George Mason Univ. economist Cowen presents an unpersuasively optimistic look at the alleged benefits attendant upon the
commercialization of fame.
The cult of celebrity is ascendant, but is it all bad? Doesn’t fame, asks Cowen, goad artists and scientists and politicians to
reach higher and take the kinds of risks that ultimately enrich all our lives? And isn't there enough capital in the star machine
to fuel diversity as it seeks a profit, encouraging a thousand flowers to bloom, especially when there is not a consensus who is
the top petunia? It is a small price to pay, this adoration, for a big payback from the performer, though Cowen neglects to address
the high costs—of clothing and assorted accoutrements—that come with fandom. Cowen certainly makes clear the uncoupling
of fame from merit and virtue—"commercialized fame, by directing fame away from moral merit, frees ideas of virtue from the
cult of personality"—but he doesn't make a compelling case for why that’s such a good idea, despite his contention that
commercialization produces "a greater quantity and diversity of fame." Certainly most contemporary artists, for all their diversity,
continue mostly to eke out a living, although technology has increased their potential audience. Cowen tries to spark sympathy
for stars, who can lose their creativity along with their privacy, or worse yet "lose themselves by pursuing the adoration of the
masses," but that’s a plea that doesn't play even in Peoria. Too often, Cowen's writing—"many of the costs of fame fall on the
famous. . . . It is the star who is alienated under capitalism, not necessarily the workers"—inane and downright foolish enough
to undercut the provocation of his other comments on the state of fame in today's world.
Cowen never mounts a convincing argument that celebrity worship has a trickle-down effect, democratizing paybacks for
those who find their muse.