The Cult of Personality: Portraits and mass culture

carriage trade
February, 2008

Galerie Erna Hecey
October, 2008

"Someone said that Brecht wanted everybody to think alike. I want everybody to think alike. But Brecht wanted to do it through Communism, in a way. Russia is doing it under government. It’s happening here all by itself without being under a strict government; so if it’s working without trying, why can’t it work without being Communist? Everybody looks alike and acts alike, and we’re getting more and more that way."
Andy Warhol

The current American president’s long, slow, fall from grace exists in sharp contrast to his meteoric rise in popularity in the period immediately following September 11, 2001. In retrospect, it now it appears this sudden embrace by the citizenry had more to do with a need to believe in a figurehead who could comfort them in a moment of fear, than with any unique problem solving skills he might posses which would have been useful in a time of crisis.

Seen from a distance of five or six years, the scale of the political capital so accidentally gained and so recklessly squandered led to an urgency on the part of the media to pick a replacement for the lame duck president, while pushing news of his current activities mostly off the front pages. Parsing every word uttered by the candidates for signs of cracks or fissures in their carefully honed messages, the mainstream media presents itself as the earnest gatekeeper of authenticity, presiding over the process of delivering the best possible candidate to his or her rightful home in the White House. Before the current presidency fades into oblivion, it might be worth examining the powerful and persuasive nature of personality on the national psyche, and the means through which this persuasion is manifested in a sometimes cult-like obsession with our celebrities and leaders.


Invoking Marx’s disdain for the cult of the individual within the realm of political power, Kruschev, in his so-called “secret speech”1 of 1954, began an effort to gradually dismantle the carefully constructed cult of personality through which Josef Stalin famously developed and maintained power in the Soviet Union after the death of Lenin. Through propagandistic use of film as well as photography and literature, Stalin crafted a god-like image of himself among the populace, which rivaled the monarch’s of the past in the assumption and maintenance of their rule through divine rite. With leaders in many parts of the world (including democracies) relying on sophisticated media techniques to develop and maintain power, the cult of personality, while most often associated with leaders whose use mass media to develop and sustain their “popularity” in an undemocratic state, is perhaps ready for an expanded definition.

The effectiveness of today’s mass media to construct identities is largely dependent on maintaining the unwavering focus of audience on its intended subject. Through a sleight of hand that resembles the Wizard of Oz, the structural characteristics of the personality machine are rarely acknowledged or engaged. The apparatus that constructs (and potentially destroys) leaders and personalities is trained so intently on the subject at hand that it seems to exist in a perpetual present, without the benefit of comparison to former personalities who have faded from memory, or have been unceremoniously removed from view. As one personality replaces another, or perhaps renew themselves, the spotlight maintains it’s brilliance, making it difficult to make out the edges of the stage, where technicians seamlessly transform backdrops more appropriate for the newest subject of the crowd’s adulation. The seductive chemistry of personality cults relies heavily on the “suspension of disbelief” characteristic of all good theatre. The audience both wills these heroes into being, and is carried away by their stage-managed charisma.

Major Brands

While the American political system prides itself on choice, some social critics have likened the available options to the battle between large corporate franchises like Coke and Pepsi.2 Candidates with small budgets lack star power or "electability"; the worst thing a voter can do is waste their vote on a potential loser. Because so much of the campaign is run for television, the candidates must compete with and engage the entertainment industry, which favors cliché and sensation over reason and fact. The cable news shows seem to understand this better than most, with vertiginous graphics and lots of repetitious shouting about “who won the last round”, or “what they better do now”, or that “they have no hope” because “they're running out of cash”. The excitement and speed of images within popular culture often overshadows reasoned argument and meaningful debate. The marginal candidates in political debates occasionally deliver the most compelling arguments, but they share the stage with the superstar candidates to provide amusement and ensure that no one can claim we have an undemocratic system. The candidate that survives this hash grinder gets the votes, as (with the exception of Dewey versus Truman) 3, the media always "gets their man" in the end.

The anointed one, regardless of the serious flaws exposed during the campaign, now becomes transcendent, so that a mediocre legacy-case handed his position by the Supreme Court 4 is suddenly "presidential". Add a once-in-a- lifetime cataclysmic event that kills thousands of Americans and terrifies millions, and the president turns god-like. We might follow him anywhere 5 and unfortunately we have, right into the huge hole, which he and his overzealous administration dug in the middle of Iraq.

Looking Back

The currency of personality cults is both far-reaching and unpredictable. It can finesse mass opinion to the point of appearing to control a citizen’s fate, and also serve as a seductive distraction from the more serious affairs of economics and politics. This combination of adulation and indifference is a potent one, as the alienation inherent in the consumption of spectacle on a daily basis often leads to passive investment in a larger than life figure who, one hopes, will "make things right".

Maintaining an awareness of this condition may be best served by not looking away from the absurd treatment it often receives by the mainstream press. Instead of outright dismissal or willful ignorance, looking back at these images with some detachment and marveling at their audacity, while acknowledging the sustained but fragile hold they possess on the public's psyche, can provide a moment of clarity within the chaotic atmosphere of perpetual image construction. Putting it on pause, however briefly, offers a glimpse at the manner in which this spectacular "machine for images" works.

The understanding of personality cults as limited to the image of a great leader who presides over dictatorships or religious groups is too limited a concept for an era in which corporations and politicians employ near identical media strategies to manipulate public opinion. While the current state of government in American democracy is certainly not as hegemonic as any “Great Leaders” command over the hearts and minds of their "adoring" population, the freedom of choice so readily advertised as a key component to the American system is increasingly trumped by spectacle, which, when helped along by crisis, can unify a people to support policies and actions that have consequences so disastrous that it’s questionable whether any leader, no matter how “great”, possesses the power to resolve.


1. Nikita S. Khrushchev:
The Secret Speech - On the Cult of Personality, 1956

2. FORTUNE Magazine
This Election Season, it's Coke vs. Pepsi
By Geoffrey Colvin
September 6, 2004

3. So convinced of the victor in advance of the election, the Chicago Tribune’s November 3, 1948, Election Day issue published the erroneous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman”. In an upset, “come from behind” victory, Truman beat Dewey, 49.6% to 45.1%. The gaffe was made famous through a now historic photograph of Truman posing with the headline on election night.

4. Salon.Com
Supreme Court to Democracy: Drop Dead
By Gary Kamiya
Dec. 14, 2000

5. The Late Show with David Letterman
Monday, September 17, 2001
News Anchor Dan Rather interviewed by David Letterman

Dan Rather: George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.

Dave Letterman: Yeah.

Dan Rather: And he'll make the call. I do think we'll see something reasonably strong soon, and strong because President Bush and those around him know that America seethes, and there are an awful lot of people asking the question you did. What are we waiting on? Let's get them.