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HOME > PAST ISSUE > May-June 2002 > Article Detail

MARGINALIA

Dinosaurs, the Media and Andy Warhol

Keith Thomson

History will no doubt record Andy Warhol as a major 20th century artist. One of Warhol's "gifts" was to make everything with which he was associated—his work, his friends, his life—appear cheap and shallow. If he set out to irritate and confuse, then he certainly succeeded. In the process he mocked us and, above all, himself. Warhol will also be famous for his pronouncement, now nothing less than a curse, that in the future everyone will have the chance to be famous for 15 minutes.

All successful artists have to be showmen, it seems. Mozart and Chopin were no shrinking violets. They would have adored television unless, like those fabled old silent-screen movie stars, they had been betrayed by squeaky voices or uncouth accents. Today, although technical virtuosity is still a necessary condition for success as a solo musician, charisma is almost equally important; hence all the CD covers featuring female classical violinists in revealing clothing, or little at all. All the more reason, then, to admire the steadily nonglamorous types, such as the pianist Alfred Brendel, who let their music talk for them.

Perhaps, in a modern-day version of Faustus, those 15 minutes of fame form a contract with the devil, granted through the agency of the media, who are a fickle-enough ally in the best of times. At a recent London film premiere, the Hollywood stars wandered unnoticed into the theater while journalists gathered like flies around two recent participants in a television program called "Big Brother." Well, a plague on both their houses, we might say. Except that the rot is spreading. Getting oneself noticed by the press and especially by television, if only for 15 minutes, has infected the one field where, in a perfect world, people would be immune to cheap blandishments and hew strictly to a line of puritan truth and detachment. Fat chance, of course, when we are talking about science!

The "boffins" of World War II made science glamorous, as did the late Christian Barnard, pioneer heart surgeon. German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt and English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley had already perfected the art a century earlier, however, and I have no doubt that Charles Darwin worked long and diligently, if quietly, at his "Saint Charles" image. But perhaps nowhere have scientists pursued an often too-transient fame further than in paleontology, and particularly with respect to dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are God's gift to television and the newspapers, just as science fiction is the lifeblood of the supermarket tabloids. Tyrannosaurs and little green men—sure winners, both.








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