COMMENT: Worshipping the cult of celebrity

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The Independent Culture
AT LAST I know what my ideal Christmas present is this year. I'm not usually into kitsch, but I really, really want Luigi Baggi's statue, Lady Diana as Madonna. Displaying the same genius for the obvious as Sir Cliff's "The Millennium Prayer", the artwork combines the sacred and the mildly profane to create an image that is a comment on our evolution over the last 2,000 years, and achieves a transcendentally tacky perfection.

The delicious detail that Madonna is as big a household name as the Madonna merely adds another twist to the thesis behind the work, which is that in modern culture, it is celebrities rather than gods who are worshipped. Madonna has been pulling Baggi's style stunts for a long time now, and still no one does it better than her. Like a virgin, indeed.

In tune with the times, the ideas behind Baggi's creation, and the execution of it, are borrowed rather than original. The rise of Diana to iconic status was vividly commented upon about eight years ago by the vituperative feminist academic Camille Paglia. Her essay The Cult of Diana was reprinted in The Guardian and illustrated with a portrait by the gifted illustrator Andrej Klimowski, which portrayed Diana as a weeping saint in the style of Russian religious icons.

Paglia's arguments about the secular canonisation of the Princess have, in the intervening years, acquired the patina of indisputable fact. She could not have foreseen that the outpouring of semi-mystical grief at Diana's death would almost completely eclipse the death of Mother Teresa, but if pressed on who would win a "most popular earthly saint" contest, she would even then have plumped for Mrs Windsor.

The method by which the figure has been made is par for the millennial artist's course, too. Baggi has not in fact moulded the statue himself, but commissioned the painted and gilded lime-wood piece from the Demetz art house. Though the company specialises in producing icons for churches, it has also produced many pieces to the specifications of the US conceptual artist Jeff Koons. So while the work is not in itself a religious icon, it is produced in exactly the same way, by exactly the same craftsmen as would supply such an object to a church, a shrine or a grotto.

The piece, which has just gone on display at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool is part of a show called Heaven and Earth - an Exhibition That Will Break Your Heart. In the words of officials at the Tate, it explores how "people now worship supermodels and pop stars and take pilgrimages to Graceland and Althorp rather than worshipping traditional religious figures". As such, the exhibition subverts not only the image of Diana but also those of Elvis, Michael Jackson, the Thirties comic-book hero The Flash, and Christ himself.

The artwork has already created a storm of controversy, but the funny thing is that all the usual suspects who have criticised it unwittingly affirm its objectives. The Prayer Book Society's dismissal of the exhibition as "vulgar", and the assertion of the "family rights campaigner" Victoria Gillick that it is "tawdry", confirm only that the show is hitting its mark. Of course, the fusion of religious iconography with celebrity culture is both of those things. Even without the injection of celebrity, religious iconography has managed to become vulgar and tawdry all by itself. Haven't these people heard of Lourdes? If the exhibition embodies these features, then it is a successful commentary on religious rites and their links with the rites of fame.

Certainly the Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Rev James Jones, seems to understand what the show is trying to say. Although newspaper reports have presented his comments as "against" the exhibition, they suggest that he understands exactly what is going on. "The exhibition reveals a culture that leaves God out of the picture while holding on to religious imagery and ritual. It is a sign of our times. It reflects our culture and shows the huge gap that exists between traditional beliefs and the spirit of a new age."

Even the stupid man's Trotsky, Derek Hatton, unwittingly reaches the heart of the matter when he burbles out hackneyed opinions. "It has nothing to do with art and everything to do with publicity." That's right, Derek. None of it has anything to do with art, or with spirituality, or with ethics or with profundity. Celebrity culture is a shallow and vapid form of modern worship, just as the exhibition posits.

As for Diana portrayed as the Virgin Mary, well, of course it is an insult to deeply held religious beliefs, but not as great an insult to them, surely, as the mass idolisation of a pretty, privileged and neurotic woman who manipulated the press and marketed compassion as a way of cocking a snook at the father of her children and of reigning in the fairy tale she demanded as a birthright, as the Queen of People's Hearts. And as for the Diana-worshippers, who find the taking of her name in vain to be a greater blasphemy than anything Mr Baggi could serve up, they might consider the meaning behind the elevation of Diana's successor as the Queen of People's Hearts.

It has taken little more than two years for a new leader to emerge in the a-dress-a-day-keeps-the-low-profile-away stakes; but finally, unbelievably, Posh Spice has made it. The parallels between the two women are spooky. Both gained vast fame and wealth while displaying a talent only for shopping. Both failed to scale the heights until they had a marriage to a famous man or a boy-child to their credit. Both project the meaningless so-called attribute of "poshness" as a part of their "mystique"; both hang out with Elton, raising money for his Aids charity, or dine at The Ivy, and both send the media into paroxysms of excitement over their weight.

Both manage to wring optimum publicity out of these modest achievements; both clearly spend all their time thinking about what dress to wear, what new look will garner loads of attention, and where the camera is. And both have affected to dislike the media while courting it madly all the same.

Both, unbelievably, are considered to be strong role models for young women and, mind-bogglingly, even though all the evidence suggests that they spend all their time either shopping, grooming or partying, both are considered to be exemplars of modern motherhood.

Which brings us right back to the mother of Christianity, the Virgin Mary. Now, she was always rather a tough role model for women, what with that immaculate conception act to follow, and so on. It has always been clear that men were entirely responsible for the setting of that particular goal for females. Now, 2,000 years on, belief in the virgin birth has been all but abandoned, even within some of the more radical high echelons of the church. But its replacement by Diana, and her replacement by Posh, suggest that we prefer now to believe in a pretty, manufactured self- portrait that stands for absolutely nothing at all.

You can call this progress if you like. Or you can call it mass hysteria, a phenomenon that was once provoked by religious ecstasy, but is now whipped up by the cult of the celebrity.