As the death of ‘Prince’ was emblazoned on the front pages of the Western world’s newspapers, I had to wonder – once again – why we treat musicians, actors and the occasional politician as contemporary equivalents of traditional saints. Before the 20th century, our entertainers were regarded with affection, and a certain amount of respect, but beyond this were known to be relatively low-income vendors of diversion and enchantment. They were just folks who plied their trade and tried to earn a decent living for their families.
Today, however, as God and his saints have faded from our horizons, these unlikely surrogates have been lifted to our altars and canonized by our orphaned instinct of praise. The poor artists just wanted to make music for us, or act in a drama, and end up getting hopelessly scrambled inside as they watch people fall to their knees in their presence and shower them with millions of dollars. They are forced to be oracles of ultimate truth and bestowers of spiritual joy, but are too often darkened by the lies their roles imply, and saddened by the vacuum that forms in the heart of any pseudo-god. It wasn’t always like this. The lives of Bach and Mozart, or any of the great painters from the Renaissance to the Impressionists, were full of hard work and only modest remuneration when compared with the fame and riches of incomparably inferior artists today.
Of course there are notable exceptions; some artists keep their wits and humility, and even turn their wealth to charitable ends, but they are a small minority. Most fall in one way or the other into the maelstrom of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. I do feel for them. It is not easy to be sane and saintly with every imaginable temptation at your fingertips. And they are not really the ones to blame for their disfigurement. We are the idol-worshipers who transformed them into supernatural icons. And we are the ones who have fashioned the kind of society that elevates street entertainers into headline celebrities, with their often tragic ends spread out on the front pages of our newspapers. Even the death of Mother Teresa of Calcutta was denied top billing when, just days before her passing, a confused and forlorn princess of England was killed in a car crash in Paris.
Certainly tears should be shed, a prayer said and our collective conscience examined as we ponder the deaths of Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Amy Winehouse, along with the long-gone anti-heroes of my own generation: Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and all the others. And let us say a prayer also for ‘Prince’ himself. But please, gently remove these entertainers from the pedestals upon which we have raised them. In their place, how about a couple of robust 20th-century saints, such as Thérèse of Lisieux and Maximilian Kolbe? Their prayers can take even these ruins of human beings into a glory only sporadically glimpsed through the drugged and blurred miasma of modern celebrity.