style of his Blue and Rose periods. The continual development of his stylistic principles was just as important as his fundamental discovery.” [Willi Bongard (1984). Parafa és mahagóni – A 20. Század vizuális művészetének minőségi kritériumai [Cork and Mahogany – Qualitative Criteria for the Visual Arts in the 20th Century] Aktuális Levél (10.), translated from the German by Anna Kárpáti.]

8. Undermine Authority! Expose!
The profession. The masses. The majority. The minority. The powerful. Everyone. Everything. Including yourself and your activities. Self-exposure is intrinsically ambiguous: if you’re skilful enough, it’s enough if you just play with yourself.

9. Clown Around!
Put your life out on public display! Don’t just show yourself; really take part in the media, live it! It’s not just your work that you have to feed to the masses, but the image of the artist! Just take it easy! Here is an example that works: “I’ve played my part as artistic clown.” [Pierre Cabanne (1971) 1987. Dialogues With Marcel Duchamp, Da Capo, p. 89.] “The model of the artist as trickster has effectively made the work of art inseparable from the personality of the artist. Prior to Duchamp, many art scholars studied the ideas and attitudes of artists in order to illuminate the meaning of their art, but many others considered this unnecessary, on the grounds that the significance of the work of art was embodied in the work itself. From Duchamp on, the work of the trickster artists effectively eliminated the latter option. With Duchamp, Beuys, Warhol, and their trickster peers, we can never look at their work without thinking not only of their ideas — what is the artistic significance of a manufactured object purchased at a hardware store, or a silkscreen of a photograph taken from a magazine — but also of their attitudes — was Fountain or Fat Chair really intended to be taken seriously? In this sense, the model of the trickster has produced a type of conceptual art that is more personal than most other forms of art.” [Galenson (2006c). p. 34.]

10. Love It, Even if it’s Lame!
Love the mass media and its level of quality, love the profession and its demands, but most importantly, love yourself and what you produce. This helps you to accept your own life. But, before you become entirely entangled in the whole thing, make at least one thing clear to yourself: “worum geht es”, meaning what’s the true aim of the game. It doesn’t hurt to find/discover a suitable — even cynical — ideology. What are you going to use mass fame against? Why do you need it? Although this is happening in many different fields, this is what everybody is doing in effect, isn’t it?

There is nothing more embarrassing than seeing Athena and the Leviathan doing the rounds behind the scenes (that is, seeing the constantly renewed entanglement of artists’ unions and the powers that be in culture-politics). Any attempt to break up this perverted relationship, which is still so common in continental Europe, is worthy of respect. In the mass media at the millennium I recognize the desire for fame — for whatever reason or aim — as such an attempt. But, as you can clearly see for yourselves, you really need the stomach for it.

Any better ideas? … Anyone?

[I would like to thank Philip Barker, János Sugár, Bíbor Timkó, and Balázs Váradi for their help.]

[Original, in Hungarian: cf. ]

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