There's more -- or less -- to the new television show called "Fame" than at first is apparent. At the most immediate level, as The Washington Post's TV critic Tom Shales has pointed out, it is marvelous entertainment: intelligently written, crisply directed, ebulliently acted. At last there is something worth watching on Thursday evening, heretofore the great Sahara.
Yet, at a deeper level, there is an emptiness at the core of "Fame" that-- unless it is filled in future episodes -- prevents the program from rising above the level of professionally executed diversion. "Fame" does not have a point of view toward the subject that gives the show its name. Unlike "M*A*S*H," which draws its controlling intelligence from its anger at warfare and military orthodoxy, "Fame" betrays no uneasiness or skepticism over a prevailing system of values -- or lack of values -- in which fame, or celebrity, is mistaken for accomplishment.
The performing-arts students who are the show's principal characters want to be famous. Period. They want to be written up in People magazine, to be interviewed by Barbara Walters, to star in beer commercials. But there is little evidence that any of them -- not even that blond, corn-fed, maddeningly sincere cellist -- is genuinely concerned about achieving artistic distinction. The actors are aiming to be Travolta, not Olivier; the musicians are shooting for Manilow, not Ellington. Their desire to be known is far greater than their desire to excel.
Yet it must be admitted, on their behalf, that in this yearning they merely reflect our culture -- not merely our popular culture, which has always had its eye on the main chance, but also our "high" culture. The lure of sitting at the right hand of Johnny Carson has become as great as the lure of the almighty dollar. In show business, in the arts, in writing -- and heaven knows in politics -- glitter counts for more than substance. People want their 15 minutes in Andy Warhol's limelight more than they want recognition for the breadth and depth of their achievements. They are content, as was once said of some noted nonentity, to be famous for being famous.
This perhaps is to be expected in the performing arts, in which a healthy ego -- a desire for intense individual acclaim -- helps drive a performer's career. But it is remarkable, and depressing, that it has become prevalent in the creative arts as well. It is not especially surprising that the talented flutist James Galway, having been granted a whiff of fame, now makes recordings of fatuous music composed by the likes of John Denver, and appears on television playing the role of self-styled leprechaun. But what is to be said of the writers Jerzy Kosinski and Norman Mailer, who of late have taken to performing in motion pictures; what does this have to do with art?
Nothing, of course. It has to do with a syndrome in which the artist has become more important than his art -- and in which art is thereby debased. In our culture Mailer's appearances on film -- not to mention his appearances in the gossip columns -- count for more than his articles and books; and his writing of the past decade or so suggests that he has come to feel the same way himself -- though to his credit he does struggle on in his effort to write the "great" novel that he imagines to be his destiny.
The temptations to join the celebrity hunt are terrific. The most basic of them is simply that vast amounts of money are to be made, not only from the sales of one's work but also from the lecture-and-seminar circuit, from guest appearances of various kinds, and even, if you are John Cheever, from commercial endorsements. Equally great is the temptation of recognition: not recognition of one's work, but of one's self. Lillian Hellman, gazing imperiously from the Blackgama advertisements, is an emblematic figure of our time: a writer so famous that she does not need to be identified.
What a contrast she and her contemporaries pose to Emily Dickenson, hiding her life's work in a box. Or Henry David Thoreau, off in his cabin. Or Willa Cather, setting in her literary estate enormous obstacles to the biographer seeking out her deepest secrets. Or William Faulkner, keeping to himself at his ramshackle Mississippi home place.
In 1944 Faulkner entered into a lengthy correspondence with Malcolm Cowley, who was editing what eventually would be "The Portable Faulkner," the book that brought Faulkner out of obscurity and set him on the path toward the reputation he now enjoys. Faulkner was eager to cooperate with Cowley, but loath to provide a biography: ". . . I think that if what one has thought and hoped and endeavored and failed at is not enough, if it must be explained and excused by what he has experienced, done or suffered, while he was not being an artist, then he and the one making the evaluation have both failed." Later he added: "What I have written is of course in the public domain and the public is welcome; what I ate and did and when and where, is my own business."
A few years later, after he had received the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, Faulkner had little choice; the author as well as his work had been dragged into the public domain --though, and this is important, because of the brilliance of the work, not because of the manipulations and contrivances of the author. That Faulkner enjoyed the financial rewards this brought to him is unquestionable; for the first time in his life he had the wherewithal to allow himself the creature comforts he most emphatically enjoyed. But he was never at ease with his fame, however much he felt his work deserved it; at public occasions he was edgy, withdrawn, quiet -- and often, by means of easing his passage, pickled.
Today, by contrast, creative artists in unseemly numbers race to embrace their adoring public and the brass rings it offers. The covers of Time and Newsweek, five minutes on "Good Morning America," a prominent table at Regine's, a Rolex or Blackgama commercial -- these are the new icons of success. Instead of admiring J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon for their fierce, stubborn reclusiveness, our giddy culture dismisses them as loonies. They've got to be nuts, hiding themselves somewhere in the boondocks when they could be baring their souls to Phil Donahue or greeting the day with Jane Pauley.
To be sure: People are entitled to seek fame and society is entitled to award it. But let's quit pretending that fame, as it is now portioned out, is anything more substantial than mere celebrity. We are talking, perhaps, about the difference between aspiration and ambition. The former, as here defined, is the hope of accomplishing something at least worthwhile and perhaps noble; one aspires to write a good poem or compose a pleasing prelude. The latter, again as here defined, is the naked pursuit of wealth, power and notoriety; one is ambitious to be famous.
This latter is what "Fame" is all about. What a pity that the people who have put the show together, people who are talented and attractive, don't seem to see through to this -- that they think fame is in and of itself worthwhile. But that's show business. That's also, alas, America.