We have all seen the power of fame. My most vivid experience of it occurred in the fall of 1978 when I saw John Lennon and Yoko Ono leaving the Guggenheim Museum. Dazzled by the sight, I couldn’t stop looking, and fell into step behind them. I ended up following in their wake for about 20 blocks, watching the waves of recognition spread down Madison Avenue, the marvelous shock, the astonishment, the joy. It was like an emotional landslide. People staggered or seemed to buckle as the couple passed. Space distorted, time fell into a trance. The light of forever appeared to glow around them. At that exact moment in that exact place they seemed the sum of all sums. I still feel the reverberations on that particular stretch of upper Madison Avenue.
That was old-fashioned fame: God-like, classic, aristocratic, transcendental, almost religious: a strange, strange love. The bigger the crowd of idolaters, the more unique you felt in your idolatry.
Fame is not like that anymore. Fame is feral, or simply celebrity squared. Debased or replaced by its more ordinary manifestations (the well-known, the groovy, or the merely recognizable), fame now attaches itself to nobodies. Celebrity is an everyday thing, our biggest export. We’re a nation of Kennedys. You’re famous, maybe, or someone you know is: the chef at the restaurant you go to, your hairdresser, your doctor, architect, interior designer, or florist. You know somebody who knew John Jr., or, as one woman told News Channel 4, “I didn’t know him, but my dog knew his dog.”
Still, fame is real. When I am with someone who is very, very famous (which has happened like five times) something comes over me: something I don’t like. On the outside I’m fine; I maintain a hologram of normalcy. On the inside I’ve gone haywire. I can’t forget that I’m sitting here with So-and-so!
Caught in a death ray of idiocy, I find my reactions becoming skewed. I try to be witty and brilliant. Or I overcompensate, trying to make the famous feel “normal” by telling jokes, or just “getting down” with them. Watchful of their reactions, if they laugh, I laugh. If not—I’m with them. The real me
disappears. (I remember, in the early ’70s, imagining that I was David Bowie, and how disconcerting it was when I met him to find out that I
wasn’t him.) Such are the effects of fame on the weak, the unfamous, or the near at hand.
Fame is a primate thing. Probably it’s me, but have you noticed how, when you’re at a party, everyone knows (fame-wise) who the alpha male or female is? No one has to say anything. You just know.
Fame changes things. In its purest manifestation it is like manmade light: instantaneous, self-revealing, and radiant. It isn’t the best thing; it’s just a very specific thing, a power, a scent, or an essence. It elicits a weird mixture of awe, fear, and envy.
The last best fame is underground fame: what Bob Dylan had and lost and called “elite…outside and downtrodden.” If you get that, then good.
In the art world nearly everyone thinks about fame—it’s our silent partner. But fame is corrosive, a poison, and an addiction. When you play for fame you have to play for keeps: it’s a winner-take-all game. Because it wants to live forever, fame walks hand in hand with death; and death never loses.
Clearly, fame and our relationship to it is a fraught subject. Unfortunately, it is also one that “Fame After Photography,” the Museum of Modern Art’s ambitious but egregious exhibition, is not up to. This is a terrible show in concept and execution, and especially as an experience: it turns the museum into a circus, and viewers into asses.
Known mostly for their amusing photography books, guest curators Marvin Heiferman and Carole Kismaric inform us that “images of the famous have become more visible, public, and democratic”—okay; and that “photography has changed what fame looks like.” Right, but here in lightweight land all we get is a walk-in scrapbook installed as if it were Pee Wee Herman’s playhouse.
We enter this show excited— “This is our subject,” we think. “Fame After Photography” starts with a silver coin bearing the likeness of Alexander the Great, then grinds on for 777 images until it reaches an end at a picture of cutie Ricky Martin (subject of nine books and the covers of Time, People, and New York since his most recent Grammy appearance). In between there are posters, publicity pics, records, baseball cards, newsreels, film clips, TV shows, bits of MTV, and the obligatory Web section. Monotony sets in almost immediately and presides until it is replaced with irritation. We wonder how a show about something as fun and intriguing as fame’s connection to photography, one that features the faces of so many of our heroes and villains, can be so deadly and dull.
In the beginning we see blurry black-and-white images of everyone from Queen Victoria and Edgar Allan Poe to P.T. Barnum and Jefferson Davis. We learn that fame was big business even in the 1860s, when over 300 million cartes de visite were sold every year in England alone. Featuring the likes of Horatio Alger, John Wilkes Booth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Victor Hugo, there are 100 of these cards on view. Across from them are postcards of obscure, creepy Italian communists, followed by pictures of freaks, geeks, fat ladies, and sideshow performers. Next come the tabloids with their screaming headlines and death shots. From here on it’s pretty much movie stars, politicians, scandals, rock stars, and white people.
This show takes the Babylon out of Hollywood Babylon, and the fun out of fame. Where are the paparazzi shots and the celebrity sleaze? We have John Wayne; what about John Wayne Bobbitt?
There are high points, though. The newsreel of George Bernard Shaw is a doozy. Preening and proud as a peacock, Shaw loves the camera, and is so delighted with himself, you will be too: it’s like the birth of modern celebrity. Also captivating are the flickering clips of Charles Lindbergh standing before adoring throngs, and Annie Oakley in action. The picture of two boys looking into the open coffin of Babe Ruth is very Norman Rockwell-from-the-dark-side, and the eight stills tracking Joan Crawford from nascent starlet to Mommie Dearest are harrowing. And then there’s the brand name Marilyn Monroe personal vibrator.
A personal high (or maybe low) came as I overheard a group of twentysomethings ask their escort about a man in a TV clip. “That’s Johnny Carson,” the woman replied. The kids stared blankly. “He’s the old Jay Leno,” she said.
The sorriest section of the show is called “Artists’ Response.” This motley, supposedly deconstructive group (including Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, and Yasumasa Morimura) just falls flat. Luckily, by this point the crowd is looking for the exit.
Of course the patron saint of fame is Andy Warhol. Represented here in a Braniff Airlines ad, by his screen tests, a print of Jackie O., and 28 of his Polaroids, Warhol is the ghost in this exhibition’s machine, and the fly in its ointment. In a sad attempt to glean some of St. Andy’s aura, the curators (and MOMA by default) believe that simply to raise fame as a subject is enough to connect them to the godhead of it. “Andy didn’t know what he started,” a friend sighed, then added, “or maybe he did.” This trinket of an exhibition makes us suspect that in the future everyone will want to be Andy Warhol for 15 minutes.