Gary Hershorn / Reuters-Corbis

Nothing seems more modern than society’s relentless obsession with reality-show stars, Hollywood tweets, and tabloid scandals. But a wildly entertaining new book by former Daily Telegraph literary editor Tom Payne suggests that our celebrity culture has rather old roots. In Fame, Payne draws provocative parallels between 21st-century stardom and the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Aztecs to explore how the fame game has evolved over the millennia.

Celebrity worship reflects a primal need that’s been present since the Babylonians: to elevate people to the status of mythic heroes, only to destroy them. “It suits us when … fame comes at a price,” Payne writes. Or as the Greeks put it, the only place to go from the top of Fortune’s Wheel is down. Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, had to choose between a long, anonymous life or a short, glorious one. There’s no middle ground: a hero must either “go out in a blaze of glory or else disappoint us.”

Of course, we prefer that our famous go out while they’re on top—in fact, dying young (and publicly) may be the best way to ensure mythical status. Think James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Kurt Cobain. Heath Ledger’s overdose clinched him a posthumous Oscar. Naturally, Payne sees a classical parallel: early Christian martyrs, knowing they’d draw huge crowds to their executions, embraced death to gain acclaim and spread their religious message.

There’s another, more gruesome precedent for the fame cycle: ritual sacrifice. Payne cleverly juxtaposes Britney Spears’s head-shaving meltdown with the myth of Iphigenia, who was purportedly killed so that the Greek ships could sail to Troy (and who became very famous because of it). Both the ancient maiden and the modern pop star show that we’ve always wanted our celebrities to be complicit in their own destruction, he says. Audiences need to believe that the celebrity has willingly chosen such a life and accepts the inevitable tradeoffs—loss of privacy, potential public humiliation, even untimely death—that go along with it. As Spears herself once said, “You do have to sacrifice your freedom when you’re in this business, but it’s a small price to pay.”

So what is the allure of fame? The lifestyle, for one thing. In the Faust legend, the doctor agrees to sell his soul to the Devil, but in return gets all his wishes granted for 24 years. In both ancient Albania and Mesoamerica, slaves and youth selected as human sacrifices were often first entertained in massive splendor. Nowadays, MTV allows the Jersey Shore kids to party themselves sick—with the explicit understanding that they’ll pay back the network by self-destructing for the cameras.

The promise of immortality is another incentive, says Payne. As she’s about to die, Iphigenia tells her mother, “You will be famous through me.” It’s that old dilemma of Achilles all over again. Of course, in The Odyssey, Achilles’ ghost reappears and says he made the wrong choice—he should have gone for long-lived anonymity. But once fame is granted, there’s no going back.

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whatever happened to my post..

But is that worship or just an investment in their works which may or may not be around in the future?


It is an investment based on personality cult I would say. The 'worth' of a picture is determined by the 'worth'  of the creators image. So it happens that an intentionally careless doodle on a napkin by Dali is of more worth than everything completely unknown genius xy ever did.


Another factor might be the 'do not speak ill of the deceased', which originated in Rome I believe to know. That adds a lot. Plus, once dead, the artist can't do anything stupid anymore that ruins his reputation, and regardless of whatever they find out about him, it will not significantly lower the worth of the piece you bought (as an investment). I do not claim this to apply to paintings only but that would be a brief and a little superficial summary on how I observed it to work.


That's what the people who market dead celebrities said. That they didn't have to worry about their health, drug addictions, not showing up, etc.

But this applies also to the fans, and their 'vulnerable feelings'. Their star will not 'let them down' anymore.


It is an investment based on personality cult I would say. The 'worth' of a picture is determined by the 'worth'  of the creators image. So it happens that an intentionally careless doodle on a napkin by Dali is of more worth than everything completely unknown genius xy ever did.


That's still not worship though.  And an investment can be monetary or simply personal.

I tend to agree, but I have not completed my opinion about this because it also depends on the individual, how much they feel 'connected' with the artist. Then, the piece of art becomes something like a relic.


I have no example for a painter, but:

For instance, in my home, Elvis was *worshipped* by my mother. I could go on the details but just imagine something that satirizes rather intensively practiced Catholicism and replace Jesus with Elvis, and there you have it.

I have not seen a similar religiosity to my mothers on many other people I met IRL.

Elvis is a good example.  I had a relative who loved Elvis and she had a ticket to see him live and in person the summer he died, so she never got to.  After he died, she went out and bought all his albums.  She doesn't have a shrine, doesn't have mementos strung all over the place, doesn't even talk about him unless a story comes up about him, yet, she would be counted among the 'increase in records sales' for Elvis.  Not worship, she just liked his music.

Aurelia, I met a lady who was "crazy" because she beleived she was/had been married to Elvis.

As far as I know, that was her main delusion, and she was maybe somewhat functional.


I kind of wondered if she HAD been married to Elvis, sad that would be for no one to believe her, and for it to matter that much to her to want someone to believe her that it "ruined her life".




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