Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Celebrity culture could be a part of the problem

(John Lennon/ Facebook)

I don’t want to perpetuate the myth of the tortured artist, but to some extent, the stereotype is true. People who choose to express their ideas and emotions through art generally do so because they can’t express them well in ordinary contexts.

Being an artist is about self-expression, but it is also about the desire to be seen and heard. As George Orwell so eloquently stated in his essay “Why I Write,” sheer egoism motivates artists as much as anything else. In his essay, Orwell claimed that writers wish to be talked about and to be remembered after their deaths. He said that it was “humbug” for them to pretend otherwise.

For better or worse, most artists are not celebrated in this way. But what about those who are? Is the type of validation these artists receive the type of validation they truly need? Do the majority of these people have the necessary tools to handle this constant attention? I don’t think so, and here’s why:

The uncomfortable truth about being an artist is that your ability to create great art does not mean you are great at anything else. Artists are ordinary people with the capacity to communicate certain things in certain ways. But artistic skill is in no way synonymous with interpersonal well-being or, most importantly, commendable moral behavior. A cursory glance at the lives of famous artists shows this to be true. Miles Davis and John Lennon both changed music forever. They were also both physically abusive toward women. Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are both inarguably brilliant filmmakers. They have also both been accused of rape.

People often ask whether artists can be viewed separately from their art. While I don’t think this question is irrelevant, I’m not confident that it’s the right question. We always have and always will separate artists from their art. Art, by its very nature, transcends the individual who creates it. When you watch or listen to a stand-up comedian’s act, you are not judging that stand-up comedian as a person, you are listening to the content of his comedy. We only judge artists using knowledge about their private lives when we have that knowledge, and this only happens on a large scale when the artist is a celebrity. And, as anyone who reads tabloids knows, knowledge about celebrities fades in and out of the public consciousness. If art survives, it will outlive the details that defined the persona of the artist who created it.

Instead of asking whether we can separate artists from their art, we should ask why so many people celebrated for creating art deal so poorly with the recognition that their talent provides them—and are so prone to abuse the power they obtain. In other words, what does our twisted celebrity culture do to celebrities themselves?

It is difficult for anyone to deal well with constant worship, but it is particularly difficult for people who have dealt with insecurity all their lives. It is not surprising that so many artists overstep their boundaries when the boundaries that exist for ordinary people are all but erased for them. There is nothing more intoxicating than finally obtaining what has eluded you your entire life. On the flipside, there is nothing more saddening than the realization that, though you are celebrated and admired, you are still as alienated and insecure as ever. The psychological toll of celebrity on the celebrity themselves is difficult to overstate.

I am not justifying the ways in which many celebrity artists abuse their power. There are no justifications for the things that many of these artists have been accused of or have admitted to doing. But, if we don’t consider what it’s like for artists to be worshipped, it will be difficult for us to address the problems that arise from this culture of worship. More than anything, it is imperative that communities of artists understand this. For, as much as it is the responsibility of artists to hone their crafts, create relevant works and explore the social issues of the time, it is their responsibility to be good people. While it is possible to be a great artist without being a great person, great artistry does not absolve you from morality. Most celebrated artists are not intrinsically detestable people, they are relatively normal people thrust into environments they are not adequately prepared for. If we become aware of this fact and create a culture of worship in which the worshipped figures are truly valued, we may just have the tools to prepare them.

Jonah Dratfield is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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