Why bother with celebrity artists?

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Why is it that, as a society, we seem to assume that talent in one artistic sphere will naturally lend itself to another? This question is most relevant when considering the recent trend of celebrities involving themselves with the art world. While it has always been common for notable public figures to acquire art collections, it is a recent phenomenon for them to seek to produce works of their own.

With highly varying commercial and critical success, celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash and Ronnie Wood have turned their hands to painting. London’s West End galleries are full of prints by such figures, none of them affordably priced. Indeed, some Ronnie Wood lithographs have price tags of over £3,000. For that price one could acquire a couple of Joan Miró prints.

When examining this trend, it is, however, important not to dismiss such painters out of hand, due to the assumption that their talent is necessarily consigned to only one artistic sphere. Bob Dylan, for example, has had his work exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery where it garnered a great deal of praise. While there can always be found critics keen to deride such figures’ efforts, this is not a viewpoint that one should necessarily immediately adopt.

Instead, one must question why such figures are increasingly drawn to the art world. Although amateur painting has a long tradition, it is likely that the first true ‘celebrity’ painter was Sir Winston Churchill. A prolific artist throughout his life, it was only after the Second World War, and the accompanying admiration from a grateful nation, that his paintings truly gained in popularity and became highly prized. It is within this example that the reason for why celebrities are becoming artists can be found.

Art has become the newest, most highly prized collectable. In the Victorian era, hair was collected. A lock of hair from, say, the Duke of Wellington was the most desirable collectable possible. To have such an item on display in one’s home was an indication of the owner’s prestige, wealth and, by proxy, the attributes of the person from which it came. This now applies to art. While Sylvester Stallone’s paintings may be highly appreciated by some, it is principally collected because its creator is an iconic figure. To those who, for whatever reasons, admire Stallone, such an item is a further indication of the respect they afford him while, in turn, an acquisition of prestige from ownership. It‘s certainly a strange kind of prestige.

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