In the 1970s, before the dawn of health and safety, my mum and dad bought me a chemistry set. It was possible (ask my brother who detonated our garden shed) to make all sorts of amazing and hazardous potions without terribly much risk of interference.
One of the items in the set, along with cobalt chloride, litmus paper, sulphur, graphite rods and various other things was a strip of magnesium, a length of shiny ribbon like tin foil carefully inserted into test tube and closed with a rubber stopper.
If you lit a small piece of the magnesium, you’d replicate the light of the sun at the end of your tongs. It was like some sort of fleeting and miraculous candle, a supernova in a suburban back garden. Intense light and then nothing, except for the retinal shadow that would linger for, I guess, 15 minutes or so.
In 1968, Andy Warhol held his first exhibition outside the US, at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. The line “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” is thought to have been first spoken by Andy Warhol at that exhibition.
It is probably Warhol’s most famous quote. As an aside, photographer Nat Finkelstein claims credit for the expression, stating that when he was photographing Warhol in 1966 for a proposed book Warhol supposedly remarked that everyone wants to be famous, to which Finkelstein replied, “Yeah, for about fifteen minutes, Andy.”
Really it doesn’t matter. It is the perfect encapsulation of modern fame and its transitory magnesium-like properties.
The art historian Benjamin Buchloh posited that Warhol’s core aesthetic was “the systematic invalidation of the hierarchies of representational functions and techniques” and that the “hierarchy of subjects worthy to be represented will someday be abolished,” concluding, in other words, that anyone could be famous once that hierarchy dissipates – and that assuming that this inevitable, “in the future, everybody will be famous” whether they deserve it or not.
I’m not sure that I agree that fame has become or will become a passive characteristic. If you buy Johnson’s thesis in The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, a state (especially an emotional state) can only exist with a counterpart. Fame requires obscurity as its foil. We cannot all be famous. Fame can though, and has, become commoditised and parcelled.
This is because we are all now engaged in an increasingly frenetic rush to be first. This is the exponential century, when everything we learn in a year, becomes the mass of everything we have ever learned. And our desire to have our hands on the new all the time – the first to break news, the first to make a joke, the first to connect the dots, the first to reframe things, has become ever more intense and perhaps less judicious. Well, massively less judicious actually.
Back to Warhol, his expression may also have been an adaptation of an idea by Marshall McLuhan in which he explained how TV differs from other media by using contestants. He was foreseeing Big Brother, I’m a Celebrity Let Me Invoice You, the morning sofa outrage shows (‘My father is my sister’s aunt’), etc.
An older version of the same concept in English is the expression “nine days’ wonder”, which dates at least as far back as the Elizabethan era.
In Byron’s Don Juan, there is a section that reads:
‘The pleasant scandal which arose next day, / The nine days’ wonder which was brought to light, / And how Alfonso sued for a divorce, / Were in the English newspapers, of course.’
See also ‘Flash in the Pan’ and ‘One Hit Wonder’.
Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was a Russian physiologist known primarily for his work in classical conditioning.
Pavlov contributed to many areas of physiology and neurological sciences. Most of his work involved research in temperament, conditioning and involuntary reflex actions to stimuli. Pavlov extended the definitions of the four temperament types under study at the time: phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, and melancholic, updating the names to “the strong and impetuous type, the strong equilibrated and quiet type, the strong equilibrated and lively type, and the weak type.” I think we all know those types. I wonder, though, whether there are more of the impetuous type these days, barking for a biscuit.
The British artist Banksy has made a sculpture of a TV that has, written on its screen, “In the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes.” Banksy is a counter-point to Buchloh here. His answer is that we will all be famous and seek fame – and essential anonymity will be a luxury.
A more recent adaptation of Warhol’s line, possibly prompted by the rise of social media, blogging, and internet celebrity, is the claim that “In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people” or, in some renditions, “On the Web, everyone will be famous to fifteen people”.
Warhol was right. Pavlov was right. McLuhan was right. Banksy was right.
Social media are the platforms that prove their points.
Pavlov’s stimuli are likes, retweets, shares and follows. Social media conditions us to constantly seek measurable fame.
For the most part this feels fine. It is no different to a writer seeking good reviews, an actor seeking applause, a comedian seeking laughs or a politician seeking votes.
Except, of course, when the reward becomes more important that the action. Except when we lose our edit function.
When we will do anything for our fix.
When we indulge in clickbait or trolling, or the provocative to get our reward.
I think Pavlov’s types overlap in a more troubling way. There are people who are apparently strong and impetuous but at the same time weak. They see social media as a platform for their vanities and will pursue this vanities to their destruction.
Never confuse the expedient and the meaningful. As Andrew Heisel notes here in an essay on first sentences of novels:
“The British magazine Stylist proudly notes that the “Best 100 Opening Lines” list they compiled is their “most popular piece of content ever.” Content-generating websites like Buzzfeed continually return to the first sentence as the ideally piecemeal way to engage a forbiddingly dense form.”
Yes, as consumers, we veer to the succinct. As contributors, though, we deploy the succinct as a placebo for deeper thought at our peril.
What value is there in a trade in the provocative with no intellectual or substantive or useful grounding for our claims?
See, as examples, the clickbait specialists living out their short moments in the sun, trading off sucker punches, floating (momentarily) in their tin cans. We know who they are. I don’t want to keep them aloft.
Fame and notoriety are cousins. There are some shared genes on the margins. Fame, though, carries little of the luggage of notoriety.
This is one of my favourite paintings. It is a renaissance Instagram of an everyday scene. The farmer, the boats on the harbour.
It is the sort of snap that any of us might have taken if we’d been around several hundred years ago and in the right vantage point.
But if you look in the bottom right corner, you’ll see the accidental subject. It’s Icarus, splashing down, having courted fame with no foundation, discovering that skyhooks are myth and flying too close to the magnesium intensity of the sun.
Fame isn’t an end in itself. Fame has to spring from foundation. Foundation is the cushion or the parachute.
If there’s a risk that you’ll fall to earth, take a leaf out of Felix’s book.
Or end up like Icarus.
In the film Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer, who plays the replicant Roy Batty, famously ad libbed one of the most memorable and beautiful deathbed speeches in film history – and a paean to the fleeting nature of the remarkable:
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears…in…rain. Time to die.”
The original script version was nowhere near as good:
“I have known adventures, seen places you people will never see, I’ve been Offworld and back…frontiers! I’ve stood on the back deck of a blinker bound for the Plutition Camps with sweat in my eyes watching the stars fight on the shoulder of Orion. I’ve felt wind in my hair, riding test boats off the black galaxies and seen an attack fleet burn like a match and disappear. I’ve seen it…felt it!”
Stylistically it’s a bit like a section from the notorious Charlene song from the 1970s, ‘I’ve never been to me’:
“Ooh I’ve been to Georgia and California, and, anywhere I could run
Took the hand of a preacherman and we made love in the sun
But I ran out of places and friendly faces because I had to be free
I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me.”
The gap between brilliance and a stinker – and between fame and notoriety – can be pretty small.