The Power of the Audience

“Modern fame is always compounded of the audience’s aspirations and its despair, its need to admire and to find a scapegoat for that need.  To dismiss the circus of contemporary notoriety with pat versions of Daniel Boorstin’s phrase, ‘a celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous,’ too easily allows us to ignore the importance of even celebrity in shaping the values of our society, not always for the worse.”

-Leo Braudy

For our second meeting, we attempted to explore the history of modern fame.  What characteristics caused one to be famous?  Is fame more dependent on the famous or her audience?  Who was the first celebrity?  We focused our discussion around excerpts of Leo Braudy’s The Frenzy of Renown and Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd.

LinKai lead off with an excellent prompt:

What is fame? “A Word”. This answer suggests the superficiality of fame. To be famous is not to announce the essential character of a person, a moral principle or the innate value of anything. To be famous is to capture the fascination of the public: their hunger for a medium to live their unfilled dreams and a dramatized figure to be seen falling, eventually. Being famous comes with the expense of being objectified as workplace gossips, and being alienated as images. The wholeness of the person is fragmented and later reconstituted, although artificially, by and through the audiences and the media.

From this, Andrew pondered whether there is such a thing as “organic” fame, or if the desire to become famous exists only as supported by external cultural, historical, or societal pressures.  Can one become famous accidentally?  Katie noted that fame is a possible side effect caused by particular professions or life decisions.  Ideally, a senator entered politics because of a genuine interest in law and government, not in order to win the popularity of her district.  This is merely the after effect of her passion for politics, but it does exist nonetheless.

Jacob, though, was more intrigued by the latter half of a celebrity’s “arc” of fame: is it possible to cleanly exit the public eye?  We parsed through recent celebrity scandals and various celebrity vanishing acts, searching for an example in which a celebrity was banished by the public, but we discovered that these motions to destroy fame only increase it: a scandal gives the public something to discuss, and a hiatus only increases the anticipation for a return (ala Dan).  The arc of fame, thus, is not determined by the celebrity or the famous, but rather her audience.  Jacob described this phenomenon as an equalizing effect: the public is happy to see those who may have been unfortunate (Joe the Plummer) gain from fame, but we’re equally eager to tear down those who might be too fortunate (Paris Hilton).

After thoroughly discussing the effect of the audience on the famous, we dove into the celebrity’s effect on the consumer.  As Andrew noted, celebrities are used in marketing campaigns to draw two seemingly disparate things together.  Buick, for instance, uses Tiger Woods as its spokesperson to draw those who respect or like or at least know of Woods to their line of SUV cars.  Further, the campaign is an attempt at rebranding: just as Tiger revolutionized the sport of golf with his youthful exuberance, he repeats this message in car commercials: this isn’t the Buick your grandpa owns.

Our discussion left us with almost as many questions as we started with.  By developing an elaborate model to describe the ways in which celebrities and audiences interact, we complicated our original interpretation of the fame dynamic.  How will our understanding of this relationship affect the way we act toward celebrities in the future?  Will we become self-conscious of our immediate judgments?  Will we judge celebrities even more, under the impression that we as individuals have some form of power over their arc of fame?  Hopefully this will be something we can discuss in the future.

Screen Tests

“Beauties in photographs are different from beauties in person.  It must be hard to be a model, because you’d want to be like a photograph of you, and you can’t ever look that way.  And so you start to copy the photograph.  Photographs usually bring in another half-dimension.  (Movies bring in another whole dimension.  That screen magnetism is something secret—if you could only figure out what it is and how to make it, you’d have a really good product to sell.  But you can’t even tell if someone has it until you actually see them up there on the screen.  You have to give screen tests to find out.)  (63)

Certain people have TV magic: they fall completely apart off-camera but they are completely together on-camera.  They shake and sweat before they go on, they shake and sweat during commercials, they shake and sweat when it’s all over; but while the camera is filming them, they’re poised and confident-looking.  The camera turns them on and off.”  (80)

-Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol

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The People’s Biennial

A few days ago, we went to see a talk by Harrell Fletcher at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art.  Harrell was presenting his upcoming exhibit at Haverford called the People’s Biennial, a travelling art show hosted by Independent Curators International in which Harrell and Jens (his co-curator) go to different cities and select pieces submitted by the general public.  The show democratizes art breaking down traditional barriers preventing people from transitioning into the art world.  Instead, Harrell takes matters into his own hands, deciding what art is (and what will be shown in a gallery).

In the Q+A session following his introduction, our own Jacob Horn asked how he thought new digital media affected his work or if he had any experience in re-placing art within Web 2.0.”

His answer:

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Apologies for the poor quality sound recording–you might want to use headphones.


Twitter can’t handle World Cup fever.

Today, Landon Donovan shot the game-winning, tournament-advancing, heart-stopping goal in the 91st minute of USA’s final game of phase one of the World Cup against Algeria. Within seconds, twitter’s 20 million+ users were met with the increasingly common “fail whale,” the site’s safeguarding response to the onslaught of “GOAAAAAAAAAAALLLLL” and “YOU CAN PUT IT ON THE BOAAAAAARD” and “#USA #USA #USA #USA” outbursts. On June 14, when Japan scored against Cameroon to break a seemingly endless stalemate, twitter reached its all-time highest “tweets-per-second” rate (which they shorten to TPS) at 2,940. How many tweets-per-second do you think Donovan’s goal notched?

As I sat and stared at the whale, I wondered what the purpose of “livetweeting” really is. Why would anyone want constant status updates on a specific event that can be followed with such ease and efficiency on,, or any one of the millions (billions?) of sports sites out there? Why would someone constantly refresh the same page, over and over again, just to read someone’s second-hand account of a specific incident, when they could just watch the game on ESPN3?

I quickly realized how naive I was being. Of course—these mad twitterers were already watching the game online. They not only wanted to witness the twitter-shattering goal, but they wanted to experience it secondhand, through its various retellings and re-formations told by thousands of twitterers-per-second.

In his pivotal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin writes:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.

Do you think that “livetweeting” lacks “presence in time in space”? Or does it create the digital space in which it exists, spinning pages upon pages filled with reproductions of a specific event? Do these various reproductions enhance the event which they evolve from, or do they undermine it (watch this)?