In the great Loony Tunes short called“Long-Haired Hare”, an orchestra responds with reverence and awe when it believes the great conductor “Leopold” (referring to the legendary Leopold Stokowski) has come to save them from mediocrity. We viewers know the tuxedo’d maestro is none other than dear old Bugs Bunny, but for a moment—even in the cartoon— we’re all captivated by idea that someone, somewhere is great enough to stand above, to lead, to show us how it’s done.
Naturally, Bugs had other plans for the poor orchestra. In this case, however, that’s not the point.
It’s interesting to look back on the legends of film and listen to new generations of artists try to capture some of their je ne sais quoi. Stanley Kubrick, Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa: contemporaries try to hold them up reverentially. The effort often comes across as quaint and maybe even a little twee. It’s as if having artistic heroes presents some sort of demonstrable credibility about a subject. For some it even presents itself as a callow, shallow effort to reach above one’s real level of accomplishment.
Steven Spielberg, while still a behind the scenes force in Hollywood, no longer holds sway for the public imagination the way he did as a 20th century superstar because audiences are inured to the magic he unleashed. Extra-terrestrials? Supernatural events in domestic settings? Dinosaurs? Pu-lease: you can stream that stuff anywhere.
Traditional news organizations were once gray, serious provinces where “creative” enterprises were carefully managed lest credibility and gravitas suffer bruises. The faces at the evening news desks —almost always white guys—were in extraordinarily prestigious positions, purportedly acting as a collective beacon for truth, ethics, and civic responsibility. Similar (if perhaps not as glamorous or visually recognizable) prestige accrued to the top print reporters and columnists of the day. Esteemed status came not only from the responsibilities those folks carried, but also from what the public perceived. Often (but not always) these cultural lights had an “earned gravitas” about them, with audiences believing that the quality of work they did by itself proved they had earned the role meritoriously. There was often more than just a grain of truth to the idea, even if inevitable politics and social climbing certainly had an influence, too.
The London Symphony Orchestra used to be…The London Symphony Orchestra. They still are, of course, but the cache isn’t what it used to be. Pop stars used to fill stadiums. Now, of course, there are some who still do, but often it’s aging baby-boomer acts playing to nostalgic crowds trying to recall what it meant to see a star. Pop music of the 1950s, 60s, 70s had plenty of short-lived stars, of course, complete with screaming fans. But prestige? That’s was something else, and those who had it usually earned it, and those who earned it had a different level of influence on the culture.
In fact, “stars” of all sorts have been largely replaced by “celebrities”. Movie stars still exist, but fame is not the same thing as a name that can open a movie simply on that singular fact. With a million outlets for “content”, there’s dilution to the whole concept of fame. In fact, fame now has as much to do with maintaining a good online presence as it has to do with actually doing anything relevant.
Prestige still exists. It’s simply gone on to inhabit other bodies. Fewer people hold collective cultural positions of prestige, and those who do often echo similar types from more than a century ago. Industrial leaders, the Carnegies and Edisons and Fords of today, now capture the concept of prestige more than just about any other group. They are almost all creators in one form or another, but what they really embody is an accumulation of power and influence. Different rules apply to people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Mark Zukerberg and Virginia Rometty don’t deal with many of the day to day things that most other people do. (They deal with other things, of course.) These business behemoths hold a measure of prestige because, like rock stars of decades gone by, they can act in ways, go places, and do things that most people can not. They do not need to groom their own social media presences; the marketing arms of their companies do that for them. Still, no matter how much power or influence, they must still put on their own socks, and they must still get some sleep every time the planet makes a rotation on its axis.
Prestige used to mean something. It used to count. It used to be a sort of currency, with valuations rising and falling based on flexible measures of subjective—but nonetheless legitimately discussable—quality. Prestige used to be about what someone did or said or created. Contemporary prestige is now about accumulation of influence. Alas, where’s Leopold the Cartoon Conductor now?