Representative Governance

Article excerpt

I CAN THINK OF NO BETTER definition of celebrity than a widely circulating image derived from but not identical to a person--in short, an avatar. As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama was criticized as just such an image. A notorious television ad likened him to celebrity-without-a-cause Paris Hilton and everyone, it seems, called him a rock star. In spite of the Republicans' own strategy of wrapping their candidates in the guise of sainted POW and avenging hockey mom, the 2008 election pitted illusory, image-based "celebrity" against the "real" policies attributed to John McCain (and let's not forget that since 9/11 the ur-action of Republican policy has been military action). Such posturing among politicians, who pretend that their stock-in-trade is not the production of avatars, is an outrageous denial of the real power of images.

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It seems to me that this faux-naif denial in the realm of politics has an analogue in the naive quarantining of the power of art in the realm of contemplation. The affective power of artworks on individuals is enthusiastically celebrated and analyzed, while the economic effects of art, though given lip service, are largely marginalized as external to its meaning. Art is transforming entire neighborhoods in such diverse cities as New York, Abu Dhabi, and Beijing; it is a mechanism for justifying huge social inequalities, increasingly by means of new, or newly enlarged, privately funded museums popping up under the guise of "civic amenities." Now is the time to renew the rallying cry of critic Harold Rosenberg: Images are actions! In contrast to Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, who advocated contemplative models of spectatorship, Rosenberg regarded painting as inextricably linked to an ethics of its making. Today, in an art world vastly expanded from that of the 1950s or even the '60s, such an ethics must confront art's responsibility for its effects beyond the white cube.

Images have always served as technologies of political power. Like leaders throughout history and in every culture, American presidents personify their nation, both domestically and internationally. As avatars, they incarnate the shared representation of what cultural historian Benedict Anderson has called a nation's "imagined community." The distinctive factor in modern politics lies in the necessity for a candidate to produce her-or himself as a media celebrity, a constant of our political scene at least since John F. Kennedy's role in the televised debates with Richard Nixon in 1960. Let's face it, presidential elections now resemble "reality" television contests such as the Bravo franchises Top Chef, Top Design, Shear Genius, and Project Runway. The primaries are like media tryouts in which ratings (polls) measure how well a candidate will play nationally. First we have Top Democrat and Top Republican, and then we have Top President. And as in media entertainment, where ratings are directly linked to advertising dollars, candidates can raise money directly in proportion to how well they perform at each stage of the contest. Candidates' positions on issues are obviously not irrelevant, but equally if not more important is the honing of a celebrity image that can sustain a mandate to lead by establishing a constituency similar to that which a television character establishes among his or her audience. This requires a delicate balancing act, as on the one hand a political candidate must appear "authentic," while on the other he or she must embody a sufficiently generalized ideal to appeal to a mass audience. Political avatars are successful only as long as they can maintain a virtual public, composed of constituents acting like fans, which functions as a screen behind which vested interests may proceed largely unexamined.

If we credit Republican attacks on Obama's image, attaining celebrity is a superficial accomplishment. But in fact, producing and maintaining a powerful avatar seems easy only because vastly expanded media outlets ranging from blogs to cable television are hungry for content that must stream across television and computer screens twenty-four hours a day. …

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