The Clooneys and the longest cultural dispute in Europe.
Celebrities have opinions. They are after all, and despite the fanfare around them, regular humans just like us. In 2014 George Clooney, during a press conference in London, England for his film The Monument’s Men, voiced and opinion and picked a side in a nearly two century old cultural and political dispute between England and Greece.[i] When questioned whether the Parthenon Marbles, also known as the Elgin Marbles, should be returned to Greece from their current home in the British Museum, he replied “Even in England the polling is in favor of returning the marbles from the Pantheon [sic.]” to which he then added, “[It is] probably the right thing to do”.[ii]
Politics and culture are tangled in this initial anecdote. In fact, politics and culture are permanently tangled in our neo-liberal and late-capitalist context. Or are they one in the same? The question has been asked before by political scientists Darrell West and John Orman:
“In this era of politics as entertainment and entertainment as politics, what has become of the political process, and what has become of popular culture?”[iii]
So here I ask, who brokers good culture and good politics today? With this initial anecdote in mind, the weight a celebrity’s opinion has on the public’s opinion plays a key role in answering this question. Effectively, my concern here is to explore this issue. The political dimension of the celebrity and the ever-present celebritization of the political, with focus placed on the intervention of George and Amal Clooney in the dispute between the British Museum in England and the Greek State.
During the afore mentioned press conference, George Clooney’s superstar colleagues pitched in to the issue as well, with both Matt Damon and Bill Murray adding their two-cents to the discussion. And so an age old and tired dispute got a facelift and a Hollywood star. Does his opinion signal any type of expertise? “Entertainment as politics and politics as entertainment” means there is a fluid reality of what ‘expertise’ can mean today. [iv] With an increased cross-over between journalism, entertainment and politics, actors can be all of these, and public attention credits their political opinion and the media diffuses it in a large scale.[v] If we are to take Clooney’s statement alone, his reference to the”Pantheon Marbles” solves the issue of his expertise. Mistakenly referencing a monument in Rome, when discussing the fate of cultural artefacts and their original home in Athens, Greece is not expertise. Apparently of no great concern to the press, the mistake was over-looked and the headlines read “George Clooney, Bill Murray and Matt Damon back return of Elgin marbles.”[vi]
While George Clooney may not be an expert in international law or in the history of the dispute, the renowned lawyer Amal Clooney née Alamuddin is. George and Amal Clooney were married in 2014 and since then, Amal has become a celebrity in her own right. The couple’s Venice wedding was extensively covered by the press, and today she is a style icon appearing in numerous blogs and magazines.[vii] Before ‘celebrity’ she was and continues to be a world-class international human rights lawyer working for the London based firm Doughty Street Chambers.
The firm was hired by the Greek government in 2014 to advise them on how to get the Marbles back. Although it was the firm that was hired, the name of Amal Clooney dominated the media coverage. Seen to have the “full force of Hollywood behind her”[viii] Clooney represented one of these friends to the cause that the Greek Minister for culture spoke of. Thus, her celebrity factor spilled over into the tired bureaucracy of the case, “She brings glamour that the Greek government could only have dreamed of…”[ix] With Amal’s visit to Athens in 2014, the Clooney’s continued their advocacy for the cultural cause while the Greek press fussed over her.
Although Amal was involved in a professional capacity, producing a 150-page report with legal advice, she spoke personally about her conviction that Greece could build a strong case to return the Marbles to Athens, “the right thing to do” as her husband put it. However, it was not just the Greek campaign that was benefitting from top-class legal advice and a famous face. The Greek historian Harry Tzalas speculated that, “Alamuddin and Clooney are using this row for their own public relations purposes”.[x] In which case who benefits from whom? Well both parties, the Greek government received a 150-page report advising them to take the case to International court (advice they eventually turned down) while the Clooneys boosted their profile as culturally engaged humanitarian celebrities. The involvement of celebrities in political and humanitarian causes ends up being mutually beneficial. It shapes the way celebrities want the public to perceive them and the public relations of the cause can use celebrities to boost public attention.[xi]
Name brands and products have long known the persuasive value of a recognized personality behind their name.[xii] Every day, we are exposed to information on television, magazine covers, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and our own conversations about who said what or how so-and-so wore those jeans. The media feeds the public’s appetite for fashion and appearance with Kate Middleton’s couture dresses, or Donald Trump’s iconic comb-over. Thus, through the growth of media in political affairs, a focus on celebrities’ actions and opinions in the political sphere directs the public’s opinion about political matters. Mass-media blurs the line between political and pop-culture.[xiii]
In the case of Amal Clooney it is crucial to identify that she is an expert by training in the issues around the Marbles’ dispute. An expert turned celebrity, she brought forth the best of both worlds. She drew attention to Greece’s cause with the flair of her stardom and directed the opinion of her fans toward identifying with her stance on the matter. Richard Sennett’s The Fall of the Public Man explores the encroachment of intimate values in the public realm, such as our trust for celebrity figures. We, the public, are “[tricked] into believing that issues of power… can be dealt with in terms of trust and warmth.”[xiv] The high influence of celebrities, with whom we form artificial relationships of trust and fascination is a direct reflection of this. Our ‘intimate’ knowledge of these individuals through passive spectating leads to an increased trust without actual contact.[xv] Our cultural tastes and political causes are steered by the brokerage of celebrities.
Thus if asked the question again, who brokers good culture and good politics today? The discussion has shown how, with a focus on celebrity personalities, we are past the days of as the early Modern era’s state-legislation brokering of culture through dominating sumptuary laws.[xvi] Since, celebrities can engage us, and us them via a large number of ways, the private invades the public and we create relationships with these personas and adopt their causes as our own. The hope would be that in engaging with these issues, the average person will educate themselves about a cause, and in turn engage with political and cultural issues. But all too often these issues are taken at face value and you end in a conversation where someone else is demanding that the Marbles be returned to the Pantheon.
[i] The marble sculptures, carved in the 5th century BCE are currently housed in the British Museum in London. With permission of the Ottoman authorities, the British ambassador Lord Elgin removed about half of the ancient temple’s sculptures in 1801 and later sold them to the British Government.[i] For nearly 200 years, since the Greek state of today was formed in 1830, the Greek government has been stressing that the Ottoman authorization for removal is not valid and has been asking for the Marbles back. It has become an issue of international attention, involving transnational organizations such as UNESCO and more recently the celebrity faces of George and Amal Clooney. See, Yannis Hamilakis, “Stories from Exile: Fragments from the Cultural Biography of the Parthenon …,” World Archaeology, 1999, 307-308.
[ii] Mark Brown and Helena Smith, “George Clooney, Bill Murray and Matt Damon Back Return of Elgin Marbles,” The Guardian, February 11, 2014, sec. Art and design, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/feb/11/george-clooney-bill-murray-matt-damon-elgin-marbles.
[iii] Darrell M. West and John M. Orman, Celebrity Politics, Real Politics in America (Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Prentice Hall, c2003), X.
[iv] Katherine Margot Bell, “Celebrity as Cultural Authority: Media, Representation and the Politics of Fame” (Ph.D., University of Washington, 2012), 18-19.
[v] Katherine Margot Bell, “Celebrity as Cultural Authority: Media, Representation and the Politics of Fame” (Ph.D., University of Washington, 2012), 18-19.
[vi] Mark Brown and Helena Smith, “George Clooney, Bill Murray and Matt Damon Back Return of Elgin Marbles,” The Guardian, February 11, 2014, sec. Art and design, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/feb/11/george-clooney-bill-murray-matt-damon-elgin-marbles.
[vii] See, “Amal Clooney Lawyer,” Amal Clooney Style, January 31, 2016, https://amalalamuddinstyle.wordpress.com/amal-clooney-lawyer/ and “Amal Clooney Meets Greek PM Samaras in Parthenon Campaign,” BBC News, October 15, 2014, sec. Europe, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-29627621.
[viii] Helena Smith, “Parthenon Marbles Meet Hollywood as Amal Alamuddin Clooney Advises Greece,” The Guardian, October 13, 2014, sec. Art and design, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/13/parthenon-marbles-hollywood-amal-alamuddin-george-clooney-greece.
[ix] Helena Smith, “Parthenon Marbles Meet Hollywood as Amal Alamuddin Clooney Advises Greece,” The Guardian, October 13, 2014, sec. Art and design, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/13/parthenon-marbles-hollywood-amal-alamuddin-george-clooney-greece.
[x] Helena Smith, “Parthenon Marbles Meet Hollywood as Amal Alamuddin Clooney Advises Greece,” The Guardian, October 13, 2014, sec. Art and design, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/13/parthenon-marbles-hollywood-amal-alamuddin-george-clooney-greece.
[xi] Darrell M. West and John M. Orman, Celebrity Politics, Real Politics in America (Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Prentice Hall, c2003), 62.
[xii] Sharon Coen, “The Age of Celebrity Politics,” The Psychologist, May 1, 2015, 373.
[xiii] Darrell M. West and John M. Orman, Celebrity Politics, Real Politics in America (Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Prentice Hall, c2003), 74.
[xiv] Darrell M. West and John M. Orman, Celebrity Politics, Real Politics in America (Upper Saddle River, N.J. : Prentice Hall, c2003), XVII.
[xv] Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (London : Faber and Faber, 1993 c1978), 282, 285.
[xvi] As illustrated by Maria G. Muzzareli in her study of sumptuary laws in early Modern Europe, once upon a time tracing back to the 13th century city-states, and later nation-states made it their concern to legislate what could be owned, how it could be worn, and who could engage with cultural items and items of distinction. See, Maria Giuseppina Muzzarelli, “Reconciling the Privilege of a Few with the Common Good: Sumptuary Laws in Medieval and Early Modern Europe,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 39, no. 3 (Fall 2009).