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19 June 2024

Hero worship has become yet another source of anxiety

We long for our artists and leaders to be real people – and then we punish them for it.

By Tracey Thorn

I’ve just been on a short holiday with Ben, and as usual I took with me a relaxing beach read. Ben caught sight of me on my sunbed, my brow furrowed with concentration and disapproval and asked, “What on Earth are you reading?” It was Claire Dederer’s Monsters: What Do We Do With Great Art by Bad People? – an exploration of how we deal with the art-monster problem. I was frowning because I was deep into the horrors wrought by the likes of Picasso, Polanski and Michael Jackson. What do we do, the book asks, with art we love when we learn about the creators’ terrible secrets?

I was most struck by her point that it is now more or less impossible to avoid knowing about these secrets. Once we had to seek out biographical details of artists, but now we cannot escape them. “The problem is,” Dederer writes, “we don’t get to control how much we know about someone’s life. It’s something that happens to us… This movement toward knowingness began with the birth of mass media, grew in the last century, and has flowered in our moment… Biography used to be something you sought out, yearned for, actively pursued. Now it falls on your head all day long.”

I recognise this as being very true of the period when she and I were younger, back in the Seventies and Eighties, when it was hard to find out anything about artists. We could fall in love with bands, for instance, while knowing nothing about them, and we pieced together snippets of info from reviews and articles in the music press, liner notes on album sleeves, the odd photo here and there. It meant there was a kind of innocence to our responses. We had no idea what these people were actually like, how they might behave in real life, what they might think about certain things.

Now, of course, we know everything. “It seems impossible to shake work loose from biography,” says Dederer. “We swim in biography; we are sick with biography.”

I thought about how when we see one of our favourites trending on Twitter/X, we immediately have a sense of dread. There are only two possibilities: either they have died or done something unspeakable. The threat of disillusionment is ever present, and we are ever alert. It means that we exist now in a state of anxiety about our idols. We almost fear to love them too much. At any moment they might be revealed as a monster, and we will feel tainted, somehow complicit in their behaviour. We should have known better, we tell ourselves. Won’t make that mistake again.

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Thinking all this was what was making me frown. I put the book down for a moment and glanced at my phone, which was full of election news from home. And here too was that same emphasis on biography or personality. Two stories were doing the rounds on Twitter: Keir Starmer going on too much about his dad being a toolmaker, and Rishi Sunak describing his deprived Sky-free childhood. Both stories were being mined for laughs, and were objectively funny – I could see that. But it left me wondering what the point is of all this detail, all this knowledge. What it does to us, and to politics.

I’m sure it makes the candidates more defensive, more secretive, and more false. They look like people who have constructed an exterior with which to face the world, a shell to protect and conceal themselves, even while they apparently confide in us the truth of who they are. And who can blame them.

It’s a trap, and we are all caught in it. We long for our artists and our leaders to be real, while making it impossible for them to be so. Sometimes I feel that being in the public eye these days is no job for a human.

One of our kids was working in a pub recently. Keir Starmer came in and ordered that most centrist of drinks, a medium Sauvignon Blanc. “I poured him a large one,” they told me later. “He looked like he needed it.” Right now, I think we all do.

[See also: I’ve lost weight. Why do I find that so hard to admit?]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation