I was sitting on a rowing machine at the gym the other day when I looked up at the bank of television sets just above my head and saw Peri Gilpin (remember her?) chatting earnestly with Tony Danza (remember him?) about her latest venture, a Lifetime TV movie about child abuse. It was as if I’d inadvertently glanced through an astral portal into a parallel universe inhabited exclusively by second-tier ex-celebrities. I thought of Andy Warhol’s oft-quoted vision of a future in which “every person will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” and I recalled the piece I wrote for The Wall Street Journal on the seventy-fifth anniversary of his birth in which I argued that “Warhol did as much as anyone to shape the culture of pure, accomplishment-free celebrity in which we now live.”
Looking back at that piece now, I realize that neither Warhol nor I gave any thought to the question of what happens to celebrities after their fifteen minutes are up. A.E. Housman, at a time when it was a good deal harder to become famous, wrote a poem about an athlete whose “solution” was to die young:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
And what happens to such a person these days? Now I know: he makes a TV movie about an Important Issue and goes on The Tony Danza Show to hawk it.
Two sets to the left, CNN was hawking with identical fervor an upcoming appearance by President and Mrs. Bush on Larry King Live. That made me feel even older than remembering Tony Danza, for I’m just old enough to have seen the very first prime-time TV interview by a sitting president of the United States. The president in question was John Kennedy, and the interview, which took place in 1962, was broadcast by all three TV networks and conducted by their White House correspondents. (You can read a transcript here.) If memory serves–and I’m pretty sure it does–Kennedy required that the interview be videotaped, not aired live, and that the networks allow him to review the tape prior to broadcast so that he could edit out anything he wanted suppressed.
I’m not one of those people who thinks everything was better when he was young, nor do I suffer from excessive respect for politicians, but I do have sharply mixed feelings about the process that brought us from Jack Paar and After Two Years: A Conversation With the President to Peri Gilpin on The Tony Danza Show and George and Laura on Larry King Live. I was tempted for a moment to say that TV did it to us, but of course we did it to ourselves: America is a democracy in the deepest and most far-reaching sense of the word, a truly popular culture whose citizens believe devoutly that they’re as good as anyone else, and who for this reason prefer their celebrities and politicians to be just like everyone else.
That’s one aspect of the democratic experience. Here’s another. Last week I watched Kevin Costner’s Open Range, which is set in 1882. In the scene immediately preceding the climactic gunfight, Robert Duvall’s character goes into a general store and purchases two bars of Swiss chocolate and three Havana cigars. The total cost of these rare items, we’re told, is five dollars. I’ve no idea whether Craig Storper, who wrote the screenplay, made any attempt to get that figure right, but operating on the assumption that he did, I went to Inflation Calculator and learned that what cost Duvall’s character five dollars in 1882 would cost $95.57 in 2005.
It happened that I was reading Madame Bovary on the same day I watched Open Range, and I was no less struck by a scene early in the book in which Flaubert tells of how Emma Bovary liked to listen to the music of a hurdy-gurdy whose operator sometimes stood in the street below her parlor window and cranked his machine in the afternoon:
The tunes it played were tunes that were being heard in other places–in theatres, in drawing rooms, under the lighted chandeliers of ballrooms: echoes from the world that reached Emma this way. Sarabands ran on endlessly in her head; and her thoughts, like dancing girls on some flowery carpet, leapt with the notes from dream to dream, from sorrow to sorrow. Then, when the man had caught in his cap the coin she threw him, he would pull down an old blue wool cover, hoist his organ onto his back, and move heavily off. She always watched him till he disappeared.
A little later on Emma has this exchange with a similarly frustrated clerk:
Emma went on: “What is your favorite kind of music?”
“Oh, German music. It’s the most inspiring.”
“Do you know Italian opera?”
“Not yet–but I’ll hear some next year when I go to Paris to finish law school.”
Much of American literature portrays small-town folk like Madame Bovary and Monsieur Léon, unhappy creatures with immortal longings in them who either moved to the city to chase their dreams or lived lives of fast-increasing frustration. But by the time my mother was born in the smallest of small midwestern towns in 1929, she no longer had to settle for the visits of an itinerant hurdy-gurdy player. The phonograph, the movies, and the radio had already started to open up the outside world to her generation. I was born twenty-seven years later in a town a few miles away from the one where my mother grew up, and TV gave me even more of what the other modern media had given my mother. As for today’s Emma Bovarys, if there are any, they have access to infinitely more powerful tools by which they can put themselves in touch with the world of art and culture. They can even buy imported chocolate bars on line for the tiniest fraction of what a cowboy with a sweet tooth would have paid in 1882.
I draw no conclusion from these fugitive observations: I merely offer them for your consideration. To be sure, I wish the postmodern world were classier than it is, but I also know that it gives each of us the opportunity to be as classy as we care to be. On a recent visit to Storm King Art Center, I rode the tram in the company of a group of tourists who chatted loudly, incessantly, and knowledgeably about the sculptures with which the five-hundred-acre park is filled. One of them actually took a call on her cell phone as we drove past Mark di Suvero’s Mozart’s Birthday. Had I thought to bring a garrote with me, her conversation would have been terminated abruptly. Yet I couldn’t deny that she knew more about modern art than most people, and she probably knew more about di Suvero than I did.
Such is life under democracy. We can use our TV sets to watch Peri Gilpin and Larry King, or The Light in the Piazza. We can pay a visit to a sculpture park, and chat on our cell phones while doing so. We can use our computers to communicate with fellow aesthetes halfway around the world, or to download kiddie porn. To a greater extent than at any previous time in the history of the world, our lives are up to us—and we’re on our own.