The Cult of Personality
a chain letter
By definition, a “cult of personality” is a political phenomenon in which an individual harnesses the mass media in order to imbue their public image with a larger-than-life persona.1 Today, fifty years after the phrase was coined, its explicit boundaries have become vague. It has entered the vernacular and is often used to express worship of any public figure, be they a politician, activist, athlete, film star, etc. Unadulterated adulation is very much a part of pop culture and, without question, fine artists crossed into this realm well over thirty years ago. How, then, should this phenomenon be defined with respect to the contemporary art world? What are its primary manifestations? We see them every day in various forms in galleries, art fairs, trade publications and on the auction block. At best, iconic status brings important talent to the fore; at worst it engenders bad artwork, bad behavior and allows bad business practices to continue unchecked. Is this something that we as critics, curators, artists and gallerists should be concerned about—a cause for alarm? Does it diminish the capacity to think critically?
--Anjali Gupta, Editor, ARTL!ES
It’s often not the artist’s fault that he or she is turned into a cult figure. Donald Judd is a good example, although he is more idolized after death than before. He would have never wanted it this way. Good art is not for the masses anyway, who can’t seem to handle, without celebrity status, its inherent complexity. See Ad Reinhardt on this topic: “The artist-as-artist’s first enemy is the philistine-artist, the ‘all-too-human’ or subhuman or superhuman artist inside or outside or beside himself, the socially useful and usable artist, the artist-jobber and sales artist, the expressionist-businessman and ‘action’ artist, the artist who ‘has to eat,’ who has to ‘express himself,’ and who lives off, on, in, for or from his art.”
--Frances Colpitt, Deedie Potter Rose Chair of Art History at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and Corresponding Editor, Art in America
I think the market plays a huge role here. At a recent curator/collector dialogue in Aspen, this was a hot topic. Collectors were anxious to hear whether the “art star” phenomenon affects curatorial decisions—whether curators feel compelled to search for the next star. “No” was the resounding response. I think curators felt that rising auction prices, and therefore collectors, played a large role in the creation of the “star.” In my optimistic moments, I think that only those with tremendous talent/intellect rise to such heights. Though there are many more with such talent/intellect, theirs might not be combined with the right savvy, background and timing to support a meteoric rise. In my darker moments, I brood over the proportions of each quality it takes to become a star. A question I continue to ponder—one that was brought up in Aspen—is whether stardom encourages further artistic individuality and experimentation or discourages it, as a strange move might precipitate a rapid fall (in prices and therefore star power)?
-- Kate Green, Curator of Education and Exhibitions, Artpace San Antonio
I think that—sadly—many curators do absorb the worst qualities of the star system. There is little doubt that it dulls critical thinking, and it takes a brave individual to say, as Jerry Saltz did recently, that Jim Dine was never an interesting artist. But curators are not the only victims of the art system; artists are, too, and collectors, and museums and critics. By definition, the star system rewards easy content in easy form and then dumps it in search of the next easily digested morsel. I admire the curators, critics or collectors who follow an artist through his or her career, through the unfashionable moments, through the sneering ‘that was so two years ago’ comments, rather than avidly reading Artforum to see who is hot this year and who you have to pretend you never really found that interesting. In a nutshell, the star system sucks. John Ruskin got it right when he said that artists should be fit for high society, but avoid it at all costs. The idea that the market rewards artistic value is like Reagan’s belief that wealth naturally sticks to the smartest and best people. I’m always happy to see artists make money from their work, but the best never quite believe it, and that’s what saves them.
-- Gabriel Perez-Barreiro, Curator of Latin American Art, The Blanton Museum of Art
Celebrity is a perfectly natural thing—nothing to be mad about—though all capricious hierarchies that wield power are completely wicked. Practically though, we all have inspirational idols. Further, many of us need some competitive prodding from our more famous peers to keep energized. The kooky thing is how names work in the art world. Names are the popular commodity. Who can afford art? I can’t. Instead I get names in constant profusion. Artforum is well known for its pages and pages of gallery ads, which consist of rectangles around names. The big institutions release lists of names: biennial participants, award recipients, dinner-party guests. When it comes to artists, each name represents a relative intellectual value and market value. There can be a terror to not recognizing a name in the art world. Is it someone important you’ve failed to assimilate or just another nobody? It might help if art magazines would begin to print each artist’s name in a scale that’s commensurate with his or her fame.
-- Malik Gaines, independent writer, co-editor, artUS, Adjunct Curator, LAXART and founding member of the performance art ensemble My Barbarian
The question, I think, is interesting but my “knee jerk” reaction is that it is less a cause for concern and more a means for artists to revisit the whole phenomenon and reassert it in society to critique “celeb” culture (as we know it now). I can’t think of any examples where there is concern for the art or the artists and I love this new generation that shows no deference for this type of thinking.
-- Valerie Cassel Oliver, Associate Curator, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
It’s a pertinent question and I hope it might engender some interesting responses, although the PC response will just be to decry the phenomenon and let it go at that. Having been the subject of the phenomenon, at a minor scale, the focus on curators as personalities sometimes rivals that of artists; I know how honestly ambivalent one’s response might be. Since our region started out as one characterized in the public’s mind as one of larger-than-life personalities, I think it might be particularly rich for conversation here.
-- Annette Carlozzi, Curator of American and Contemporary Art, The Blanton Museum of Art
I think celebrity enforces a trade-off. Gaining a public persona, you trade time in public for privacy; in most cases, you trade time at your craft for time spent crafting your public image. Warhol is perhaps the best case of this, and his last years were certainly a sad diminishment. I think the other trade-off involves criticality. Once everything one produces becomes wrapped in the envelope of a “public self,” it becomes very difficult to discern content, let alone motivation. The ultimate absurdity of this kind of product/content/presentation blending is a PR photo-op. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” was a wonderful bit of stagecraft, and it made for a pretty impressive picture—a reality directly opposed by the facts at hand. Politics is to me a lagging indicator, but a similar kind of sloganeering was evident in this year’s Whitney Biennial. In both cases, the “official” or public line was an oft-repeated mantra unsupported by reality, and in each case iconic status reinforced a palatable unreality.
The last time I made my living with a calculated public persona was as a clown performing in a small circus. I think one of the reasons I find writing and artmaking so much more attractive than performance is that both require the production of a tangible object that in some way represents me but is most clearly not me. I am not interested in posing as a living statue in a nightclub as Andy Warhol did. But I give him this—he knew his market lay somewhere between the banality of content-free public display and the private formality of pure content, and he made himself into that market. I see him as a capstone to the entire notion of signature style (its own kind of personality cult) so intrinsic to modernism.
-- Christopher French, artist & independent critic
The question contains others worth examining. Is it another form of U.S. exceptionalism to posit the present situation in art and politics by dint of market and media forces, as without origin or antecedent? Are individual appeal and image worship in excess of art and its objects, as though detached from human actors, inclusive of their personalities? Do we de-historicize the effects and meanings of art when we remark the elite status of celebrity within a rarefied but profitable art world indulgent of fatuous behavior and unethical practices, but ignore how entangled all ways of life are in world affairs and the particular circumstance of this administration’s policy? How can we tell the difference between our identity as citizens and mere art-world functionaries?
-- Roberto Tejada, Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism, University of California, San Diego
The insistence that things are worse now than ever before is, as Robert Frost noted, a peculiar form of arrogance. Things might be bad, but to say that they’re steadily and inevitably declining is to build a teleology that, while pessimistic, is teleological nonetheless. And while postmodernism casts a short shadow in some areas, its critique of this way of arguing remains deeply and persistently influential. Jean-Francois Lyotard’s definition of the postmodern condition as an effect of intellect or consciousness—“incredulity toward metanarratives”—still seems right.
The straight line, Lyotard proposes, has been lost in a cloud, a diffuse cluster of options (good, bad, indifferent) that obscure our vision rather than illuminate our path. On this conception, events and possibilities drift through ever-shifting arrays rather than aligning chronologically. This strikes me as being as true in the art world as anywhere else, if not more so. For example, if we consider how performance art has changed since the early ’70s, we might decide that the “cult of personality” rules the art world, complete with publicity assaults, audience-pleasing spectaculars and profit-producing merchandise. Vito Acconci and Valie Export, who presented themselves as no one’s idea of a dreamboat in their landmark performances of the late ’60s and early ’70s, are far from Vanessa Beecroft’s fashion models and Navy SEALs (a point highlighted by the “Fresh Acconci” videos that Mike Kelley made with Paul McCarthy a decade ago). The art stars of the ’80s are back, or perhaps they never left.
Postmodernism’s messiness proposes, though, that a place as big as the art world can’t be all one thing. The personality cults, with their lame versions of beauty and genius, have their blockbusters now as they did two centuries ago, but that doesn’t position them or their support mechanisms beyond criticism. The anti-aesthetic of the ’80s has a legacy at least as influential as the neo-Expressionism that overshadowed it, and cultural critics still chip away at the edifices of spectacle that fill the art world.
Which is to say, on one hand, the whiff of Guy Debord’s chiliasm haunting the injunctions that art and its institutions be spectacular never has seemed so apt: the more expensive your museum, the more ravelike your exhibition, the better. Thus, roars of approval greeted a recent all-night art fair in Toronto, so unimaginative that its organizers could do no better for a name than steal the title Nuit Blanche from a similar event in Paris, so juvenile that they could describe it no more compellingly than as a “contemporary art thing.” But on the other hand, the art world encompasses an array of people and institutions who push back against this mechanism or, perhaps better, ignore it: artists and curators who—Frances Colpitt’s citation of Reinhardt is apt here—refuse the idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity and therefore reserve invitations to their shows for critics they feel have earned that courtesy.
Despite my Manichean argument, I’m most interested in opposing the art world’s spectacularizing impulse by contradicting myself, because I don’t think this situation is either/or. Valie Export’s fame may differ from Beecroft’s (are there types of fame?) but it’s still fame and, as such, hooks into much of the same apparatus that Beecroft’s acclaim does. That apparatus is inappropriate to Export’s oeuvre, but it’s all we’ve got. So my sense that capitalism is inadequate for lauding artists I like presents the same difficulty as deciding that English won’t cut it. I can decide not to speak capitalism just as I can choose not to speak English. In my present context, however, both choices mean that I won’t be heard. So I must make my decision with that limitation in mind.
-- Charles Reeve, Curator, Ontario College of Art & Design
1 Nikita Khrushchev is credited as coining the phrase, using it to denounce Joseph Stalin in his speech to the 20th Party Congress in 1956. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cult_of_personality