Peripatetic Postcards

15 Seconds (or notes on the Post-Warholian World)

Andy Warhol, perhaps the first person to be famous for being famous, is credited with the idea that "in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."

We are not yet at that point. (Yet). But the way that the world is evolving -- unflaggingly plugged in, exponentially commercialized, stimulatory kinetic, endlessly poly-tasking, audio-visually peripatetic, increasingly standardless, intellectually uncritical, morally undiscerning -- we are likely to get there. And maybe even faster than in 15 minutes!

In fact, looking at the way that celebrity operates of late, it is likely that Warhol's 15 will become transformed into something less. Less than minutes.

Possibly seconds -- though perhaps even nano-moments. Whatever those are (but coined here to capture the light-speed evanescence of contemporary renown).

It is less inevitable, I would reckon, than rational. Seeing as how we have such limited attention spans. 15 seconds is probably longer than can hold most of us in place. Besides, there are simply too many of us now. And for more and more of the many of us, we now seem to crave more attention from a world that:

  1. has more outlets for expression;

  2. more means for attention-securing; and

  3. less concern about the types of attention it is willing to accord us.

Call it the O.J. phenomenon . . .

Time was when you had to do something of note to gain fame. Sure O.J. did something -- and, though what he did or didn't do is still in dispute, for many it is now taken to be a truism that his current fame came at the expense of virtue. Unlike Lucretia, pictured above, who committed suicide out of noble intentions, O.J. (and others, increasingly of late) have managed to gain their 15 seconds by simply working the grey seam. That is: if they are not entirely bad, they are not really very good.

And, in fact, maybe this is not entirely a new phenomeon. At least the morally oblique part. Perhaps it has always been that fame could be purchased with black lucre as easily as white. Possibly even easier. Consider Lucretia. Even though history has immortalized her, debate has raged for centuries whether hers was an act of shame at having been soiled (in which case her actions have been perceived as virtuous) or guilt (in which case her previous actions are tainted, and therefore held out to be ignominious).

Still, being the naive, positive sort, I prefer to believe that noteriety is generally tied to achievement. This was, after all, how O.J. first became famous. He was once best known for running like few others ever had (and I don't mean in a Ford Bronco speeding away from cops on a freeway). There was a time when O.J.'s 15 minutes were bought because of fluidity of stride, a grace in motion, uncanny timing and peerless anticipation. Few were like him (and, hopefully, today few still are).

In days past, though, it seems that 15 minutes came for all the right reasons. And maybe to the right people. Walking through Burbank Airport on the way to New York recently, I happened upon this bronze cast of Amelia Earhart. A person who we could say deserved 15 minutes, for there was a person who did something no other woman had ever done to that point and few people -- man or woman -- have accomplished since.

Amelia was a hero. She was an original. She was a pioneer, unique, someone worthy of attention, of awe and respect. She was someone worthy of 15 (or more) of fame. And, of course, over time, the number of such people populating our human world has accreted. People with legitimate stakes to our limited attention spans. Do we need to make a short list? Well, that would be impossible anyway, given that it would take longer than 15 seconds and that is all you have to offer me. But, okay, I would list Tiger Woods as one: dominating his chosen profession week after week. Pablo Picasso or Georgia O'Keefe, are two more. As I walked through the Metropolitan Museum recently, their styles struck me as being immediately recognizable and not soon forgotten. Completely indispensible are they to the world that they inhabited (and still do).

In my professional work I have written some about celebrity. It is an area of inquiry that has grown up (through its ubiquity, in its sheer insistence) around sociologists and pop culture theorists and media analysts. The academics have to justify the activity of their brain cells buzzing, so they often distinguish between "celebs" and "stars" and "idols" and "heroes". Through no fault of their own, though -- I mean as good as their concepts may actually be -- it has become harder and harder to draw distinctions as time has passed. I mean: O.J. Star? Hero? Celebrity? Icon?

None of the above -- but famous. Right? Someone getting his 15 seconds. Well, in O.J.'s case -- given his decade in the spotlight -- 15 minutes. Or more.

So, O.J. considered, maybe we academics have to get our asses back to the drawing board. Since now we have to expain the culture that grew him and the society that supports him. For his full 15, and more.

Sigh. I foresee the buzzing of brain cells on my horizon.

Something else on the horizon. One thing I think I might venture will be true . . .

If the bar continues to be lowered on who all qualifies as hero/icon/star/celebrity, then the waters we are setting course for will be as unpredictable as they may be dangerous. For, if a man can become famous as easily for carrying a gun into a hotel room to reclaim memorabilia concerning the many years it took him to build up his status as star, then which route are most of us most likely to choose? If it is easier to become known through the brash, undisciplined act, than it is the courageous, sustained one -- if it is easier to gain 15 seconds in the spotlight through expedience rather then effort -- then what will become of this world?

And if not dangerous, then certainly disappointing. For we may fast be approaching a reality in which everyone can be famous for some period of time. Since everyone carries a camera and has access to someone's blog or cell phone or news service, then even the elderly traveler plopping down to meditate on the tiled station-house floor may become a public figure.

If only for 15 seconds.

If any of this is true, then aren't we losing something? As a collective, the more of this fluff that we assist in contributing to the collective conscious -- the more dross amassed in our communal conversation -- then isn't it the case that we all become more degraded? In a world in which we are all part of the discussion, the quality of that discourse is reduced to -- well, Britney's insipid life-suspended and Vanessa's unfortunate, untimely, nude candids.

Famous for 15 seconds.

I suppose our one saving grace is that all the examples I've been mentioning -- all the shenanigans of late -- have an ephemeral character to them. The rash but bold act may deliver a semblance of muscle, but in fact it lacks substance, sustainability, staying power.

Or, to put it another way: in the post-Warholian world, the more of us are in this, the less of this there is for us. First, 15 minutes; then 15 seconds; finally 1.5 nano-units all dedicated to . . . nothing. In point of fact, what it all amounts to is 15 less things truly worth thinking about with our time. There just are too many of these information bytes amassing around us and no longer enough time to process them.

Which is good news for the rest of us who have better things to do than participate in the anointment of someone's fame for no other reason than that someone else wants to exploit our precious 15 whatevers with 15 meaningless tidbits we will forget 15 somethings later.

Give or take a minute . . . or a second.

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