Finally, America has identified the person who’s responsible for the pickle it’s in – Hilaria Baldwin.
It says something about the country that there have been only two overwhelmingly covered stories coming out of the United States since Christmas – 250-year-old experiment in democracy imperilled; and C-list New Englander talks like Charo.
Baldwin, the wife of actor Alec, was recently outed as more of an Iberian enthusiast rather than an actual Spaniard, an impression she cultivated in her media appearances. Baldwin went as far as inflecting her English with a Spanish accent. She was, in fact, born and raised in Boston.
Now, who among us has not learned there is a country called X, fallen for the culture of X, learned the language and customs of X, bought a bunch of stuff from X, started to talk like they’re from X, and finally allowed other people believe they are a native of X?
In my own case, that country was Star Wars. I stopped short of doing Wookiee cooking classes on the Today show, but the same principle applies.
If there is a crime here, it is a poverty of criminal ambition. Baldwin saw an angle to buff the edges of her image. She took it. It worked (to a highly debatable point).
By “worked,” that means she “starred” on TV and “wrote” a book. Most of her accomplishments are the sort that require quotation marks.
She gave some interviews, walked some red carpets and did all the things I assume every New Yorker in a certain tax bracket does on the regular.
Now Baldwin’s trying to reframe the story in a way that introduces a hero (herself) rescuing a victim (also, herself). What’s more mom and apple pie than that?
Baldwin is the 21st-century American par excellence. Even moreso, she is the perfected 21st century American artist.
Her art is nothing, but it is constant. Typically, she’s doing it every day on Instagram (someone recently credited her with pioneering the pregnant-lingerie selfie). Baldwin’s canvas is her own life, which is a generous way of saying she has turned tedium into a business.
Less than a generation ago, someone this thirsty would have been largely ignored, even pitied. Whatever renown she had would not have got any further than the participants of her Pilates class.
But technology has given her and everyone else levers of immense power. If the media mountain will not come to these Muhammads, they will happily go to it.
Baldwin and her ilk – influencers, TikTok obsessives, self-published conspiracy theorists, your demented uncle who will not stop posting on Facebook – are part of the largest, if least ambitious, school of artists in western history.
They work in no particular tradition, but have narcissism in common. They must be seen or heard or both. Constantly and without discretion. That is the only end in what they do. The vast majority don’t expect to be paid with money, but rather, attention. They don’t care if they’re understood. The goal here is not two-way communication. Their radio is stuck on transmit.
They fascinate, in the same way that someone sitting alone and weeping in a coffee shop fascinates. You don’t want to stare, but you can’t help yourself.
It’s not hard to understand why Baldwin is now better known and more generally discussed than, say, Ai Weiwei.
Ai is a real artist. Real art requires work, collaboration, money, connections and – once you’ve achieved to a certain level – time.
It takes time to paint by hand 100 million sunflower seeds and spread them out in the entrance hall of the Tate Modern. During that time, you are too busy for relentless self-promotion.
It doesn’t sound like much – take a thousand pictures of yourself, filter the best of them so that you look more like Jessica Rabbit than a real human, spend hours crafting a single sentence (”The tan will fade, but the memories last forever”) for maximum breeziness. But the monotony of it will beat you down.
I used to say that I’d never known a happy lawyer. Then I met one. I am still unaware of a happy person whose vocation is being popular on the internet.
This art creates no joy, neither in the creation nor the consumption of it. It makes everyone who encounters it feel worse about themselves. It is insidious because it creates the illusion of human connection, but without any of the intimacy that defines actual friendship. It is the equivalent of feeling part of the great flow of humanity by riding the subway alone during rush hour. Only worse.
And this art of self-aggrandizement is far more successful than any other sort. Its museum is your phone, the collection rotates every second and most of us visit it several times a day.
One of the old rules still does apply – there is no such thing as bad publicity. Shorn of moral heft, the internet of art does not require that you be good or bad at what you do, or good or bad, period. Just that you be seen and shared.
This might be a useful prism through which to view U.S. president Donald Trump. People keep trying to locate the limits of his depravity, assuming there must be a purpose to what he says and does.
What if there is none? What if he’s just out there like your average influencer, using Pavlovian tricks he himself doesn’t properly understand in order to drive up likes? He’s not sure why he says what he says, but he knows what makes people salivate. That’s enough for him. What if his politics, like Baldwin’s art, is about nothing?
The ne plus ultra to all this is that eventually, the internet will simply fill with the totality of the human race, all of us screaming for attention, not one single person listening.
That art opening would not be good, but it would be well attended.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.