Taste Formations in the 20th Century: The Highs and Lows of Pop Culture

The deterioration of Victorian values and culture at the turn of the century was coupled with a general move towards urbanization and saw the birth of new means of communication. New generations of media came into being and whether embracing the trend or criticizing it, no one was left indifferent. These new medias changed the ways in which art and culture are produced, diffused and appreciated, thus changing the nature of both the artist and the audience. Scholars began referring to these new art forms as “Popular Culture”, a term that can mean art enjoyed by many, that can be employed derogatively to describe all that is not high culture, that can refer to the mass diffusion of art and not the art itself or finally refers to culture emerging from the populace. Taste distinctions and their association to various art forms emerged. I wish to explore how these taste distinctions evolved from a rather simplistic and elitist viewpoint to a more comprehensive and popular one.

Emergence of Mass Culture: Frankfurt and Beyond

“Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, members of the group of exiled German Jewish intellectuals known as the “Frankfurt School, became somewhat of a cannon for cultural studies. They professed that because of its industrialization, culture has lost its subjectivity and had thus become an instrument of control for the ruling class. They particularly deplored easily accessible mass media forms such as popular literature, the film industry and popular music, claiming that they could not possibly produce true “high” art because their products strived for attainment of profit, not enlightenment. The average consumer, as opposed to the intellectual elite, was thus tricked by these “industries of culture” into thinking that what he consumes is art, when in reality it is but a vehicle for ensuring their obedience of the ruling capitalist class ideology. Particularly harsh criticism is aimed at a film industry they say removes all participation from the cultural experience and forces the audience to confuse fiction with reality. The Nazi regime’s mass manufacturing of propaganda disguised as cultural objects held much influence over Adorno and Horkheimer, and their attack against the film industry seems to be warranted when reading comments by Dr. Fritz Hippler, an employee in the film section of the Propaganda Ministry of the Nazi regime. In his article “Film as a weapon” he states that film and radio are the way in which the “poorer classes of the people can be presented with culture inexpensively” . He admits that a film can be a great work of art, but that it will then loose money and therefore must “be directed to mass sensibilities”. He confirms Adorno’s claim that culture in the 20th Century is enlightened deception when he says: “it is clear that increasing German film attendance is among the most important tasks of German film policy, and that doing so would increase the effectiveness of film in propaganda and popular enlightenment” .

Avant-garde: The last bastion of high art

The question then remains whether enlightenment can be popular at all. Does it loose its value once adopted by the common majority? Or put another way, does appealing to elite tastes make art more valuable? Adorno answers that high art exists as the opposite of mass culture, not it’s complement [Adorno and Horkheimer 1944]. Dwight McDonald espoused a similar perspective in his influential “A Theory of Mass Culture”, going one step further in separating high culture from mass culture, deploring that democracy and popular education had caused the loss of the elite’s former monopoly on culture  [McDonald 1953]. For McDonald, mass culture has mixed previously separate class and taste distinctions to create a homogeneous culture that does not judge or discriminate, thus impeding the birth of any truly valuable cultural product. The Frankfurt School followers did see an exception to this rule in the avant-garde movement, that to them represented the last bastion of true culture and the opposite of mass culture. Avant-garde artists, such as Picasso, Joyce or Stravinsky, were seen as refusing to compete with mass culture, thus creating a new class of intellectual elites that pushed the boundaries of art to create something unique and politically charged [Theory of Mass Culture p.63].

The Wonderful World Of “Kitsch”

Regardless of its many critics and opponents, mass produced popular art founded a new world known as “kitsch”. As per the University of Chicago, “kitsch” was initially used to describe “cheap artistic stuff” in the Munich art circles. They continue by indicating that by the mid 20th century “kitsch” was adopted by scholars to classify “objects and a way of life brought on by the urbanization and mass-production of the industrial revolution” . Likewise, in his essay “Kitsch and Art”, Thomas Kulka classifies “kitsch” as fake sensory experiences that do not lead the consumer to question the state of affairs or search for enlightenment, but reinforces the status quo by offering easily digestible culture.
“If works of art were judged democratically–that is, according to how many people like them–kitsch would easily defeat all its competitors,” . In effect, there exists a whole sub-culture of “kitsch” enthusiasts who pride themselves in their ability to appreciate bad taste. Examples of “kitsch” abound on “The World of Kitsch”  website, designed to offer Internet savvy kitsch collectors a forum of their own. For instance Hello Kitty, Chia Pets and Graceland are all considered desirable items by kitsch collectors. Are all these kitsch enthusiasts mere putty in the hands of the culture industry, as the Frankfurt School would have us believe?

Cultural Populism

Emerging in the 50’s and 60’s, “Cultural Populism” ascribed more power to the consumer and saw value in the act of consumption itself, not just the in cultural object. Because kitsch describes the object itself, cultural populists, such as Susan Sonntag in 1960’s, observed that it is the reading of the objects that creates value. Thus the creation of “camp”, a term that evolved in the 1960’s to define something that is in itself tasteless (kitsch) but that is appreciated by a certain sub-culture for other reasons, therefore consciously being consumed in a way that assigns value to it . In other words in the realm of taste formation, camp is good because it’s awful. Recently made popular by the French film “Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amélie Poulain”, the garden gnome “phenomenon” (see illustration above) is a worthwhile example. Although not the most tasteful item of home décor, the garden gnome has it’s own cult following. For instance in France we find a group dedicated to the rescue of these garden gnomes to then send them on pretend trips around the world, all the while sending their former owners postcards of the gnomes in exotic locales. Obviously, the value of the mass cultural object, in this case the garden gnome, is not what is valued by the populace. It is by their style of consumption, or their reading of it, that they assign cultural value to it. Therefore one should also accord importance to mass popular culture because mass culture is now embedded too deep in society to disregard it or to nostalgically wish for a return to the old days. Likewise, “Cultural Populists” believe that value can be ascribed to things that count for ordinary people on an everyday basis. All that is popular is not distasteful, for if it were, as explained by writer Hal Niedzvieck in his article “This Sucks! Change It!” we ourselves would be reduced to nothing because at this point our lives are founded in popular culture, we are popular culture. He argues against Adorno and McDonald stating that it is possible “to defend mass culture without defending the monopolistic conglomerates that produce it”.
An the Beat Goes On…

In the end, the evolution of tastes in popular culture and the surrounding debate it provokes illustrates how mass culture itself has changed since Adorno and Horkheimer’s “Culture Industry” of 1944. Although corporate ownership of media is a bigger problem than ever, mass culture and popular art are so embedded in our society that we cannot dismiss it but must instead search to chart its topography. Finally, the steady climb of multimedia and the internet add yet another dimension to mass culture and popular art as the populace now has the means to control every aspect of culture and art, from creation, to production, to distribution and consumption. How this further democratization of art will influence taste distinctions to come has yet to be known. Thus continues to debate surrounding mass culture and popular art.

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