It’s a commonplace that we live in a culture of celebrity. Where the Middle Ages had stained-glass windows, we have the cover of People magazine or the TMZ home page (where stained takes a different form).
A little-remarked corollary to the culture of celebrity is the celebrity in culture. We are in thrall to the idea of the individual creator: the famous directors and painters and authors who are assumed to do more to shape our collective imaginative life than any lesser-known or even anonymous talents.
“The true function of a writer,” the English critic Cyril Connolly announced, “is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence.” What makes that statement poignant is Connolly’s intense awareness of his own failure to have fulfilled that function. What makes that statement pernicious is how it sets the bar so high as to devalue all but the most exalted creation. It also devalues all but the most exalted creator. The existence of a masterpiece presupposes the existence of a master. The absence of a masterpiece presupposes the absence of either task or artist of any consequence. On reflection, that view is nuts. But who ever stops to reflect on it?
Three recent, otherwise-unrelated events inspire these thoughts: the publication of two books, Richard Lingeman’s “The Noir Forties: The American People From Victory to Cold War” (Nation Books) and “Maynard L. Parker: Modern Photography and the American Dream” (Yale University Press), and the announcement by New York’s Museum of Modern Art that it has begun adding video games to its permanent collection. MoMA now owns 14, ranging from Pac-Man and Tetris to flOw and Canabalt.
Neither Lingeman, the contributors to the Parker book, nor MoMA sought to make any kind of statement on the relationship between celebrity and cultural influence. In fact, few institutions have done more than MoMA to propagate the idea of the heroic artist-celebrity. Yet that very inadvertence underscores the lesson these books and that acquisition have to offer.
The key word in Lingeman’s title is “Forties.” The selling word is “Noir.” So many of the genres that defined Hollywood in the Studio Age are either extinct or on life support: the musical, the screwball comedy, the western, the social-problem picture. The one exception is the most subversive and least respectable Hollywood genre: film noir. Even horror at least paid homage to the star system. Noir wasn’t about star or story. It was about a look, a texture, a
visual sensibility: rain-slick streets at night, menacing shadows, high-key lighting, camera angles cut on the bias. The cinematographers who shot noir were its most important creative force. Such men as John F. Seitz (“Double Indemnity”), Nicholas Musuraca (“Out of the Past”), Woody Bredell (“Phantom Lady,” “The Killers”), and, in a league of his own, John Alton (“T-Men,” “Raw Deal,” “The Big Combo”) were the genre’s real stars.
Noir’s appeal remains so potent, its power to evoke so considerable, that Lingeman uses the term as a catchall to designate the psychic underside of the American experience from V-J Day to the outbreak of the Korean War. Although his book uses film noir as a running element, its primary focus is on such matters as economic anxiety and the rise of red-baiting.
In the pages Lingeman does devote to noir, he focuses on themes and directors and stars. He mentions just two cinematographers. Worse, he gets both their names wrong. Seitz becomes Charles, and Harry J. Wild becomes Harry Wilde. Worse, Wilde’s credited as the cinematographer of “Crossfire” (which isn’t a film noir but a social-problem picture, the problem being anti-Semitism). The actual cinematographer was
J. Roy Hunt. So while such a sweeping title as “The Noir Forties” indicates how extensive was the impact of the men who shot film noir, the overlooking of them in the book generally — and incorrectly crediting them specifically — is a reminder of their uncelebrated satus.
Maynard Parker did much of his best work in close proximity to the noir cinematographers and at the same time, the late ’40s and early ’50s. A Los Angeles commercial photographer, he was one of the most highly valued contributors to House Beautiful magazine. Parker was never well-known, yet it can be argued that in his open-air, sun-splashed way he had as great an effect on the popular imagination as the noir cinematographers did. Their vision of a morally gray urban purgatory met its match in his Kodachrome-bright presentation of a suburban paradise.
Elizabeth Gordon, the editor of House Beautiful, was the one who came up with the idea of “The Station Wagon Way of Life” and who admitted that she used the magazine “as a propaganda and teaching tool — to broaden people’s ‘thinking and wanting’ apparatus.” But nothing promoted it as effectively as Parker’s images. As another editor once said, Parker “can make a camera lie more convincingly than any man I’ve ever known.” He meant that as praise.
Parker’s photographs are images of an image, an ideal of democratic luxury. The genius of these pictures is how they merge idealization (no dirty laundry or leftovers in these ranches or California Missions) and seeming attainability. Part of Parker’s skill lay in making sure his work never descended — or should that be ascended? — to the level of shelter porn. Cumulatively, these photographs become slightly creepy and thoroughly Stepfordish. But they were never meant to be seen as an accumulation. That’s something else Parker shared with his noir contemporaries. The genre owed so much of its impact to being able to play off of the moral sinew and bland uplift of Hollywood’s standard output. Noir as vernacular is an invitation to parody.
The nature and styles of the furnishings may have changed (no home electronics, for starters), but the basic premise remains familiar today: sleek, uncomplicated New World affluence. That premise really does date from the years following World War II: Depression and war left behind, consumer goods in abundant new categories available, and (this is where Parker comes in) high-quality color reproduction of images to present those goods to maximum effect. A photograph like the one Parker took of a Beverly Hills living room in 1947 makes plain just how effective that presentation could be. The interplay of white furniture, gray carpeting, black lamps, and faded-raspberry ceiling is so casually effective that the Rouault hanging in a niche over the sofa (the painting has to be an original, right?) seems as much of a prop as the bowl of pretzels on the round coffee table. For once, the anonymous artist holds the upper hand over the name brand.
MoMA has more than 80 works by Rouault in its permanent collection. That’s twice as many as the number of video games the museum intends to have once it’s finished rounding out its collection. “The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design,” says Paola Antonelli, senior curator in MoMA’s department of architecture and design.
It sounds like a joke at first: video games at MoMA, haw haw. But is that any more of a joke than it owning cutlery or having that bug-ugly beautiful Bell-47D1 helicopter hanging from the ceiling? The aesthetic impact of video games is ubiquitous in the culture. You see their effect in advertising, in television, in films. Going beyond the aesethetic, you see it — or at least drone operators do — in the conduct of contemporary warfare. With all due respect to Cyril Connolly, there are consequences — and then there are consequences.
And there are creators. While the least likely part of a video game to get clicked on is the credits, they are there. It’s not as if other software created this software. Scores of men and women on any given game conceived plot lines, did visual designs, wrote code. Their lack of renown makes the noir cinematographers and Maynard Parker seem like supernovae of celebrity by comparison. Yet over the course of the next few decades, their influence may dwarf that of film noir (which they often draw on for their own dark visions) and the California dream (which many surely aspire to in their own domestic situation). A culture dominated by an ideal of the master-piece and its one maker may give way some day to one dominated by an ideal of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game and its myriad makers. You don’t have to be Walter Benjamin to realize that identity and celebrity are just two of the issues called into cultural question now that the work of art has entered the age of digital reproduction.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.