Quick -- what do you do when things get too complicated? Usually we look for a simple way to explain them to ourselves. That's what tabloid newspapers are for...what television soundbites are for...and back in the days what Cliff Notes were for. Lets admit it, the human brain is wired to find the most efficient way it can through any thicket of facts that gets in its way.
Nobody has to tell you we live in complicated times.The promised electronic Global Village has arrived with a mighty vengeance. More facts and stats and books and films and discoveries and technologies than have ever before been seen by our species. So what do we do? We simplify! We look for the simplest summary we can in whatever headline or captioned photo or personality we find handy.
Ahh yes, the cult of personality is alive and well.
For instance, when you think the UK you think its eloquent Oxford-sounding prime minister. When you think Germany, its dour-faced female PM comes to mind. Russia? Its Cold War-faced president. China? Well, there we tend to see hordes of regimented Chinese like we remember from the military display at their Olympics. And yet none of these faces are the real heart of the story. Anymore than your well-remembered and/or well-resented class president and homecoming queen are the real heart of the story of your high school days.
And yet this same shortcut way of remembering and looking at large complicated subjects is true in other ways as well. Sports, films, computers. Notice how with each of these trigger-words some powerful personality comes to mind. Michael Jordan, Stephen Spielberg, Steve Jobs. It's the over-taxed brain's way of getting a handle on what is otherwise too large and complicated to easily fathom.
Even historians sometimes use this same strategy as when they still like to talk about the Great Man Theory [seeing the times as bending and changing according to the will of some powerful figure like Napoleon, Hitler, Churchill].
The arts are no exception to this rule. Notice how from Hollywood to Broadway, what sells are the big names. Give your audience a headliner like Al Pacino, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Chastain or Tom Cruise, and you've got yourself a critic-proof hit at the box office.
Is this personality-cult way of seeing our world good or bad...? That's not the issue. Good or bad, it simply is. Once you start admitting it, that may be the first step in trying to manage it.
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