Here is an interesting reflection: back in the day celebrities were usually people of substance. They were notable writers, scientists, philosophers or ware heroes. These days, such interesting people are usually only known only to niche groups. They are famous in their own industries, academic circles and among the educated, cultured elites. Mass popularity is almost exclusively reserved for shallow, vacuous “pretty people” – models, actors, pop singers, spoiled heirs of decadent fortunes and scandalous stars of reality TV. How come?
One explanation is that the emergence of visual media such as cinema and later TV shifted our focus from words, to images. In the past, the only way to become a household name was through the power of a written word. One conquered the world either with witty prose, or newsworthy achievements that would be covered by the press world-wide. Therefore, it is no wonder that the celebrities back then were mainly people who had something interesting to say, or something monumental to do. Communication was slow, bandwidth was limited and circulation was smaller.
Most American can even identify the exact paradigm shifting moment when we went from the cult of the word to the cult of the image. It was the famous Nixon/Kennedy presidential debate. It was the first US presidency debate to be televised and it produced interesting results. Most people who listened to the debate on the radio, were convinced that Nixon won or that it was a stalemate. Those who watched it on TV however would say that Kennedy was the clear winner. A younger, clean-shaven, smiling underdog scored easy victory over the older, more sweaty, more experienced candidate mainly based on image. This is not to say that Kennedy can even be compared to the low quality celebrities that are worshiped by the masses today. Nor am I saying that Nixon was in any way more “substantial” than his opponent. I am merely pointing out that even while being evenly matched, Kennedy’s image easily won over Nixon’s experience when the debate was televised. It was merely an indication of things to come – a shift of public attention towards visual aesthetics.
Media people quickly caught onto the fact that pretty face usually generates more attention than a substantial message and realized that finding the former is much easier than the latter. And thus, media evolved gravitating away from substance and towards flashy, vivid and seductive imagery. The end result of this evolution is of course reality TV where you basically take a group of pretty people (selected solely based on their looks, and their ability to generate social drama) put them all in a room, light a fuse and watch them explode. That and the worship of people who are famous for no apparent reason other than being famous.
This is an interesting observation – too bad it is entirely false. I do not believe there was ever a paradigm shift. It is merely an illusion. We have been always wired to respond to visual cues stronger than to abstract ideas. Genetic cues, and body language is processed by the lower, mammalian regions of our brain. These are the same indicators both we and our ancestors use for selecting a viable mate. This is how we form our “first impressions” of people. The cult of image was always there. It was just localized.
I mean do you think that everyday people gossiped about great writers, scientists and philosophers during social gatherings? Do you think that bored middle class housewife’s spent time discussing prose and poetry? That they giggled over nuances in philosophical theses? No, they talked about pretty faced boys, and slutty girls. It’s just that this stuff was localized. The celebrities of these days were local nobility, or upper class socialites. It were the people who showed up for social events, organized lavish parties and appeared in local press. They were famous for the same reasons modern-day Paris Hilton is famous – they had money, and they always generated gossip and controversy because of their scandalous behavior. These people were just as empty, and devoid of substance as the celebrities of today. That’s why we don’t hear about them – because while they were interesting, they were not notable. They did not create or achieve anything, so once they were gone they have quickly faded from the public memory.
The poets, writers, scientists, philosophers and brilliant politicians we do remember, have left some legacy behind them. We know about them through that legacy, although it may often seem that it is the other way around.
TV and Cinema simply helped to facilitate the cult of image. It broadcast the likeness of the famous people all over the world so that everyone can gossip about them. It allowed to de-localize the social drama generated by a bunch of pretty people from Hollywood. It didn’t make it more interesting – it simply made it more public and more accessible.
The media didn’t change us. It simply changed the scope of social interactions. Instead of gossiping about local couples people nowadays obsess over international superstars and their relationship. On the other hand our obsession with the image, did help to shape the media into what they are today. Back in the day we didn’t have mass media – because no one had resources to actually distribute content to national or global customer base. It’s not our fault that aesthetics sell well and bigger markets tend to demand less risk. Substance is often a gamble – some consumers may choke up on it, others may reject it outright. But a pretty face and a good figure have never failed to secure good ratings.
It’s human nature. Isn’t it wonderful? Despite our greatest achievements in technology, science and philosophy we are still sexually driven animals who respond strongest to the basest visual stimuli. It’s a little fail-safe that mother nature built into us to make sure our large brains won’t simply get bored with that tedious reproduction stuff. And you know what, I wouldn’t have it any other way.