The Corner

Culture

Andy Warhol’s Revenge

In response to God’s Affiliation

I very much enjoyed Jonah’s observations below and do not disagree with a word of what he wrote, but something has been left out, I think. Jonah writes:

We could certainly raise young people to smile less. To be more aggressive in their wants and desires. To be rude or antagonistic to what remains of social norms.

What Jonah is overlooking here is that we will not have to teach young people to behave more childishly — that is baked into the spirit of our time. One of the big cultural changes currently under way is that in the eternal battle between rich and famous, famous is getting the upper hand. As rising standards of living relieve us of a great many ordinary material pressures that have shaped the behavior of human beings for as long as Homo sapiens has existed (and before that, I suppose) and changes in technology create new, immediate, low-cost opportunities for performance, the most desirable commodity is not money but attention. (“Attention must be paid,” and all that.) The obvious example here is Donald Trump’s long career as public figure before he entered politics. It was bad publicity (a tabloid divorce case) that began to make Donald Trump a household name; it was more important to his career as a celebrity that he be written about than that he be written about positively. A thousand other lesser examples come to mind.

The easiest and cheapest way to force people to pay attention is to be at odds with them: to be a victim, to be offended by the use of ordinary words, to insist that your toilet preferences be made a matter of federal law. To be pleasant, content, and deferential is to be unnoticed, which in the age of social media is akin to ceasing to exist for a certain sort of person.

This has both dramatic and un-dramatic effects. Consider the old model of waiting tables: At one time, the ideal waiter was someone who was never really noticed — your glass was always full and your plates were cleared, and this was done with a minimum of intrusion. The idea of a waiter introducing himself by name and behaving like a clown at a child’s birthday party (“Are we enjoying ourselves?!” etc.) is relatively new. The idea of not being noticed representing a professional virtue seems hopelessly outdated, cruel and elitist. But, then, so does the notion of “service” as a profession, as opposed to something you do for money while finishing up your MFA in creative writing.

In a more serious area, the past twenty years’ vogue for former spies — and, now, especially, former special-forces soldiers — writing popular books and becoming celebrities in retirement remains controversial within those elite professions, but who believes that such fame-seeking can really be resisted? The Navy SEALS have never fought an enemy like that before, and they do not stand a chance. In 2017, the “quiet professionals” just will not shut up.

The British edition of GQ recently named Milo Yiannopoulos the worst-dressed gay man in the world. That criticism might (might) sting, but for a celebrity-seeker — for a person who feels his existence to be real and consequential only when it is observed – it would sting much more not to be mentioned at all.

As a father, Jonah knows that babies cry because they desire attention and have no other means of making their needs known. What is peculiar is that the same holds true for adult students at Middlebury College and gender-dysphoria sufferers in Texas. Andy Warhol prophesied a future in which everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, but I do not think that even Warhol — a man who occasionally painted with urine — understood exactly how truly and thoroughly infantile his future — our present — would be.

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