Samuel Webster

February 25, 2014 Blog: On Being Famous Posted In: Blog

I'm not famous. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I probably never will be.
"So you're saying I'm not famous enough?"

Photo by Mike Schmid

I’m not famous. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I probably never will be… and if I am? I won’t be magazine famous, paparazzi famous, or money famous. No, if I am famous I will be ‘more people know his name than your name’ famous, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing to be.

I find that as time goes on, my days are consumed by the concept of fame, however distant. To that end, I should be clear that I don’t regard fame as merely engagement with fanaticism but the ongoing, consistent appreciation and awareness of a body of work by a third party who is not personally connected with its creator. I like to think that it’s part of being someone whose work is consistently seen ‘in the wild’, and not a reflection of my egotism, or my never ending solipsistic madness. I like to think that everyone is like me, but I often fear that they are not.

I know that research students get buzzed on the publication of their theses, or a major newspaper article that finally brings their findings into the magical light of regular conversation. I know that politicians find themselves enslaved to the whirring of public opinion, where fame is more like a fatal whirlpool than an applause. But the former seems inspiring and the latter seems inevitable. The fame of an artist feels – to me at least – like a self-serving, inescapable force that does little but drown us in our own ego and draw us away from our work. Yet, it is an inevitable and necessary part of continuing our work in a society where benefactors are thin on the ground and art must exist within the economic model of other industries.

The thought came to me, as I prepared for an interview with a major publication here in Italy. I was excited, but it also seemed like work. I wasn’t excited because it was a big deal. I was excited because I thought maybe my name would be bigger (egotism strikes) when it came out. I was excited because I felt validated in my career by the fact someone wanted to write about it. Then I became aware of my solipsism. What does a local lawyer feel when he is featured in the newspaper? Is it pride or advertising? I’m completely unaware of what people with ‘private work’ feel when they are thrust into the spotlight, and completely removed from the bouyancy it should bring. My response is functional, not euphoric. It used to be euphoric. I want it to be euphoric.

I’d like to remove myself from it, but it seems an inevitable part of what I do. I am not famous, but tens of thousands of people have seen my work. I am not famous, but strangers are buying my latest book from countries I’ve never even visited. These are small numbers and they do not add up to fame no matter how you cook the books, but they are a consistent reminder that there is a large gap between exposure and fame. Exposure is people seeing your name, fame is people knowing who you are. Both are necessary, but they are not equal (something which should be considered in the debate about whether artists should be paid for work at the beginning of their careers).

In comedian Bo Burnham’s latest stand-up show, a young woman cries out in a moment of quiet and he responds, “You love me? That’s very nice… You love the idea of me, you don’t know me, but that’s okay. It’s called a parasocial relationship, it goes one way and is ultimately destructive but please, keep buying all my shit forever. That’s how it works. Capitalism, I’m trapped, it’s terrible. I’m a horrible person.”

Bo Burnham’s cynical wit is unmatched in any comedians his age, but perhaps he’s right. Perhaps we are all on the scale of being horrible people, as we consistently seek an engagement with the world around us which is ultimately empty yet functionally bounteous. There are, of course, many times when I believe that functionality is important, both to facilitate the desires of others and the continuation of rational processes which cannot be steered or disturbed by emotional bouyancy, but there seems something ‘disfunctional’ about personal expression becoming part of function, at the expense of emotional gratification. Perhaps our work thrives on parasocial engagement. Artists are the first people to discount the praise of friends as courteous sophistry, yet the most reliant upon friendly support. Perhaps we seek parasocial engagement, despite it destructive nature on one side and its emotional emptiness on the other.

I find myself wondering about the way Hollywood has consistently portrayed those without this engagement as trapped, cubicle workers working only for the next payday, who never seek anything greater in life, and I wonder whether that’s a better cage than the one which this desire for fame has put me in.

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