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I'm 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 House?

None.

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 that calling.

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