I recently was invited to contribute an article to the ERLC‘s excellent new “Canon & Culture” blog (which you should check out). I wrote about a topic I’ve thought a lot about: how does one truly make an impact on culture without obsessing over building platform, managing one’s personal “brand” and constantly doing and saying things specifically to rile up and expand an audience? How can artists, writers, and other cultural creators who truly care about ideas and art avoid the pitfalls of ego and hubris while also wanting their work to have a wide reach?
I wrote the essay “Ego & Influence” to think through these questions, inspired in large part by an article I read recently in The Atlantic discussing Lady Gaga and Banksy. In my reflections I note the work of everyone from Beyoncé and Jay-Z to Emily Dickinson and Terrence Malick. Here’s an excerpt:
The Atlantic published an insightful essay by James Bowen in November 2013 on this very topic. Bowen discusses the recent Warhol-esque mergers between pop stardom and fine art: Lady Gaga’s collaboration with Jeff Koons and Jay-Z getting jiggy with performance artist Marina Abramović. Rightly observing that both Gaga and Jay-Z “seem more interested in aligning themselves with art for its cultural cachet, rather than out of much appreciation for the work itself,” Bowen goes on to say that what’s even more significant “is the way that musicians such as Gaga and Jay-Z, artists like Abramović, and aspiring creative polymaths such as James Franco have put the projection of their own image and experience to the fore of their endeavors: They’re known more for being who they are than for what they create.”
Indeed, in our age of selfie-obsessed Insta-fame and TMZ celebreality, where “Kardashian” is code for the fame-for-its-own-sake celebrity industrial complex, it seems true that being famous is now infinitely more desirable than being excellent at something.
“If a tree falls in a forest…” applies here: If an actor delivers a dynamic performance in an art film that is ignored by critics, audiences and awards shows, is there any value to it? If a singer-songwriter records a masterpiece album and plays transcendently beautiful shows in small clubs, but never makes it to the Saturday Night Live stage or crosses over into the worlds of film and fragrances, are they to feel like a failure in the vein of, say, the title character from Inside Llewyn Davis?
In bygone eras celebrity was mostly an occasional byproduct of success; today it’s the standard by which success is measured. How many Twitter followers do you have? YouTube channel subscribers? What is the traffic on your blog? These questions are now more pressing to cultural creators than the process of cultural creation itself. But does it have to be this way? Must one secure their firstandlastname.com domain and obsess about their “brand” and “platform” in order to have a fighting chance at cultural relevance? Must we all be egocentrics in order to make a difference?
You can read the rest of the article here.