Have you ever seen Michelangelo’s “David” in person? It’s milkier than you’d expect, and also smaller (always smaller) than you believed it to be from art history books. It’s strangely anti-climactic to absorb the sculpture with your own two eyes, similar to the way the Mona Lisa isn’t as thrilling as its omnipresence across the world should confirm. The David is no doubt a magnificent work of craftsmanship, but the one truth about art that they never tell you in school is that, well, most of the best works of art never actually change. You could see The David in 2005 and then again in 2050 and, barring any major catastrophic event, it’d look the same. It is beautiful and consistent, and its control over us is universal. Do we love The David because it’s beautiful? Or do we love him because he always stays the same?
Selena Gomez will probably get a chance to see Michelangelo’s David more times in her life than any of us, and in almost every occasion, the public will know she’s there, eye-to-eye with the carved slab of marble all over again. In January, the teen actress-turned-pop star visited the Galleria dell’Accademia, the place where The David finds his home, with her rumored paramour Abel Tesfaye (aka The Weeknd). The world knew the couple was there, they knew they had seen The David, they knew (or at least thought they knew) that the two pop stars were now an item. What we don’t know is how the couple enjoyed “The Birth of Venus,” or the Duomo, or The David, but surely, they, too, were overcome by the consistency of its presentation, the familiarity in its form. For the same reasons we still take pictures of the Eiffel Tower, we love to see our stars doing the things we do, admiring the things we admire. We are soothed by predictability.
Only half a year before Gomez and Tesfaye took in The David, Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston kissed dramatically on top of the Colosseum, another familiar feat of craftsmanship. A slightly bigger one than The David, of course, but a masterpiece of architecture – a relic that refuses to go unseen. As is typical for Swift, she and her new boyfriend were photographed a dozen or more times on their romantic stroll through Rome, the familiar sights posing as their backdrop. The couple had already been confirmed (through an overwrought make out session on the craggy seaside of Rhode Island), but the photoshoot gave us what we craved: two beautiful people, embracing in one of the world’s most romantic cities, in front of a stunning page from our history books. The rules of quickness and access to celebrities have changed over the years – the more immediate, the more saturated, the more controlled, the better – but the consumers’ desire remains simple. You tell the story, and we’ll decide if we believe it.
The celebrities of yesteryear had less opportunity to shape the public narrative. Clara Bow, an actress who helped to define the Hollywood landscape in 57 films, was long the fodder of innumerable ‘screaming’ through her headlines. In 1930 Bow was the victim of blackmail from a former assistant, but taking the blackmail at its word, the press salaciously accused her of running a sordid “Chinese Den” from her Beverly Hills home. As Kenneth Anger breathlessly relates in Hollywood Babylon: “poor gregarious Clara took on Trojans by the bunch. She’d play party girl to the entire ‘Thundering Herd’ (crack University of Southern California football team) during beery, brawling, gangbanging, weekend parties.” While Bow was certainly friendly with the team and socialized with them, the rumors of orgies were easily dispelled from eye-witness accounts. Indeed the lawsuit revealed that the assistant was also guilty of embezzlement and was subsequently sent to jail.
Although an improvement from the past, social media has made hiding and maintaining control difficult for celebrities. The mega-famous like Beyoncé are known to share geo-tagged Instagrams days after having been at that location, to prevent swarms of fans from turning up where she is. The same strategy is employed by celebrities who want to shape their own visual narrative. Taylor Swift, in all her complicated, complicit feminism, is known for staging photo ops like the one with Hiddleston in Rome or with Calvin Harris on a pool float or Jake Gyllenhaal on a blustery fall day in New York. Selena Gomez, in her budding relationship with The Weeknd, has proven that she is also talented at employing this tactic to her advantage. It’s always better – no matter the story – to get in front of it. These young women are defying the expectation that they must act a certain way, be a certain way. As long as they’re telling the story, we’re listening.
Like The David, we have always felt entitled to a certain level of steadiness from our female pop singers, celebrities, and stars. There are a set of rules and guidelines by which they must abide, and breaking them, attempting to twist them, or control them for the sake of the woman’s happiness, is uncomfortable for most to accept. Who let that woman unabashedly date several men over the course of a few months? Who told that woman shamelessness about sex and her body was allowed? Since when can women be players and heartbreakers and breadwinners?
The press in Clara Bow’s day felt sufficiently outraged at Bow’s (dubiously alleged) liberty to spend three weeks in 1931 publishing a series of articles in the Coast Reporter accusing her of everything from bestiality, to public exhibitions, venereal disease, alcoholism, incest, and drug addiction. The publisher offered to stop only on receipt of $25,000. Bow’s capacity to defend herself and change her location in the public eye was reliant on a hostile media with significant incentive in whipping up scandal.
Relative to Bow’s experience it’s difficult to overstate how rapidly social media has changed everything, from celebrity to art to politics to even our own understanding of ourselves. For several years – in the shaky early aughts – consumers lacked the security to know how to interpret the new onslaught of images hitting our brains. Would having such unlimited access to someone like Taylor Swift or Beyoncé or Katy Perry make us desire to see them less? Would their relative consistency and their unfaltering commitment to our consumption be compromised? When Miley Cyrus began dating Stella Maxwell, who then began dating Kristen Stewart, who had previously been dating St. Vincent, who had previously been dating Cara Delevingne, we suffered from whiplash, but we didn’t turn away. These new rules – and this newly fast pace – are making our celebrities smarter, more confident. They’re ahead of us, and we’ll keep watching.
Has hundreds of years of unchangingness made us any less likely to visit The David at his home in Florence? Has the sheer abundance of imagery, presenting the notorious sculpture from every angle – upwards, downwards, backwards, in digital cross-sections – made us any less convinced of the necessity to admire the sculpture in real life? Not at all. With the rise of social media, our female celebrities only got smarter and sharper about the ways they distilled and distributed their images. Our social mores might be loosening and becoming less muzzling for the women we put on display, but it’s hard to say which came first: the dominance of social media or these young women’s savvier decision-making and storytelling. After all, if Taylor Swift kisses her new beau on the beach in Monaco, and we aren’t there to see it, did it even happen?
Written by Dayna Evans
Photography by Jim Turner