Artists get criticism, stars get awards

The Oscars are a celebration of celebrity. They remind us that talent alone, these days, is not enough
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The Independent Online
The Oscars are not really about talent. If they were, then not only Nigel Hawthorne but also dozens of other British actors, though not directors, would be winners. There are good, often great, American actors, but there are at least as many good or better British ones.

In reality, the pompously entitled "Academy Awards" are a celebration of Hollywood and its continuing domination of the world film market. This does not mean Oscar winners are not talented, but they are not necessarily so. Far more important is the requirement that they fit into the view Hollywood has of itself - fun, positive, idealistic, profitable and, somehow, vaguely connected to a higher, "artistic" ideal.

Winners are expected to show a decent humility. They must appear startled, grateful, and they must smile and grow emotional at the appropriate moment - they must, in short, display all the desirable attributes of the ideal game-show contestant.

And the films that win must, increasingly these days, pay homage to a package of highly parochial American concerns, concerns that make Hollywood feel good about itself. Both Forrest Gump and Philadelphia - the films which have won Tom Hanks his successive Oscars - are suffused with an assumption of liberal isolationism, an assumption predicated on the belief that the agonies and the ecstasies of America must be universally applicable.

Occasionally, supplicants at the feet of Oscar go too far and expose the underlying reality. When Sally Field won for the second time, she embarrassingly blurted out the words "you really do love me", revealing the nightmarish abyss of the American therapeutic consciousness, the eternal futile pursuit of self-esteem that subverts every attempt at objective assessment. To win was not to be rewarded, it was to be cured of a failure of selfhood.

Of course, to some extent, all award systems apply similar conventions and generate similar embarrassments. The Nobel prize for literature, for example, might equally be said to lack any coherent degree of objectivity; the long list of forgotten, unread winners shows that it is as frequently wrong in the eyes of history as are the Oscars. Clearly, there is some ingrained Scandinavian convention of gloomy high seriousness at work here, some sense of literature as pessimistic, spiritual assessment.

But that gloom preserves a degree of commitment, a certain possibility of objectivity. We know that nothing is really required of a Nobel winner except, if he turns up for the ceremony, a certain decorous stiffness. Samuel Beckett, who did not turn up, did not cry "you really do love me!" when he won and nor did he smile. But this did not make Beckett less qualified to be a winner. In fact, by outglooming the Swedes he might be said to have made himself an ideal winner. He was demonstrably, authentically committed to the work rather than the reward.

Certainly the Nobel has its prejudices, but my point is that they are not so oppressive and manifestly unjust as those of the Oscars. And nor is it so obviously compromised by the demands of the box office - if the American film industry ran the Nobel prize for literature then Jeffrey Archer and John Grisham would be infinitely more likely winners than Beckett. To suggest otherwise would be to draw charges of litism, the supreme crime among the West Coast lite.

So what can be said about the Oscars other than that they are a local rite given wider significance by the global monopoly of the American film industry? Well, I think their importance lies in this institutionalised Hollywood distinction between the merely talented and the definitely Oscarable. It is, in fact, no more than our characteristically modern separation of heroes into stars and artists.

The very idea of the star suggests some innate synergy between performer and medium that need have nothing to do with talent. To be a star is to be passive. A star is applauded for being a star, not for doing anything. A star is romantically predestined to be a star and, when he or she realises their destiny, a star is expected to do very little other than to be run by the star system, to acquiesce in its promotional demands. A star is a blank sheet on which we wish to be able to write our own fantasies of fulfilment.

The artist, in contrast, is defined by his opposition to any such passivity. The artist, before all else, works, only appearing in public for brief periods of necessary acknowledgment and applause. The artist is in thrall only to the demands of his art.

The Princess of Wales is, in these terms, a star, the Queen an artist. Diana is all image, a manipulator of appearances whose essential passivity is highlighted by her limitless appetite for therapists and shopping. The Queen is all work, her boxy suits advertising that she is a grim pursuer of the demands of duty. We may pay respectful lip-service to the Queen, but we read about Diana because the star in her knows precisely what we want to read.

The Oscars, and indeed, the whole public relations industry, make it clear that the artist, the worker, is on the run. It is increasingly difficult to adopt the dissident, uncooperative, duty-bound artistic posture. No successful novelist, however literary, can nowadopt the mantle of dissent. John Berger was radically rude when he won the Booker in 1972, but the revolutionary ideology to justify such a stance is no longer available. Now, like Martin Amis in recent weeks, the literary novelist must be seen to be a star, a passive publicity presence separable from the secret work of writing and reading.

Even more vivid has been the intrusion of stardom into the austere realm of classical music. Nigel Kennedy chose to clothe his artistry with starlike posturing. And now Vanessa Mae, not even yet established as an important musician, sells her violin playing with damp dresses clinging to her body. The art alone is not enough. Stardom has become the only way the idea of literature or of music can be made comprehensible in a world driven by fleeting impressions and paper-thin hero-worship.

The division is not, of course, absolute. Some stars are artists and some artists are stars. But what is clear is that the passive, publicity- acquiescent star has been in the ascendant for a long time. The language of dissent from the star system has thinned out to the point where it becomes laughable. Berger had, at least, a mad radicalism; now we just have a languid, Post-Modern irony, an apologetic shrug at the round of interviews, signings and appearances. In media terms, we have come close to realising the philosophy of Bishop Berkeley: to be is to be perceived.

But, perhaps, the tide is turning. Stardom is, after all, a hollow business, a tedious affair of sitting back idly while the world projects its fantasies. All the Post-Modernist fun we have had with the iconography of stardom cannot really disguise this fact. And, deep down, if we don't know that almost all those stupid statues went to the wrong people, then we know nothing.