Let’s begin with the circular and unsurprising fact that the Americans most concerned with fame and celebrity are famous celebrities.
This is true just like it’s true that the people most concerned with NBA basketball are professional basketball players. With single-mindedness, these individuals identified a goal, pursued it and achieved it. You don’t get into the NBA by accident. You work for it. Hard. You don’t get famous by accident either.
The pinnacle of public attention is, as we all know, a shaky place to stand. People are always throwing rocks – not to take your place up there, but just to knock you down.
Fame has its rewards, but it also has its drawbacks.
A Famous Goat
Taking these two truths together, we can see why those who achieve fame and celebrity are so often analyzed according to the same pop-psychological principle.
Call it compensation. Call it the “little man” syndrome. It all boils down to the idea that the people who achieve fame are the people who really, really need it in order to prove something to themselves.
And this is part of the reason that celebrity is so fascinating. Driven by a sometimes more and sometimes less obscure insecurity, artists like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Steinbeck launched themselves into the spotlight and danced there an uncomfortable, hot-coal dance. Their feet burned but they refused to leave that circle of light. They stayed on the stage of public scrutiny and paid for it.
Due to the nature of public life, these artists, driven to self-expression, are constantly courting criticism even as they invite praise. The irony of an achievement of fame in this context leads naturally to a question of how someone else, less in need of public praise, would stand up to the kind of scrutiny (and scorn) that gets heaped onto nearly all the people who rise to fame and celebrity – from Anne Hathaway and Kanye West to Michael Jackson and John Steinbeck.
“Love Me, Love Me Love, Say You Do”
How would a person without the urge to be seen deal with being looked at by millions of people and criticized by a good portion of them?
That is a question we may never have an answer to. Those people don’t get famous. But we do know even artists who profess to an artistic purity are nonetheless hurt by critics (and maybe they take on the posture of art-for-art’s-sake as a defense against criticism in the first place).
In a 1949 letter to his publisher during a rather dark period of his professional life, John Steinbeck subtly separates the reading public into two camps – those who count (fans) and those who do not (critics).
“Back to critics – I have known for a long time that they are building their own structures which have little reference to mine. So I’m afraid I will go ahead and do my work in my own way. There seems to be screams of pain at my moral life too. And actually it is highly moral because I am a moral person.”
Reading the Steinbeck biography put together by Jackson J. Benson, this moment stands out. In the midst of all his success and after enjoying windfalls of material wealth and public adoration, the artist feels his feet burning on the hot coals of celebrity. This is what he wants – attention. But this is what he can’t stand.
This is taking things a bit hard, isn’t it? “I am a moral person”? You have to be cut to the quick to start saying you aren’t evil, you’re just a normal, moral person like everyone else.
It is in exactly this way that the celebrity artist, unable to suppress the urge toward self-display, is challenged to cope with the fame and celebrity he has worked so hard to win.
They say that some artists aim for immortality, for a kind of public afterlife. This too is a compensation of sorts. And it speaks to a similar irony.
You can’t have it all.
If your work outlives you, you will never know. (You’ll be dead.)
If you reach that public pinnacle and stand on the summit of fame and celebrity – because you needed to be loved or to prove something about your self-worth – people are going to hate you while they love you. And they will keep asking the question you have spent your life trying to answer.