Why celebrities are the greatest works of art today

Star Spangled Banner (Whitney) (2017, detail) by Sam McKinniss
Star Spangled Banner (Whitney) (2017, detail) by Sam McKinniss - Sam McKinniss
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I dip in and out of internet discourse. Where once I was fully submerged and attuned, now I creep in when I can’t sleep, and briefly see what everyone’s talking about before fleeing in confusion. Because of this, the topics of the day, the watercooler stuff, often look inexplicable to me.

Lately, for instance, I’ve been baffled by the waves of chatter and backlash about the actress Sydney Sweeney. Sweeney is a 26-year-old star who made her name in the HBO teen drama Euphoria (2019-present), in which a group of teenagers dabble in escapades that make the once-controversial 2000s series Skins look like CBeebies. Since then, she has become one of the biggest young stars in Hollywood.

So far, so filler: a beautiful young blonde becomes famous. Yet though Sweeney has generated almost no personal controversy – as I write this, the headlines about her are that she “doesn’t really like coffee” – she’s attracting fevered dissection every day. The popularity of her large breasts, for example, are said by armchair cultural theorists, as reported in Slate magazine, to be a sign of the “woke era” ending. Her pleasant demeanour, meanwhile, is interpreted by gloating conservatives as a return to the submissive-woman archetype. The blankness of Sweeney’s old-fashioned, generic celebrity seems to have driven people mad, and compelled them to fashion her into whatever object they desire.

Philippa Snow, the excellent young British essayist, has written a short but splendid book named Trophy Lives on the subject of our relationship toward the new celebrity, and the ways in which their lives have become artworks in themselves. It’s a subject that inspires instinctive, pre-emptive dread in me, the feeling that there cannot possibly be anything new to contribute – or that the reflection will come down to some woolly aphoristic conclusion: it was the phones all along, or reality TV, or plastic surgery, et cetera.

Yet the genius of a writer such as Snow is that she’s capable not only of delineating these issues, but of rendering them exciting to read about. Her previous book, Which As You Know Means Violence (2022), about cultural figures who hurt themselves for our gratification, was a similarly illuminating work. With a consistent output of superlative essays, too, for the likes of the Los Angeles Review of Books and Frieze, her work sits outside the soul-deadening churn of most cultural criticism, which merely names an artwork or phenomenon, then regurgitate the most commonly tweeted responses to it.

Stephanie (2003), a sculpture by Maurizio Cattelan of collector Peter Brant's wife
Stephanie (2003), a sculpture by Maurizio Cattelan of collector Peter Brant's wife - Shutterstock

In Trophy Lives, Snow’s nimbleness serves the reader well. She takes us on a tour through celebrities as artistic muses, celebrities as art collectors, artists who become celebrities (or, if they aren’t truly famous, at least perform the machinations of celebrity in an artistic context) and, most crucially, the celebrity as an artwork in their own right. Here we have Marc Quinn, the sculptor of Sphinx (2005), which is modelled on Kate Moss striking an elaborately difficult yoga pose, cast in bronze but painted white. Charged with a sort of insistent vacancy, Sphinx is supposed to suggest what Quinn calls the “cultural hallucination” of our idolatry of Moss and other celebrities. A few pages prior, Snow cites the 2022 novel Aesthetica by Allie Rowbottom, about an influencer depleted by the demand for women to portray themselves as “leached of blood and s--t and sweat”.

Snow’s point about celebrity becoming more curated, and in doing so resulting in performance as interpretable as any other artwork, is important. The stars of today, such as Sweeney, aren’t permitted the level of aloofness they once might have been, a change caused first by the advent of non-stop media coverage, then the ubiquity of self-revelation through social-media accounts. She draws upon Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan, as subjects of artworks and the makers of their own, and on the artist Amalia Ulman’s experiment with performing plastic surgeries on Instagram. One particularly chilling detail from an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians sticks out: Kim throws a party for which the entire house the family lived during her childhood is redesigned to appear as it did back then – both a nauseating, mausoleum-conjuring idea, and, in its way, a genius one as well.

Inevitably, there are moments of dismay at the strange cultural space in which we find ourselves; yet what I particularly enjoyed in Trophy Lives was Snow’s simultaneous optimism. She discusses with deep appreciation and care the work of painter Sam McKinniss, whose portrait of Whitney Houston singing the US national anthem is rightly highlighted as capturing something ineffable about the quality of stardom: this isn’t merely an icon but, as Snow writes, “a genius and a woman”. It’s easy to dismiss the magic of the celebrity as communal fantasy driven by communal madness or misery, Trophy Lives suggests – but what if we tried to feel our way around that magic, instead of saying it isn’t real?

Trophy Lives is published by Mack at £14.00

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