Although neither Time magazine nor photography generally go in the (+) column of my life, I recently had occasion to read an issue — due to the outstanding cover story regarding a real-life hero in Washington, D.C. — and found an interesting little interview with Annie Leibowitz.
The first question and answer struck me.
Why do you continue to do celebrity portraits when many of them have their photographs plastered all over?
I thought to myself: good question! As it turns out, even better answer (emphasis added):
I’ve never liked the word celebrity. I like to photograph people who are good at what they do. I think the real problem today is, the Internet has created the demand for so much more information that we need to almost drum up more celebrities. We’ve run out, and now what we’re doing is, we’re making them up.
Actually, I think this is pretty close to the truth. Our media do not propagate in a vacuuum: they propagate as a function of demand. And it’s more, much more than an issue of celebrity. It’s about information. It has few uses, but they become important in terms of the marginal utility for such information, not unlike the age-old paradox of value problem. Sure, a glass of water is more important to us in a desert. But how often am I stranded in a desert? I’ll take the diamond necklace in lieu of that water any day in society. Just so, I would probably be better off in a desert with knowledge of how to capture desert bugs to eat them. But the marginal utility of that information, compared to the marginal utility of information about Kim Kardashian (I can use it in conversation with my friends, can use examples, can appreciate the physical beauty, etc.), is simply lesser.
Let us also talk about the Internet. What’s going on isn’t that there are suddenly more people to know about, but the cost to learning and transmission of information has gone down so much. That means you can trade off other things you do for that information.
Finally, let us connect it even more to art. Art forms continue to spread out in media, and our contemporary art becomes ever more heinous compared to traditional, more structured forms. Without assessing the merits of structure in art and art forms, I think it suffices to say we can expect this trend to continue in far more disturbing ways in the future. The exact way in which these art forms arise, and worse, are appreciated, is unknown.