Dr Kirsty Fairclough on the nature of celebrity

In contemporary society, celebrity culture is everywhere. From politics to entertainment, the nature of celebrity both attracts and repels in equal measure. We may think of celebrity as a curiously modern phenomenon, the stuff of social media and reality television. But it is far from new. In essence, celebrity as the attribution of either glamorous or notorious status to an individual within public life has been in existence since the very origins of society.

The emergence of celebrity as a public preoccupation and the nature of the individual as the celestial being or star of the age is one that can be traced back to major shifts in historical moments from the democratisation of society to the decline in organised religion.

As modern society developed, celebrities have filled the gap created by the crumbling in popular belief of structures and ideas that public life was originally built upon.

The power of the individual became an idea embedded in both politics and industry. Celebrities replaced religion and the monarchy as new symbols of belonging and society began to elevate specific people who became indicative of defined ideals or morals.

Celebrities replaced the monarchy as the new symbols of recognition and belonging, and as a belief in God waned in many parts of public life, celebrities became immortal.

Lowry’s interest in the Pre-Raphaelite women or the Stunners as they became known, may well reside in their status as celebrities of their day. The women who posed for the Pre-Raphaelites inspired some of art history’s most striking images and became as well known as the artists who painted them. The idea that these women were plucked from obscurity and ‘discovered’ to become muses to some of the most well-known painters of the day is not too far away from modern ideas of how celebrity status can be achieved today. Celebrity culture may both fascinate and revolt, but it is inescapable.

Dr Kirsty Fairclough is Associate Dean: Research and Innovation in the School of Arts and Media at The University of Salford.

Lowry and the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition is supported by Sotheby’s