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  • Donovan van der Haak

Fallen Heroes and the Tragic Dimension of Art as Memory

An essay on how the Graphic Revolution turning heroes into celebrities interferes with the creation of immortalizing, heroic myths.


'For a name in an artist’s story to be remembered, one has to be a hero, not a mere celebrity'


Introduction

Throughout history, humans have created heroizing stories in order to have their names known across the world. When interpreting the artist Homer (8th century BC), Prange (2008) concludes that we tell stories so that we can gain existence in fiction. Art can make our names be remembered by many future generations through stories, giving us the opportunity to become immortalized. Although some age-old myths are still read today, such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, other names have been forgotten. This raises the crucially important question as to whether our stories will one day be told. To figure that out, we must first elaborate on how the practice of storytelling (especially the role of media therein) influences the capacity of characters in contemporary stories to be memorable. Many heroes of age-old stories were written about in books and sang about in songs. Conversely, Boorstin (1962) points out that, after the Graphic Revolution, heroes became excessively reported on via more visual media. Nowadays, one can barely remain famous without having (and posting regularly on) a social media account; even pope Francis has his own Instagram account (Stack, 2016). As the stories of today’s potential heroes are told on different media, it is essential to elaborate on the vital role (social) media plays in the capacity of heroic stories to be remembered. This brings us to the following central research question: how does the Graphic Revolution impact humans’ capacity to create heroes in immortalizing myths? I answer this question through a close-reading of Homer’s (1992, 1996) The Iliad and The Odyssey, Prange’s (2008) Why do we need myth?, and by analysing Boorstin’s (1962) The Image. The paper also draws on other works such as Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1997) 1873’ work Untimely Meditations and Alan Goldman’s (2011) The Appeal of the Mystery to elaborate on concepts such as ‘greatness’ and ‘heroic mystery’. I argue that, for a name in an artist’s story to be remembered, one has to be a hero, not a mere celebrity. As I show that the new forms of media that advanced after the Graphic Revolution risks turning heroes into mere celebrities, present-day attempts to create heroic stories will likely be forgotten.


Homer, Prange & myth

To begin with, it is essential to flesh out Prange’s (2008) analysis in more detail. She draws on The Iliad and The Odyssey to provide an answer to the question: why do we need myth? She points out that two characters in Homer’s (1992, 1996) stories, Helen and Alcinous, demonstrate that we suffer so that future generations will remember and tell stories about us so that we may ‘gain existence’. Helen, supposedly the most beautiful woman on earth and mother of the mother of all wars, writes a poem on the Trojan War. Supporting an outburst of Hector (a Trojan commander) against Paris (Hector’s brother who did not fight against the Greeks earlier that day), Helen makes a significant statement: “Zeus planted a killing doom within us both, so even for generations still unborn we will live in song.” (Homer, 1992, pp. 357-358). In other words, Zeus wants humanity to narrate our misfortunes for future generations to be told (Prange, 2008, p. 20). We suffer so that, in the future, humans may express our agony again through linguistic-symbolic expressions. Furthermore, in the Odyssey, Alcinous (king of the Phaeacians) provides us with a similar remark when he responds to Odysseus: “Why do you weep and grieve so sorely when you hear the fate of the Argives, hear the fall of Troy? That is the gods’ work, spinning threads of death through the lives of mortal men, and all to make a song for those to come […]” (Homer, 1996, pp. 577-580). Prange (2008) argues that these passages give us an indication of the task of art. Helen symbolizes the function of storytelling by narrating the fate of the Greeks and Trojans, thereby keeping the memory of war alive. Additionally, Alcinous’ passage demonstrates that storytelling is so important that it justifies human suffering. The task of art is thus to keep the past alive by memorizing past characters and events. Moreover, it also offers resistance against mortality and the threat of dying an anonymous death, i.e., immortalization[1] (Prange, 2008, pp. 24-27). We do not only write stories to be told by future generations, but also because we may therewith exist in fiction, the highest form of existence humans can reach. Humans create heroizing myths in order to avoid being forgotten. To illustrates this latter point more clearly, we now turn to the example of Homer’s (1996) character Odysseus.


Odysseus is a war hero who fought in the Trojan War and is known for being a genuinely great man. He is brilliant, versatile, and known for his cunning intelligence. In Odyssey, Homer (1996) describes Odysseus’ journey home after the Trojan War. Arriving at Phaeacia, Odysseus witnesses Demodocus singing a song about him. Although the inhabitants of Phaeacia were unaware of Odysseus’ presence, his name was widely known, and his fame unparalleled. This makes Odysseus realize that, although he might die one day, his name and story will still be remembered after his death. Eventually, Odysseus himself takes over the role of Demodocus as storyteller, starting when he proclaims: “I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, known to the world for every kind of craft – my fame has reached the skies.” (Homer, 1996, p. 137). Odysseus was not only the main character of a beautiful and great story; he was also a great storyteller himself, illustrating that the way in which stories are told is essential. This is of crucial importance, as we will see later when discussing the role of media in telling stories. Again, Prange (2008) interprets Odysseus’ story as an attempt to, and achievement of, immortalization through the gaining of existence in a fictional story. Recall that she argues humans are storytellers that strive to become part of a (fictional) story, as existence in stories, beautiful myths, can remain even long after death. In other words, Odysseus’ story is the exemplification of possible immortalization through art; he was not only a war hero, but more importantly, a hero in a story. Notably, we have to keep telling these stories. Prange (2008) understands this when she moves from speaking of Odysseus’ ‘international fame’ to his ‘eternal fame’ (p. 27). As Walter Benjamin (1999) puts it: “[…] storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained” (p. 90). This brings us to another important point, namely, that stories that are presently well-known can still be easily forgotten in the future. Therefore, we must emphasize that, if our stories are to gain us existence, they must be remembered and told about by future generations. Prange’s (2008) essay makes clear that ‘fame’ matters. However, we have to investigate in more detail which ‘kind’ of fame can achieve art’s task to create immortalization (i.e., art as memory). If it is true that some kinds of fame are insufficiently memorable, they should be avoided when aiming to create artistic masterpieces. This will be the subject of discussion in the next section.


'What if the development of media takes away the greatness of heroes by turning them into mere celebrities?'


Heroes versus celebrities

Having established that a fundamentally important task of art is immortalization, we can now turn to analyse which stories future generations tend to tell, and which ones will only once be known in the present. To do so, I will compare two forms of famous people: heroes and celebrities. There are good reasons to believe that stories of heroes have the potential to be remembered. In The Image, Boorstin (1962) defines a hero as a person of great deeds. Like Nietzsche (1989), who argues that the exact conditions of greatness are manifold and difficult to comprehend, I adopt a broad perspective on greatness (pp. 74-76). Great figures are enormously diverse, varying from Beethoven, Goethe and Cesare Borgia to characters like the fictional Bluebeard and the great war-hero Odysseus[2] (Hassan, 2017). Although not all heroes become famous, fame was closely connected to the greatness of a person for a long time. As Boorstin (1962) puts it: “A man’s name was not apt to become a household word unless he exemplified greatness in some way or other” (p. 46). The war-hero is the archetype of the mythical hero, for it allowed individuals to do daring, courageous and meaningful acts. Importantly, these heroic figures’ stories are still told generations after their deaths, clearly demonstrating the potential to be remembered. Boorstin (1962) provides two reasons for why heroic myths remain to be told. Firstly, heroes uniquely map onto the human appetite for greatness (Boorstin, 1962, pp. 46-48). Nietzsche (1997) also expresses how important greatness is in Untimely Meditations when he claims that humanity “must work continually at the production of individual great men—that and nothing else is its task […]” (pp. 88-94). True greatness makes one worthy of being remembered. Secondly, Boorstin (1962) speaks of the mysteriousness of historical heroes (p. 46). He argues that the absence of excessive (visual) publicity creates a lack of vividness. Subsequently, this lack of vividness stimulates imagination, allowing readers and third-person observers to polish heroes into aesthetically pleasing, archetypical and memorable characters. Goldman (2011) supports this view when she argues that the aesthetic of mysterious, heroic characters in art is largely due to their capacity to stimulate our imagination. There are undoubtedly also many other reasons for why heroic figures tend to be remembered. Nevertheless, these points do help us clearly distinguish from another group of famous people: celebrities.


In contrast to heroes, celebrities are merely known for their well-knownness (Boorstin, 1962, p. 57). The celebrity industry creates characters to satisfy our desire for human greatness by invoking artificial, human pseudo-events that emulate greatness. I call this: ‘pseudo-greatness’. Unlike heroes, celebrity ‘greatness’ is only a label attached to those who have a unique capacity to capture the attention of the public (Boorstin, 1962, p. 58). Celebrities are primarily known for their personality and capacity to be entertaining. Unlike heroes, celebrities are easily forgotten. They are not memorable enough to be told about by future generations, since celebrities cannot satisfy the human appetite for actual greatness. As they only satisfy shallow, hedonistic and short-term desires, they are easily replaceable by any other person that becomes more entertaining at a given time. For instance, it is unlikely that many future generations will still talk about Kim Kardashian in 500 years, although she has unparalleled, international fame in the present. Moreover, the fact that celebrities are excessively reported on destroys any leftover capacity to being a memorable character. The media reveals celebrities as mere humans, just like us. Excessive (visual) media reporting strips the celebrity away from the possibility of having an enigmatic personality, which is precisely what contributes to the aesthetic beauty that heroic characters do have (Goldman, 2011). As Boorstin (1962) puts it: “They [celebrities] are too vivid, too individual to be polished into a symmetrical Greek statue” (p. 64).


If we want to achieve art’s task to immortalization, we need to realize that only true heroes can be sufficiently memorable; not mere celebrities. In his 1993 poem Ithaca, Joseph Brodsky (2020) provides us with an alternative, tragic scenario of Odysseus’ return, in which nobody recognizes him: “Lose your sweaty rags, you have travelled far, the dead maid cannot recognize your scar. And the one who stayed faithful, as you were told, can’t be found now, having screwed them all.” (para. 1). In Brodsky’s poem, Odysseus is a great figure who is forgotten nonetheless. The rise of celebrities, however, gives a new, more calamitous meaning to this poem. What if the development of media takes away the greatness of heroes by turning them into mere celebrities, and that this is the reason why a contemporary Odysseus might not even be seen as great enough to be remembered? Answering this question requires an analysis of the role the media plays after the Graphic Revolution in the telling of (fictional) stories about heroes and celebrities, which will be discussed in the next section.


The Graphic Revolution’s fallen heroes

So far, we have discussed art as memory, arguing it can give us existence in fiction, helping us overcome the threat of dying an anonymous death. We have also seen that, for stories to be reproduced, we need to be heroic characters and not mere celebrities, for celebrity fame is ephemeral due to its pseudo-greatness and lack of aesthetic beauty. Odysseus’ capacity to be a great storyteller illustrates that it matters how the stories we tell about ourselves are told. I will now show that the rise of contemporary media for storytelling makes it unlikely that today’s heroes will be remembered. I argue that the (social) media that advanced after the Graphic Revolution primarily creates celebrities, leaving barely any space for heroic stories to survive. To understand why this is the case, we have to go back to an earlier age, before the Graphic Revolution. Before that period, the heroes of stories were primarily written, talked and sang about in texts (e.g., admiring biographies, novels or history books), folklores and songs (Boorstin, 1962, p. 63). These media forms were compatible with the expression of the greatness of heroes, and heroes were at the same time not excessively reported on, allowing them to live, die, and be remembered as heroes.


'As celebrities lack the ability to be remembered, attempts to creating heroizing stories using contemporary media will not gain us immortalization'


Conversely, a rupture occurred during the Graphic Revolution, which started in the middle of the 19th century. Due to revolutionary, technological developments, it became cheaper to print books and magazines, making them widely available to the public (Garber, 2016, para. 8). It was also the period in which the first photographs and videos were produced (Jarus, 2017). This development culminated in the primacy of the image, a cultural adherence to a distorted yet more interesting depiction of reality as provided visually by the media (Garber, 2016, para. 5). Not surprisingly, this was the same time when the first use of the word ‘celebrity’ came up (in 1848). The development of (daily) magazines and newspapers, and later photos, movies and television screens, created the celebrity – unlike the hero, the celebrity was born in the daily papers[3]. As a result, different requirements for becoming famous emerged. Instead of greatness, the people with the capacity to attract any kind of attention became the ones the public became familiar with (via the media). Consequently, the stories of heroes struggled to reach fame in the first place. Their stories became overshadowed by the daily reports on celebrities. A contemporary Odysseus would be left in the shade by other (more advertised) fictional stories, e.g. the one about Robert Downey Jr. dying a pseudo-heroic death as Iron Man in the Avenger movies. The stories that are reported on are only those that generate maximum attention; the media does not consider the capacity of stories to be remembered long into the future. When image-driven advertising became modernized, public conversation and speculation steered even more towards attention-seeking celebrities. The most marketable (not heroic) characters ended up being reported on by the media in our attention economy. Although heroes might do great things, they remain unrecognized and eventually forgotten if there is nobody to pay attention to their stories in the first place. Nowadays, contemporary heroes are still overshadowed by celebrities who aim to constantly capture attention, for example, by making excessive use of social media (Van Krieken, 2018).


Admittedly, heroes can imitate the celebrities’ strategy by capturing attention (e.g., by posting stories regularly on social media) in addition to doing heroic and great deeds, creating a celebrity-hero hybrid. However, Boorstin (1962) shows (contemporary) heroes who portray their great deeds by seeking the press, radio, television and nowadays social media risk transforming into mere celebrities. The visual media that arose after the Graphic Revolution casts doubt on the reality of ‘actual’ heroic, great deeds, challenging greatness by showing the human imperfections of heroes (instead of portraying heroes as Gods, as Homer did). Admiring, textual stories/biographies are replaced by gossip magazines that try to uncover every imperfection of today’s hero. Notwithstanding that several attempts to construe memorable heroes through more visual media are still made (e.g., the fascists trying to heroize strong, Arian men in Olympia[4]), Boorstin (1962) is generally right that celebrities/movie stars have mainly won the battle for fame after the Graphic Revolution (Barber, 2016). The recent rise of social media immensely aggravates this problem. Posting on social media has nowadays become an essential tool for becoming famous (Alsem, 2017). Whereas the hero needs to capture attention consistently in today’s society to become famous in the first place, it is exactly the absence of ceaseless exposure that makes the hero interesting enough to be remembered (Boorstin, 1962, p. 64; Goldman, 2011). Contemporary media challenge the ‘greatness’ of heroes, but the attention that heroes need to obtain to remain relevant also takes away the mysterious aesthetic surrounding the textualized hero. A potential hero posting vigorously on social media is like a beautiful woman becoming a cheap prostitute. In today’s society, we either die as unrecognized heroes, or the attention we seek turns us into mere celebrities.


Although we can write about heroes in books exclusively, it is unlikely that heroes will become famous without using other media as well; other celebrities will simply outcompete them in the race to fame. In a culture dominated by the image, attention-baiting and hedonism, we worship celebrities rather than heroes. Of course, it might be true that some rare heroic stories are strong enough to survive the challenges today’s media brings with it. Nevertheless, contemporary media brings with it a significant risk: the loss of many fallen heroes. Contemporary (social) media either makes that heroes get overshadowed by celebrities, or turn into celebrities themselves. This makes apparent the ineffectualness of using social media to create stories to heroize ourselves in an attempt to satisfy our longing for the eternal. Social media cannot turn us into famous heroes. Apart from the fact that many never become famous in the first place, the only fame that can be gained by sharing one’s story in an attempt to heroize oneself on such platforms is the fame of a celebrity. As only heroes have the potential to be remembered, social media cannot help us gain immortalization. Recall that Benjamin (1999) demonstrates storytelling is about repeating stories, an art that is lost when stories are no longer retained; when there is no more weaving and spinning to go on. I would add that, whereas Odysseus’ story was woven by a strong wool that can last for ages, the stories on social media are made out of a thin, easily shreddable gauze. All this leads us to believe that there is a fundamentally tragic dimension to art as memory, considering the dominance of contemporary forms of media. Art’s task to immortalize us is hampered to a crucial extent, for immortalization through heroization is almost out of reach with the rise of the celebrity. As Boorstin (1962) puts it: “As never before in art it has become easy for the great [read: pseudo-great], the famous, and the cliché to be synonymous” (p. 126). Either we die as unrecognized heroes, or we will hopelessly fail attempting to heroize ourselves using contemporary (social) media; as the only fame we may reach is that of a celebrity, it cannot gain us lasting existence in fictional stories. We must realize that the songs we sing are no longer about Odysseus’ great deeds. The only songs that are sung are those of self-made social media ‘artists’ who fail to see that being ‘self-made’ no longer require greatness in today’s society.


Conclusion

We have seen that one of the vital tasks of art is to memorize the past and thereby to gain existence in a fictional story. Humanity seeks therein immortalization, as our stories might one day be told by future generations. Subsequently, I argued that a process of remembering could only be obtained if we are seen as heroes; those who do great deeds. Celebrities might be famous, but their pseudo-greatness and lack of aesthetic beauty make them easily replaceable and forgettable. However, the development of (audio-visual) media after the Graphic Revolution makes that celebrities dominate the stories we create (Boorstin, 1962). Either celebrities overshadow heroes (leaving heroic stories unrecognized), or heroes degrade into celebrities themselves when trying to keep up with the attention-economy: our fallen heroes. As celebrities lack the ability to be remembered, attempts to creating heroizing stories using contemporary media will not gain us immortalization.


Notes [1] Prange (2008) also argues that the task of art is to bring oblivion next to comfort against the inevitable suffering and misery of life. Art can help us face misery by turning it into joyful stories, and it can take us to oblivion by making us forget about our worries. This is illustrated in a different passage of Homer’s (1992) work, in which Helen creates a drug that makes people forget about their pain. As I focus on the task of art to help us memorize past events and resist the threatening anonymity of death, I will not further elaborate on art’s capacity to bring oblivion.

[2] The dominance of male names should not be interpreted as suggesting that only males can be great persons. It simply represents the historical fact that most of the great people who also became famous were men.

[3] Some authors, such as Lilti (2017), argue celebrities were first created with the rise of the printing press, newspapers and advertising. Others place the birth of celebrities later, during the rise of audio-visual media (Gamson, 1994). I do not enter this debate in this essay. My goal is, instead, merely to illustrate that the Graphic Revolution shifted the requirements for attracting fame.

[4] Even Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi’s propaganda minister, had to insist that cameras be switched off at certain moments, since African-Americans beating the Germans at the Olympics challenged the heroization of Germans (Barber, 2016). Conversely, in today’s society, all cameras can no longer be turned off as almost everyone has a smartphone.


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