Art history is varied and complex, but it can be broken into genres. Still Life, Portraiture, Landscape and History are four of the official 17th century genre designations, some holding more prestige than others (still-life painters were losers, but history painters were revered). Historical paintings reached their prime in the 18th and 19th centuries; commemorating men in battle, scenes of Napoleon Bonaparte on triumphant horseback or luxuriating atop his throne decked out in royal garb. We have examples comparable to these genre works today – but instead of portraying venerated kings and generals, we elevate celebrities or pop culture figures to godly heights. Remember the image of Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair? Same thing.
“We worship celebrities,” said Judith Reynolds, arts journalist and lecturer in Fort Lewis College’s Art Genres: Five-Part Winter Lecture Series. “They’re our Greek gods.” This is Reynolds’ third year leading a lecture series at the Durango Arts Center, and next week’s topic is “The Politics of History Painting: Mythologizing, Sanitizing, or Mocking Great Events.” Reynolds’ free one-hour lectures address and give brief histories of the aforementioned art genres, then put them into contemporary context. In the upcoming presentation on Thursday, March 3, she’ll juxtapose the Caitlyn Jenner cover with Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Their poses and appearance are astonishingly similar.
Celebrities and social media
Jenner is far from the only celeb who has been mythologized. In the age of social media, teenagers go crazy over Taylor Swift, Kanye West and Justin Bieber. It’s easier than ever to be in direct contact with your favorite pop stars and actors; sure, girls went nuts over the Beatles, but Paul McCartney didn’t have an Instagram. Modern-day celebs give fans an intimate window into their lives, with the (apparent) immediacy and truthfulness of social networking. Sometimes they tweet you back. Sometimes they’ll take selfies with you. Yet it’s a deceptive, empty closeness – the stars don’t actually know who you are, and they probably don’t care.
Celebrities are idealized even more wildly after their deaths. Michael Jackson was extensively scorned for his racial transition and alleged pedophilia; but after he died, the media quickly changed its tune, remembering only his greatest hits and musical legacy. “Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and James Dean – they are our trinity,” said Reynolds. “I can’t believe their shelf life. It’s as if they’re still alive.”
Kanye humanized; Trump’s dynamism
Speaking of life after death, Kanye West has starred constantly in recent tabloid headlines. He’s a hip-hop artist who has dubbed himself “Yeezy,” a play on “Jesus.” Kanye and Kim Kardashian, West’s wife and reality TV icon, are the ultimate narcissists. Kardashian’s only talent appears to be her painstakingly curated “look” (plus plenty of nude shoots and a sex tape). At least Kanye is humanized somewhat; his tendency to make public mistakes (the interruption of Taylor Swift at the VMAs) or to overshare (see his recent embarrassing Twitter rants) render him a little more “real” than your average luminary. But that doesn’t excuse the jerky behavior. “What little I know about him – I think he’s the Donald Trump of the entertainment world,” said Reynolds. “Me, me, me. I can say whatever the hell I want to say.”
Donald Trump, the front-running Republican presidential candidate, is yet another lauded symbol of red-blooded American ideals. “What is it about our culture that holds these people up?” asked Reynolds. “I think he’s entertaining – but he’s a bloody narcissist, too, and dangerous as someone who people idolize.” Societies are attracted to dynamism, confidence and figures who seem to speak “honestly.” Americans feel lied to by politicians and the government. Trump and Kanye give the impression of candor.
Skeptical of Jenner’s motives
Putting anyone on a pedestal is unwise – especially celebs, since we have only the foggiest notions of who they truly are. Reynolds is especially skeptical of the extreme publicity surrounding Bruce Jenner’s transition into Caitlyn; the first thing she did was go on ABC News with Diane Sawyer to announce the transition. The second thing she did was to sign up for a brand new reality TV series called “I am Cait.” “My theory is that Bruce was a narcissist to the tenth degree,” said Reynolds. When Caitlyn first emerged on the Hollywood scene after confessing her repressed sexuality, the public responded with boundless enthusiasm. Jenner was praised as a hero, called brave and pioneering, named Glamour’s “Woman of the Year.” But her receipt of the award inspired a wave of backlash. Jenner’s much-anticipated reality TV show received poor ratings; viewers were quick to point out the program’s superficial, vapid content. Jenner seemed to care most about looking good and acquiring expensive clothes. Not only that, but she has remained a staunch conservative who isn’t pro-choice and doesn’t support gay marriage – espousing values that are at odds with her new civil status as a transgender woman.
“Democratized commentary has introduced the sting of reality,” said Reynolds. “We are living in a golden age of satire right now. The resurgence might even be due to the gullibility attached to idol worship of Trump, Kanye and Caitlyn.” Reynolds suggests that, after Sept. 11 and the Iraq war, our country has seen a disconnect between its citizens and the government, in terms of determining what’s true and what’s not. “We launched a war against a country to invade without having been attacked,” said Reynolds. “There were skeptics at the time. So people start thinking, maybe our government isn’t telling us the truth.”
Satire and social criticism
In response to the excess of annoying pop culture paragons, we have seen plenty of satirical “protest art,” taking the form of social criticism. This kind of art expertly balances out the celebrity mythologizing, proving how foolish, irrelevant or ignorant these superstars can be. “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show” are classic examples of satire. Vanilla late night show hosts like Fallon and Conan also mock the system and current events, albeit to a safer extent, easing the harshness of reality with humor. “Saturday Night Live” pokes fun at Miley Cyrus’ misguided and shallow enthusiasm (plus her washed-up father, Billy Ray Cyrus) in a regular segment titled “the Miley Cyrus Show.” Comedy Central hosts popular “roasts” to skewer celebs; a particularly brutal recent one “honored” Bieber and a host of comedians who gathered to throw vicious, accurate barbs at him. “South Park” has made crudely animated caricatures of just about every celebrity there is; they depicted Kanye as a nut who takes himself too seriously and can’t take a joke, and Jenner as a lunatic who periodically mows people down in her car (Jenner, driving at an unsafe speed on an LA highway last year, hit another vehicle and caused a chain-reaction crash that resulted in a fatality). Trump is everybody’s favorite whipping-boy these days; he’s mocked for his hair, his intelligence, his attitude and his plans for our country. HBO political TV host Bill Maher said, “He never apologizes; he’s never wrong no matter what crazy thing he says. He’s the white Kanye.” Conan O’Brien said, “Donald Trump told People Magazine that he’s good at sports. Which could be true, because it does seem like he’s had a lot of concussions.”
The threat of censorship and sanitization
Satire usually offends somebody. “We all have a line,” Reynolds admits. Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly, was the target of two horrific terrorist attacks in response to their publication of controversial Muhammad cartoons (he’s an Islamic figure). But if we aren’t allowed to laugh at the madness in our world, how can we possibly stay sane? Incidents like Hebdo might encourage extreme reactions in the opposite direction – toward censorship and sanitization. The attack on the Parisian publication was a form of attempted censorship. During the Iraq war, president Bush and his administration prevented the public from hearing about their war’s squalor or desperation; they depicted it with “glory and picturesqueness,” said Reynolds, making us appear victorious even when we weren’t. That’s sanitization. “It isn’t the truth – it’s propaganda,” said Reynolds. “We live in a free society. We don’t live in a tyranny, with a dictator. The role of the satirist is to keep lifting that curtain up. Open that door – what’s going on behind there? It’s questioning things. Being skeptical. We need that.”