The power of celebrities in today’s world is uncontestable. From being icons of fashion, to figureheads for commercials and charities charities, celebrities play a central role in the commodity architecture of society. Celebrities come from many domains – film, television, music, art, comedy, social media, politics. And celebrities are called upon to play several roles – teach us their crafts, model new fashion trends, reinforce national and industry-related traditions like the grammy awards, reinforce the value of a college in a commencement speech, and so much more. Letting the pass the slightly tautological nature of the definition, celebrities are perhaps most notable just for being people that are well known (Walker 4). For whatever reason, they are people that have garnered a reputation for having a reputation worth paying attention to.
Celebrities as subjects of our visual culture dates far back, depending how loosely you want to define celebrity or visual culture. But the artistic depiction of royalty and nobility was a major driving force of the industry of painting since the inception of the portrait. However, the defining features of celebrity as we know them today are distinct from the royalty and nobility that are the subjects of old art. In fact, when we take the story of one of today’s most widely appreciated and controversial celebrities Lil Yachty into account, it departs drastically from this. Rising to fame in his teenage years, Lil Yachty is one of the youngest, if not the youngest hip-hop artist in the scene today. But from nursery rhyme cadence, to simple lyrics, to a “mumble” vocal style, to a lack of literacy of the hip-hop world and industry, Lil Yachty also is the subject of great debate among critics. Joe Budden of Complex Media recently got into a big debate with DJ Academick and Yachty himself on this issue between old and new hip-hop.
In this interview, Yachty admitted that while he certainly can rap, this is not the central focus of his business model. His business model comes from his image, which has already been deeply commoditized by companies like Coca-Cola in this Sprite commercial. Yachty points to Instagram and Tumblr as the start of his career, and the source of his rise to fame just for “being cool.”
This self-driven ascension to fame started with the circulation of how he depicted himself visually in a social media application that is purely visual. Markedly different from a king or duke commissioning an artist to paint them, the access to contributing to a visual culture that directly interfaces to a person’s feed drove Lil Yachty’s ascension to celebritism and his significance in today’s visual culture. The app itself thrives on the convergence of social media with public driven visual culture afforded by good quality cameras in our smart phones. The role of technology has not been overlooked in documenting the narrative of visual culture. However, as a case study for the origins of celebrity today and the visual culture that supports it, I look to fin-de-siécle Paris and the poster.
This moment in history is particularly well documented, especially for the artists that occupied the cabarets and cafes of Montmartre, such as Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Cézanne. However, I would like to use this moment in history to consider how the affordances of the lithograph as a technology was part of a convergence of social and artistic renegotiations. On one hand, we had the mixing of previously staunchly divided social classes in the growing Parisian district of Montmartre. On another hand, we have the distinct move to realism in depicting the modernism of urban life. And yet on another, we have the growing use of a technology and artistic medium that supported precursors of a mass audience. I will argue that the negotiations of these three key facets of the growth of Montmartre are still at play in the construction of celebrity today by comparing what we know about the artistic culture of Montmartre to the case of Lil Yachty.
The lithography of fin-de-siécle Paris was notable in the convergence of many elements. First at hand is the growing local art and performance culture of Montmartre. In cabarets such as Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir, notable artists such as Édouard Manet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Victor Hugo, and several other artists and writers, collaborated together, performed, conspired in their art together a nightlife culture of debauchery and entertainment (Cate 30). They occupied designated spaces in the backs of cabarets with the owners to foster this culture in the publications of journals that would advertise the cabarets and artists as a locus of art and culture. In the fronts of the same venues was a growing market of consumers that would exponentially increase the revenue circulating in the entertainment industry, happy to brush shoulders with one of the big names of the scene. And the ascension of artists to such a status had much to do with the period of France’s history. The fall of the second empire led to much less institutional support for the arts and the survival of art was in the hands of independent artists, writers, thinkers, and cabaret owners – to local artistic cultures (26).
Another important element at play in this moment of history is the growth of Paris after the fall of the second empire and rise of the third Republic; the modernism of the urbanism from renovations commissioned by Napoleon III (Chapin 47). The period of history saw the erection of the Eiffel tower, a major movement in modernist painting and writing that directly challenged traditions with the hardened realism of the city, and the rise of an explicit bohemian nightlife. Decreased national support for the arts, as well as a relaxation of censorship laws in 1881 opened up a stage for artists to take more pronounced ownership of the art scene. Renovations to the city commissioned by Napoleon III to Georges-Eugéne Haussmann were designed to accommodate a growing Parisian population, renovations such as better sewer systems and open parks. In a process of what is now known as Haussmannization, in addition to the parks and modern architecture that exists in Paris to today, the renovations brought wide boulevards to promote easier travel between major districts and landmarks in the city. These boulevards also brought an important element to our narrative – a new stage for the public. Along boulevards opened up cafes, departments stores, and entertainment venues which were heavily populated. Of course, this was a major contribution to the increased revenue in the entertainment industry, and the increased attention on performers, artists, and celebrity culture.
Fin-de-siécle Paris is not the first emergence of lithography as a print medium. Emerging in the late 18th century, lithography was still a novel printing press as it was the first very new form of printing to emerge since the 15th century. Starting in Germany, lithography gained its reputation in the printing trade as a reliable way for creating multiples of sheet music and spread throughout Europe as it supplanted and supplemented other forms of printing, such as woodblock cuts and the letterpress (Twyman 16). In addition to music printing, the technology inspired a new trajectory for geologists, the printing of reference sheets for typefaces, and of course art and advertising. The technology was ripe for the era of history in question because of the particularities of the renegotiations of urban life. Other forms of art still thrived in this environment, but the role of the poster was novel and its role is a direct product of the many convergences we are looking at.
One of the major affordances of lithography as an artistic medium is its reproducibility. Walter Benjamin puts artistic reproduction in an era of technological reproduction into context of the traditions of art reproduction that preceded it. Including lithography, photography, and cinema, he discusses the reproducibility of art in terms of its aura, or its uniqueness. We might substitute aura with essence. But what he argues is different in era of technological reproduction is that “by replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence” (254). The aura in question is no longer in the unique matter that composes the piece or the unique moment in which a piece is performed. Rather, technology captures this aura and becomes part of the aura in the dissemination of the piece to a mass audience. In film, the aura of an actor’s performance is captured by a camera and represented through the medium’s translation of that aura for mass consumption. When considering lithography, a counter point that I would like to include to nuance Benjamin’s treatment is considering individual prints not as many versions of a single idea or representations of an original, but the production of multiple originals (Castleman 19). This doesn’t supplant Benjamin’s consideration of the unique vs. mass aura, but nuances it in that each piece has its own unique aura that in the unique impressions of the minds of others creates a mass impression.
While the above affordance of lithography regards the ontology of lithographic illustration in art, another important affordance of the technology is its reproducibility in the circulation of art pieces. Cabaret owners like Aristide Bruant and Rodolphe Salis founded journals to support the growing culture of Montmartre and circulate the artists and performers that occupied their spaces. The journals represented a new paradigm for art collection. Side by side with the journals were albums of prints, such as Toulouse-Lautrec would do for certain celebrities such as Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert. This meant not only that lithography was an artistic medium defined by its reproducibility, but for whom the reproducibility could reach. Appearing on the streets of Paris and the halls of venues accessible to a more diverse range of classes, lithography represented an artistic medium that was open for consumption to lower classes.
Along with the convergence of classes in the audience of lithography, the medium hybridized two different forms of the visual culture. Jules Chéret, often dubbed the father of the poster, opened his printing shop in Montmartre in 1866 and over the course of his career designed and printed over 2,000 unique posters. But most notably, what he accomplished was the hybridity of high art and commercial art (Iskin 20). His posters and the commissions he was hired for artistically rendered the prints he designed as a way of making the commercial affordance of the technology more artistic and simultaneously commercialized art in the poster’s use for advertising. He furthermore established a visual culture of the poster particular to this hybrid form that created the backdrop to which later artists that would be commissioned for lithograph prints would be responding to.
Toulouse-Lautrec, of course, chose a much different approach in his visual rhetoric. The grotesqueness of urban life and the modern cityscape which Chéret’s fantastical imagery served to be an escape from, Lautrec chose as his subject (Iskin 284). The growing popularity of this style of modernism of course was a product of the many convergences previously discussed. But most significantly for our vantage point here, the depiction of celebrity in this backdrop of visual rhetoric played into the new shape celebrity was taking.
“Once the province of rulers, politicians, and great men, celebrity was now an equal-opportunity venture, open to all classes of entertainers, courtesans, dandies, artists, and writers” (Chapin 46).
Looking at the poster’s of Chéret and Lautrec as interfaces to Montmartre in context of the many convergences and cultural renegotiations of the time period, we see a very carefully orchestrated, multicausal, multi-faceted world. We visually see the battle between how and what to sexualize. We see the battle between tradition and modernism. And of course, Lautrec’s position in the art history canon and Chéret’s slightly subordinate role in the history of the poster and visual culture is representative of the narrative shift in the representation of celebrity, as well as artistic technique and modernity.
Comparing and contrasting La Gouloue or Yvette Gilbert shows dynamic artistic styles particular to the lithographic medium and particular artists. What we can gleam from this is that the merging of visual culture and renegotiated social contracts is as much technological as it is artistic or historical. Developments in all three of these domains show us the harmonic convergence that was the lithographic visual culture of fin-de-siécle Montmartre.
Of course, when we bring this into modern terms with Lil Yachty, the visual culture has become something totally different. While a detail of the technological infrastructure and the historical and artistic trajectories that led to Lil Yachty’s career is beyond the scope of this paper, it would be an interesting place for further research to consider his career in this same late. It’s the growth of a visual culture of celebrities that continued and grew through the 20th century. The internet and smartphones enabled a visual culture of social media that supported the growth of celebrities negotiated via the public itself. Lil Yachty didn’t commission an artist to style him and do the work of circulating his imagery. Rather, it was self driven and the public was already in a position to ascend him to celebrity status. And his music, which he admits, is about image and not growing the traditional artistic values of hip-hop, supports this image. This represents another major convergence of social, technological, and artistic conventions, one that is still in the process of being renegotiated.
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