Two commenters on a recent post mentioned that the idea of signing/stamping your work sometimes gets tied up with feelings about one’s legacy. And I can’t fault anyone who looks into the abyss and wonders “will any of it have mattered?” Leaving your mark is, on one level, a lunge back from the void to claim some meaning for our lives. “Yes, I will be remembered. Not just what I did but that I did it.”
I have been contemplating mortal thoughts the last several years, so I can relate to this. “How will I be remembered? Will I be remembered? For how long?” The people that knew us personally will carry us in their thoughts for a time, maybe throughout their lives. Our children’s children will have a memory of us as they were growing up. Their children will hear stories of their parents grandparents. But after that its all by proxy of what we have left behind. Will the world be a better place because we once trod here? We lived and laughed, but after the laughter’s gone will what we contributed have any lasting power? How did we change things? Where did we take a stand? What waves did we stand on the crest of? On what ground did we sacrifice ourselves so that the future had something different, perhaps more decent, to build on?
As artists I’m sure that many of us feel we are helping to make the world a better place by adding new beauty to the register of human insight. We see the world in ways that are not always obvious. We have to work to birth the fruits of our imagination. We toil in ever deeper mines to bring forth our precious ore. And after we are gone, often this will be our lasting impression made on the world: “Bonzo was here”
History has recorded the names and deeds of many people. Famous people. Fame is exactly that: People who never knew you personally know something about who you were and what you did. Is it any wonder we have such a fascination with celebrity? Is it any wonder many of us are instinctively drawn to the spotlight? To give our best performances on the biggest stages and to receive the adulation of the masses? Is it any wonder that our eyes and interests are drawn to the shiny people and the pageantry of their lives?
But like most things human, its complicated. There is another side to that equation. As natural as it sometimes can be to have fears for how we will be remembered, there are those who are less interested in making a name for themselves than in what they can contribute, in however small a way. To live a simple life. To live a decent life. Not everyone seeks out the limelight. Not everyone looks for recognition and the accolades of public triumph. Sometimes its not the lasting legacy that motivates us but making things better right here right now. We change the lives of these people, though they might never remember who it was that brightened their day, who it was that encouraged them in the tough times, who it was that stood by them when all else failed. Sometimes small deeds are just as important as filling the spotlight…..
On the other hand, great deeds can, perhaps, only be done in the spotlight. The public eye transmits even small actions into powerful messages. The spotlight is a magnifying instrument for our deeds, and greatness can even be demonstrated in how far ranging the effects are. That so many were affected rather than often what it actually was….
Sometimes we simply need people to step up to the plate and show us how to do it. Sometimes we can’t make changes unless someone is willing to stand before the howling mob and explain new truths to them. Take their insults and abuse and continue the fight. I’m thinking of Martin Luther King. I’m thinking of heroes we should remember. I’m thinking of the people whose lives were an example of the larger things that mattered. And sometimes being able to put a name on those lives makes it more real. “If Martin could do it, then so, perhaps, can I.”
Our culture also celebrates artists. These days the celebration is more for the ones who make the grand splash than artists in general. We tend to celebrate the ‘genius’ artists rather than cast our support for the possibility of art in our culture. As if only prestige mattered. As if only the ‘game changers’ make a difference….
That’s one problem with our society. We are gawkers after celebrity. We are hypnotized by the spectacle. And to be remembered long after you are gone it sometimes seems more important how outrageously you did things than the quality you brought to the world. More often, however, its simply that you made it to the top, whatever you did to get there (sometimes nothing especially special). It might seem that the recognition of a person’s deeds was rewarded by celebrity, but these days celebrity itself is rewarded. Its not that the reward is getting to the big stage, but that getting to the big stage is itself rewarded. Here’s why:
“The arts labor market has been called one of the oldest examples of a “winner-take-all” economy, a term popularized by Robert Frank and Philip Cook in their 1995 book, The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us. The hallmark of this kind of market is extreme income inequality, whereby a small number of the bright, talented, and fortunate generate the majority of economic value. Case in point: according to the New York Times, 56 percent of all concert revenue in 2003 flowed to just a handful of pop music stars like Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. That left less than half the year’s proceeds to be divided amongst all other performers.” Jena Lee, Artists Not Alone In Steep Climb To The Top
There is a divide between what we see as the value of a person’s character and the value of a person’s personality. These days we think better of the charisma of personality. Being seen, standing out from the crowd, being recognized all trump quietly doing the right thing, not drawing attention to one’s self in performing good deeds, anonymously making a difference. But the balance of these values has simply shifted from what society once held as the norm.
“To some extent, we’ve always had an admiration for extroversion in our culture. But the extrovert ideal really came to play at the turn of the 20th century when we had the rise of big business. Suddenly, people were flocking to the cities, and they were needing to prove themselves in big corporations, at job interviews and on sales calls. …
“We moved from what cultural historians call a culture of character to a culture of personality. During the culture of character, what was important was the good deeds that you performed when nobody was looking. Abraham Lincoln is the embodiment of the culture of character, and people celebrated him back then for being a man who did not offend by superiority. But at the turn of the century, when we moved into this culture of personality, suddenly what was admired was to be magnetic and charismatic.
“At the same time, we suddenly had the rise of movies and movie stars. Movie stars, of course, were the embodiment of what it meant to be a charismatic figure. So, part of people’s fascination with these movie stars was for what they could learn from them and bring with them to their own jobs.” Susan Cain from an NPR interview (for more insight please check out Susan’s book ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking‘, pages 21 – 33)
I’m not going to say its wrong to search for a kind of immortality. Are we not grateful that so many larger than life figures have stepped on to the stage and thrilled and entertained us? Its not wrong to admire the good ones, and in admiring them admit those values to our own efforts. Everybody growing up wants to be a rock star or a princess. We want to be found special in a world filled with ordinary. The danger I see is that we forget that the ordinary has value too. Sure charisma is great, but so too is quiet humility. Sure celebrity is a wonderful platform for delivering important messages, but the intimate personal difference that quiet actors can accomplish out of the spotlight is impossible to do without. We need the humble patrons of simplicity and character.
That’s my message.
But I’ll end with this fascinating video clip from Nobel winning Physicist Richard Feynman to remind us of the downside of prestige.
This next clip overlaps part of the first, but at 2:41 he explains his personal regrets of living with the publicity his accomplishments brought him. The latter part of the clip is from just weeks before his death, so maybe its good insight on his feelings toward his own legacy….
Make beauty real!