THE BLOG
01/05/2015 09:21 am ET Updated Mar 07, 2015

Caesar, Cromwell, and Stephen Colbert

This is the second in a series of blog posts: "Man's Quest for Immortality"

Humans have been represented through sculpture and painting since the dawn of civilization. Until the advent of photography and motion pictures, such art forms were the only way to preserve the physical likeness of someone for future generations. In the time of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, these sculptures were often highly stylized and an unreliable reflection of the actual appearance of their subject. It is thus unusual (and perhaps telling) that the man scholars believe to be the architect of the Great Pyramid, Hemiunu, is portrayed in a very realistic style, revealing his large, and flabby physique. During the classical Greco-Roman period, sculpture was generally more accurate and lifelike than paintings. Thus, our images of Julius Caesar and the Roman Emperors that followed him are derived largely from busts and statues. Beginning in the Renaissance, perspective and new artistic methods enabled more and more accurate portraits of not only rulers of states, but also the wealthy nobles who could afford to commission portraits. Many artists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such as van Dyck, Rubens, and Rembrandt, are best known from painting these portraits that often were quite lifelike. When Oliver Cromwell, who overthrew Charles I in the English Civil War and ruled England as Lord Protector from 1653-58, sat for his portrait, he instructed the painter to "Use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see me," from which we now derive the common figure of speech "warts and all." Because portraits were substantially faster, cheaper, and more portable than sculptures, they became much more common, and are the primary method by which we now know the faces of Kings, Nobles, Presidents, and even the upper middle class of 17th century Dutch and 19th century Americans.

The invention of photography in the mid-19th century spelled the beginning of the end of portraiture as the primary method to preserve our physical likenesses. Hundreds of soldiers sat for their portraits as they prepared to leave for the American Civil War, leaving them behind with wives and mothers to remember them, should they die in battle. Photography also had the side effect that it freed artists and painters to leave their realistic style behind, enabling the artistic movements of impressionism, modernism, cubism, and surrealism.

Even before the invention of photography, in the late 18th century, Marie Tussaud learned the skill of wax modeling from a Swiss physician, and created her first wax figure of Voltaire in 1777. She traveled Europe for years with her show, eventually settling in England, and establishing Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in 1835. Her franchise is known for its reproductions not only of political figures, but also well-known celebrities, actors, and artists. The museum has remained enormously successful ever since, opening many branches worldwide, and is renowned for the remarkably realistic and accurate representations of its subjects. One of the most recent figures in Madame Tussaud's museum in Washington, D.C. is that of the American pundit and humorist, Stephen Colbert. In 2012 Mr. Colbert devoted almost an entire episode of his Colbert Report to reporting on himself, first urging his 4.5 million Twitter followers to provide South Carolina Governor Nikki Halley with reasons to appoint him to the Senate seat of departing Senator Jim De Mint, and then covering in great (and humorous) detail the casting of his wax figure at Madame Tussaud's Museum.

Stephen Colbert is an interesting example of a parody of a personality cult that is only partially tongue-in-cheek. As part of his ongoing comic persona, Mr. Colbert pokes fun at the egos of politicians and pundits alike through his shameless self-promotion at every opportunity, constantly expanding and entertaining his 'Colbert Nation.' Mr. Colbert's reach extends beyond the considerable success of his own show, through Facebook, and Twitter, and into stories covered by today's news media. During the 2012 presidential primary season, Mr. Colbert used his Super-PAC (itself a parody of the results of the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United), to attempt to enter the South Carolina Republican Primary. Beyond pure media attention, however, Mr. Colbert has sought out and obtained memorialization in many forms, including on a treadmill on the International Space Station, as a hockey mascot, as a giant lego statue, and with a Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavor (AmeriCone Dream). He has also authored two New York Times Best Sellers, lending some permanence to his humor. Upon the unveiling of his wax statue, he quipped, "I want to thank everyone at Madame Tussaud's for the honor of becoming the latest Waxican-American because being cast in wax is true immortality, as long as the Earth is not in any way getting warmer."

Although the 'Colbert Nation' is a virtual one, and Stephen Colbert's control of it is largely for comic effect, his power to mobilize action is quite real. With a single tweet he obtained four different headlines that pondered the possibility of him joining the US Senate. He jokingly lobbied Governor Haley for the seat for several days, and public opinion polls showed him to be the top choice to fill the Senate vacancy, although he was, of course, not Governor's final selection. Colbert can similarly assemble a crowd of hundreds of fans at a moment's notice such as when he visited the Federal Election Commission to petition for his Super-PAC. He has used his considerable influence to expose the absurdity of our public political discourse and sometimes even change it. Thus, while he uses his character's egotism and desire for adulation for comic effect, it is hard to believe that there is not more than a kernel of truth in his desire to be remembered for many years to come.

Now that The Colbert Report has come to a conclusion, Mr. Colbert is leaving behind his parody of a far-right conservative as he prepares to replace David Letterman on The Late Show. In many ways this is not surprising, as having remained in character for nine years is quite a feat. However, perhaps another reason he is going to set aside his character is that despite his widespread fame, we have rarely been able to see him be himself. That is a legacy that I expect both he and his audience will thoroughly enjoy.