a Celebrity - So What?
March 5, 2003
By Diane E. Dees
Athletes, game show hosts, actors, writers, fashion models,
wealthy socialites, musicians-what do all of these people
have in common?
They are celebrities.
Now, how many athletes, game show hosts, fashion models and
wealthy socialites are currently protesting the proposed war
on Iraq and the secretive, draconian tactics of the Bush White
And when you remove this latter group from the mix, what
you have left is a group of artists who - because they are
famous - have been labeled "celebrities" by the news media
and the right wing. And while it is true that Martin Sheen,
Susan Sarandon, Janeane Garofalo and Sean Penn are celebrities,
their fame is secondary to the fact that they are artists.
Criticizing these particular celebrities for protesting the
war is disingenuous in that such criticism ignores the long
and healthy tradition of artists serving as social critics
throughout every part of the world. Instead, detractors -
along with the increasingly ignorant news media - have targeted
the artists' fame as their supposedly invalid ticket into
the world of public opinion.
It is true that having celebrity allows a person to gain
access to the media. And it is certainly true, as comic Janeane
Garofalo has said repeatedly, that any American is entitled
to have an opinion and to express it. But the opinions of
Garofalo and her fellow actors, writers and musicians are
not just the expressions of ordinary Americans: They are part
of the continuing voice of the arts as a protest of the practices
of reactionary governments. And, on an experiential level,
they are examples of the free expression that sustains art
as an organic entity.
Who better than the artist to speak out when people are in
danger from violence, repression and war? Who better than
the artist to speak out when rational thinking is replaced
by blind adherence to fear-based rhetoric? Who better than
the artist to speak out when the precious rights of individuals
are usurped by the government in the name of "security"?
The briefest perusal of art, music or literary history brings
forth creation after creation that came about because of the
artist's need to rebel against - or at least point out-the
social and political mores of the day. Without the artist's
voice, there would be no Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan or Joan Baez
lyrics. "The Crucible" and "An Enemy Of the
People" would never have been performed. Novels like
Great Expectations and The Grapes Of Wrath would
not exist. And we could not see films such as "On the
Waterfront," "Missing," and "All Quiet
On the Western Front."
Art-whether drama, visual art, music, dance, cinema, or literature-functions
in a number of ways within the culture. One is to reflect
the culture; hence, the phrase "art imitates life." But art
also serves to make people think and feel about the culture,
to define the culture, and to rebel against it. Laura Bush's
recent uninviting to the White House of a group of poets was
significant in that it represented an official Fear of Art.
Fear of art is one of the hallmarks of a closed society that
is governed by autocrats. Salman Rushdie, John Lennon, Mark
Twain, and hundreds of artists before them have had their
works banned or endangered by governments - or their agents
- who did not want a dissident message to be heard.
It is safe to say that a government that is afraid of artists
is a government that is afraid of free expression. Conservative
Americans are fond of telling us that we should be thankful
we live in the United States - that in other, more repressive
countries, free speech, including art, is censored. Yet it
is social censoring that these same conservatives are participating
in when they deride artists for publicly promulgating anti-war
sentiments. And they have garnered hundreds of thousands of
dollars of free publicity from a news media that would rather
run polls about liberal celebrities speaking out than inform
the public about the morally reprehensible activities of top
members of the administration.
It is also hypocritical, because not all artists are liberal,
despite the long tradition of art and liberal values going
hand in hand. James Woods, Charlton Heston and Bruce Willis
- artists all - are well known for expressing their conservative
views publicly, yet there is no celebrity-bashing to be heard
about any of them.
Artists, as a whole, are in touch with the instincts and
longings of humans everywhere. It is their calling to express
those instincts and longings. If they become famous, they
do not cease to be artists. And they do not cease to honor