Why are we here? And by "here" I don't mean the big existential question. I mean here in cyberspace? Is it, perhaps, to collect our fifteen?
No, not the fifteen minutes promised us by Warhol, but the fifteen people promised us by Currie.
It turns out, Nick Currie was only partly right. Reflecting on the technological innovations of the early 90s, he issued a now-famous riff on Andy Warhol's already-famous maxim that "in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes." Warhol had been commenting on the nature of celebrity and the inability of the public to intentionally focus rather than to flit from amusement to amusement. A generation later "fifteen minutes of fame" was part of our cultural psyche, and Momus / Nick Currie was able to repurpose the tag. He decried the control of the suits and the tyranny of "units sold" over the music industry. Looking forward to the end of the industry's hegemony and the rise of innovative, creative musicians through relatively simple and inexpensive self-production, he predicted that "in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people." How one would make a living with such a small fan base he did not speculate. Presumably, a pure artst doesn't care about such things. In 1999, Currie revisited his theme and saw the revolution nearly realized, with artists controlling both the means of production and global distribution. He says, "the era of stars... is over, and that worries the critics."
Currie was at least partly wrong. The age of stars goes on, it's just that those who previously would have been completely ignored or crushed beneath the big wheels' roll now move in a parallel track on MySpace or in the blogosphere, famous for fifteen people and sometimes getting called up by the suits who hope to profit by them. I think Rabo Karabekian hit much closer to the mark back in 1987.
Early in Chapter 9 of Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard, Rabo Karabekian says this:
I was obviously born to draw better than most people, just as the widow Berman and Paul Slazinger were obviously born to tell stories better than most people can. Other people are obviously born to sing and dance or explain the stars in the sky or do magic tricks or be great leaders or athletes, and so on.
I think that could go back to the time when people had to live in small groups of relatives--maybe fifty or a hundred people at most. And evolution--or God or whatever--arranged things genetically, to keep the little families going, to cheer them up, so that they could all have somebody to tell stories around the campfire at night, and somebody else to paint pictures on the walls of the caves, and somebody else who wasn't afraid of everything and so on.
That's what I think. And of course a scheme like that doesn't make sense anymore, because simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but the world's champions.
The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap dances on the coffee table like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an "exhibitionist."
How do we reward such an exhibitionist? We say to him or her the next morning, "Wow! Were you ever drunk last night!"
So now with the mass-media superstars AND Currie's fifteen people, we are all being compared not only with the world's top dozen, but also with the moderately gifted stars of the internet. And you know what? I think if I had to choose just one form of fame, I would take the drunken exhibitionism. Because that way, at least we're in the same room with one another, physically present in a community. This cyber-stuff can be a useful adjunct to, but is no replacement for, a real life.
So log out, and go share a meal with some friends.