"People who need people/are the luckiest people in the world/We're children, needing other children/and letting our grown-up pride/hide all the need inside/acting more like children/than children."
MAYBE THE song was ahead of its time. At any rate, we of the 70s seem to be needing "people" like crazy. As any parsing of our media would suggest (present company not excepted), "people" and personalities are the dominant theme of our popular culture at the present moment.
In the arts, the syndrome takes two forms, primarily: the deification and worship of stars, superstars and ultrastars, on the one hand; and an insistence, on the other, that the artist do only his or her "own thing," i.e., not be a slave to tradition or precedent, not be an imitator, but instead assert a sharply defined, individual personality.
A few weeks ago The New Yorker ran a clever funny, very New Yorkerish piece called "Whose Who?", by Roy Blount Jr. It was subtitled "A People-Item Journalist Takes on the History of Mankind." In style, content and format, it's a parody (a la New Yorker, not National Lampoon) of the "People" or "Persons-in-the-News" columns that have spread like spotted fever through the nation's newspapers. As you may have heard, the hugely successful weekly magazine in this model is about to be joined by a network TV show of the same name and species.
On the printed page, Blount's story looks exactly like such a column. The "items" are clustered into short paragraphs, separated by the blank lines journalists call "white space"; every proper name is highlighted in bold-face type. The self-parody extends also to the prose style. Charlemagne, for instance, is referred to as "the Holy Roman Empire's new head." The entries run amok through the ages - waspish notes about Hammurabi, Napoleon, Trotsky, Freud and on down to Amy Carter.
Here and there, however, Blount temporarily exists from the parody to address the reader in the author's own voice.
"And have you noticed that 'the people' went out as 'people' came in? Bringing with it 'people issues,' the kind of person who describes himself as 'a people person,' the expression 'He's good people,' and the neutron bomb?
"Or have I lost you already? Has your attention span been brought to this - that it can no longer take in more than thirty-five words without a name and a slug of white space"
The observation is more than merely snide. It invokes the motivation for the whole phenomenon. This "people" thing is the paper world's answer to TV's endless parade of faces, and the encapsulization of personality. What the print journalists seem to have lost sight of, however, or ceased caring about, is the tremendous sacrifice of content required by this adaptation of TV syntax.
On television, we see a person whole. The appearance may be brief, the exchange of words vacuous, but the audiovisual imagery is "global" in its impact. We get looks, expression, tone of voice, inflection, rhythm and the chemistry of interpersonal interaction, all at a glance. Most of this is sheared away in print (even when accompanied by still photographs), and the complexity of the imagery is reduced to a skimpy, linear "item" or gossipy tidbit.
"The people" went out as "people" came in. In a nutshell, it's the stylistic difference between the '60s and the '70s. The '60s was an era of many divisions, to be sure. But the division existed mostly between large groups or movements. Within the groups there prevailed an urgent sense of togetherness, to use a catchword of the era - a sense of common cause and interest. And though each movement may have had as many opponents as adherents, each still seemed informed by a vision of the possibility of universal fellowship. The great mass rallies and protest gatherings of the '60s cut across all sorts of barriers of age, race and socio-economic condition.
In the '70s, by contrast, we seem to have cloistered ourselves up into one-person cubbyholes, with everyone seeking a unique, personal brand of self-fulfillment. The groups that persist are mostly tightly contained "interest groups," sharing one very specific concern but not necessarily much else, organized around a particular issue, and often exclusionary by nature - the gay liberationists, the women's righters, the right-to-lifers, the proposition 13ers, and so on. Even these are at least groups, but the spotlight of national attention seems really to be centered on people as separate, individual entitles, apart from any community liaisons - you and me, mostly me. "People," not "the people."
The arts have been reflecting this in odd ways. The only discernible general trend in the arts of the '70s, apart from the continuing nostalgia binge, has been toward a bland, anonymous eclecticism. It sounds like a contradiction of the personality cult. If all of us want only to do our own thing and be our own selves, shouldn't we be witnessing a relentless push toward originality?
Instead, it's the opposite which is happening. We get plays that are mixtures of Tennessee Williams, Pinter and George S. Kauffman; choreography that fuses ballet, ballroom and tap; and music derivative of so many sources at once it's impossible to sort them out. Very, very little that could be called genuinely or significantly original has appeared on the artistic horizon in quite some time.
In the past, any truly new avenue of expression has always implied the possibility of a new universality. Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone method was a highly individual musical vehicle for Schoenberg, as Samuel Beckett's absurdist drama was for him, and Merce Cunningham's dissociative dance forms were for him. But each of them opened rich new veins of discovery for whole bands of artistic explorers who tracked their revolutionary steps. Each spawned legions of disciples - together they became "movements," and inevitably they attracted partisans and followers.
It is almost as if today's eclecticism - the faceless, polymorphous form in which art reaches us in the '70s - were a subconscious effort to insure against any such widespread rallying around any one banner.
The indiscriminate blending of styles we keep encountering almost cancels out the very idea of style, of identifiable profile. The wholesale eclecticism has the effect of keeping the public in dispersed ranks, unaffiliated in artistic interests or preferences. And rather than being a contradiction of personality worship, perhaps this is just the other side of the same coin. The personalities which generate and receive national attention these days are too quickly and special to spark movements, and their originality is based not on any force of ideas or creative fertility, but on personal tics and antics.
Besides, no one wants to be like anyone else, today. In the present atmosphere, it's a disgrace to be a follower - it means you're no longer just you. Even the "clone army" - those rock-and-rollers who've undergone plastic surgery to resemble their '60s heroes - wants to replace, not just emulate, its idols.
If this diagnosis is accurate, then we are faced with a mighty strange state of affairs - the paradoxical end result of individualism gone berserk. What this portends for our esthetic future is hard to say, but our present apparent fervor for "people" and personalities may be masking a profound alienation among us, a distrust which denies us common attachment and ideals, and leaves us instead with a pretense that isolation is something to be cultivated, even celebrated. It's something to think about the next time you pick up a copy of People magazine, or the next time you go to a concert or a theater to experience something supposedly new in the arts.