Why oh why are we interested in celebrities? As a phenomenon, celebrity takes up an ever-increasing amount of cultural real estate. It rudely elbows aside far more dignified pursuits, has failed to launch much of substance from territory already annexed, and can hardly be said to appeal to our higher instincts. Yet rather than withdraw in shame, as would be the decent thing to do, celebrity has adopted the cocksure strut of an institution. Why do we accommodate the vulgar contaminant? If the Senate has been slow to convene a panel investigating this Troubling Misapplication of Cultural Energy, it’s probably because something about our complaints rings a little hollow even to our own ears. Celebrity may be blight, but blight too is organic. For better or worse celebrity is a homegrown cultural form. It didn’t develop by accident. Advertising, marketing, the movie star—more than once American culture has produced a conceptual art for the masses. Celebrity belongs on the list too and, intuitively, we know it.
Far from universal, the idea of a “conceptual art for the masses” is the product of particular pressures felt in particular cultures, and most acutely in America, the first conceptual country. America is an idea about place and a place that’s an idea, which distinction did cleaveth the new world from the old. The concept, in a nutshell, is that by law any two people should have equal access to public space; a king is not to have greater claim on citizenship than a commoner—the Constitution says so. “American culture” results from the triangulation of this novel concept and its ongoing negotiation with flawed human nature and the unpredictable evolution of communication technologies. American culture’s obsessive project involves identifying the Constitutional DNA, in all its demanding, idealistic detail, and developing strategies for implementing the model of egalitarianism hardwired therein. Thus the concept of the mainstream, thus the blue jean, thus the public library, thus television, thus Andy Warhol. Also thus, like it or not, “celebrity.”