LOS ANGELES – Thirty-seven years ago, in a world where cell phones and the Internet were not even dreamed of, artist Andy Warhol had a prescient glimpse of the future.

As part of a catalog of his work being exhibited in Stockholm, the avant-garde Warhol wrote this: “In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”

In the world of 2005 he has been proved right.

As satellite television and the Internet swept across the world the pace – and the price – of fame changed with such speed that popular culture became celebrity obsessed. Just count the number of times Paris Hilton appears in every issue of US Weekly. This, many believe, has had a profound and damaging effect on the nation.

“What you are seeing now is an age of plastic stars,” said Howard Bloom, an eclectic blend of scientist and public relations man who founded the Howard Bloom Organization Ltd. to shape the public image of Michael Jackson in the 1980s and also that of Prince, John Mellencamp, Bette Midler and Billy Joel.

“Distraction” is the word many cultural observers use when they talk about the pervasiveness of celebrity in present-day American popular culture because they see a society flooded with non-stop images and stories that push aside other and more important aspects of global life.

Just days before being elected Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spoke about the modern world and the trend toward relativism in decision-making and moral judgments in a media-dominated society.

“We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires,” he said during a mass.

Not all the popular culture produced in America is mindless, of course.

“We seem to have the ability to generate pop culture,” said Joe Polisi, president of the Juilliard School in New York City, talking about an American talent ranging from jazz to Elvis Presley to Eugene O’Neill and Neil Simon to Paul Simon and Wynton Marsalis.

In reality, the quest for fame and celebrity are as old as the American republic. Remember all the claims that “George Washington slept here”? Or the days when Bonnie and Clyde and Al Capone filled front pages and radio broadcasts? Rita Hayworth ushered in a generation of pinup girls.

In their turn, titans of industry, gangsters and studio-system movie stars all had their day. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry is about to publish a non-fiction book about the fame, fortune and international celebrity of two 19th-century Americans: Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley.

But things are vastly different now than they were in the days of the traveling Wild West show.

“One exception now is the media,” Polisi said. “People are plugged in almost all the time. You can turn off your brain and experience the whole thing.”

Polisi and others argue that the bombardment of the present version of pop culture coupled with a decline in arts education in public schools is doing damage to the national fabric.

“The vacuum that was created has been filled by pop culture,” he said. “The whole process is so superficial. Paris Hilton is an attractive woman, but she doesn’t do anything, does she?” Polisi said.

Jim Farrelly, director of film studies at the University of Dayton, and others noted that celebrity moves at warp speed now, particularly because of the Internet and cable and satellite television.

“Of course this cult of celebrity is hardly just an invention of the 21st century; its roots run deep in history,” he said.

“What has changed over time, however, is the packaging and distribution of celebrity. Communication’s march through history – stone tablets, scrolls, quill pens, the printing press, the typewriter, radio, films, television, word processors, computers, the Internet – has truly transformed the marketplace, and media today sells its images much better and attracts worldwide audiences to the altar of celebrity.”

The easy distraction of celebrity also can be a way to avoid more serious, potentially volatile subjects.

“They provide non-threatening topics of conversation,” said Kathryn Kuhn, a sociology professor at St. Louis University. “For example, why get into a lengthy, possibly acrimonious discussion of the war in Iraq if we can talk about Paris Hilton instead?

“The entire concept that anyone can be a celebrity is a kind of postmodern American dream story. Rather than thinking that anyone can grow up to be president … we now tell ourselves that anyone can grow up to be a celebrity, at least for a while. It is a democratic view without the political depth we associate with democracy.”

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Modern life itself has lost some of its depth, leading to “a profound disruption to traditional ways of life,” said Ken Owen, director of media relations at DePauw University.

“For much of human history, individual and group identity were predicated on family, a religious order, and a local community,” he said. “This traditional lifestyle provided the foundation for one’s sense of self.”

But Owen says that has been shattered in a world of the 24-hour news cycle, the Internet and the ever-present drive of popular culture.

“The forces and conditions associated with modern life created an identity crisis of sorts for individuals and an emerging “mass public,”‘ he said.

“Celebrities helped fill the vacuum created by this crisis of identity; while individuals previously looked to family and community to shape their sense of self, the emerging popular entertainments – theater, sports, and cinema – provided an increasingly isolated mass public with the “raw materials’ to construct a new, modern identity.”

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To be sure, reality television programming offers to make anybody famous. Be it “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire,” “Survivor” or “Big Brother,” these shows tie viewers into the lure of achievable fame.

Darva Conger, the first woman to win on “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire” said that her instant fame was absurd.

“I find it ironic because I took so much crap,” she told the Associated Press in 2003. “It’s entertainment.”

While the flood of popular culture has submerged more serious forms of art and entertainment to a serious degree, there is hope for co-existence.

“Young people will always address what the latest fad is,” said Juilliard’s Polisi, noting that he had seen Juilliard music students play a Mahler concert and then get on the orchestra’s bus and tune in to hip-hop and rap on their iPods.



(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Paris Hilton

AP-NY-06-06-05 0620EDT


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