Popular culture: castigation and defence

"Popular art has not been popular with aestheticians and theorists of culture, at least not in their professional moments. When not altogether ignored as beneath contempt, it is typically vilified as mindless, tasteless trash" (Shusterman 1991).

Britain was the first nation to industrialise but it was only in 1850 that a majority of the people lived in towns and it was only in 1900 that the vast majority was urbanised. These urbanised 'masses' lost their rural cultural identity in several ways: 15 hour working days left no spare time; old rural communities were displaced and split up; the new urban situation, a change from cyclical to linear time, demanded new responses; cultural 'management' taken over by upper class philanthropists and 'socialists'; a lack of resources for working class cultural intiatives; the promotion of ideals of high culture and the commodity as life's prime achievement and goal.

In spite of all these factors the new industrial towns presented an entirely new scale of human closeness. And when people get together culture invariably begins to sprout.

Any culture is at its most powerfull when people gather in large numbers. Perhaps the most important cultural form that arose from the new urban situation was the pub based 'free and easy' in which everyone was invited to do a turn. This developed in scale, by the 1830s professional performers were used in pub backrooms and by the 1850s a special hall was required. These 'music halls' soon became major commercial enterprises. The rowdy mobile crowd was gradually pacified and by the end of the century fixed rows of seat were introduced. In the C20th the music hall was eclipsed by the cinema but the form survived as variety and pantomime. But it's the early pre-hall forms that were, and are still, important to the autonomy of active working class culture. There are many modern equivalents from the Northern Working Mens Clubs to the many rock pubs, comedy clubs and Karaokes which enliven todays urban scene.

Popular culture, defined as all that was outside high culture, has been criticised since the popular literature of the C18th and the rise of urban populations. Since the C19th this negative propaganda was extended to leisure behaviour in general. Both right wing conservatives and later Marxist radicals joined hands to make common cause against popular culture.

Herbert J. Gans is recognised in current literature on the aesthetics of popular culture to have made the first comprehensive and authoritative defence of popular culture(1974). This was based on two value judgements: firstly, that popular culture does reflect aesthetic needs, and secondly, that people have a right to their culture of preference without denigration. Gans suggests that popular culture is in fact made up of a number of different taste cultures which are inextricable, overlapping and interpenetrating.

He defines a taste culture as the values of a group or class of society and the cultural forms which express these values. A taste culture is an abstraction which includes both the specific interaction of the agent with mass media as well as traditional forms and innovations. Taste culture is based on an expressed choice and is partial for most people who may spend parts of their lives in various different taste cultures. Different taste publics may choose the same media fare for entirely different reasons.

Gans identifies four themes in the, often unreferenced, criticisms commonly levelled at popular culture:

1. The low quality of popular cultural: Which supposedly is remotely directed from above, profit driven and producing a standardised product designed for the lowest common denominator. Gans argues that, much of high culture is also mass produced and standardised, such as books. High culture is also often quite predictable whereas some popular culture, like Rap, is quirky, unpredictable or improvised."Each taste culture is sensitive only to its own diversity and judges other to be more uniform"(Gans 1974 p.22).

Innovation is rare but necessary in both areas of culture. The complete autonomy of fine artists is a myth as much as the lack of creative independence or artistic integrity of the popular artist.

In the comparison of high culture with low like is often not compared with like. The best of high culture will be compared with the most average product of popular culture.

2. The negative effects of pop culture on high culture:  The only substance of this criticism seems to be that low paid high culture artists might be poached by the popular culture industry. But, of course, resources are spent from the common tax pocket to subsidise opera and ballet which has only a very small audience. These resources might more fairly be spent, as Gans argues, on non-commercial popular arts.

Roger Taylor (1978) argues that, rather than popular culture threatening to corrupt high culture, it is in fact high culture which has such a monopoly on the concept of Art that it corrupts working class culture. However this implied withdrawal from art is a dubious strategy and leaves the superiority of Art unchallenged.

3. The negative effects of popular culture on its audience: These effects may be summed up as a brutalising exploitation of sex and violence. But such effects are not supported by any evidence after repeated surveys. The popular audience is not, as a whole, as passive, vulnerable and uncritical as it was assumed at that time.

All the actual evidence that does exist indicates that violence is caused by poverty rather than media images (Gerbner 1970, Fiske 1990). At the same time all social institutions must effect our attitudes to some extent, but there is no evidence to suggest that deleterious effects from popular culture outweigh the considerable advantages.

4. The negative, de-civilising effect on society:

"At its worst popular culture threatens not merely to cretinise our taste but to brutalise our senses while paving the way to totalitarianism" (Gans 1974 p.44 quoting Bernard Rosenberg).

Or later, paraphrasing Herbert Marcuse; 'the mass media atomise and narcotise'. The humanist ideals that came out of the Enlightenment: personal autonomy, individual creativity, and the rejection of group norms are not reflected in popular culture so it is in fact seen to dilute or threaten these ideals.

In dividing culture into several layers Gans ignores the non-commercial aspects of popular culture such as family photo albums (see Jo Spence 1991). This gives his analysis a serious bias as it is here that popular taste can innovate, be individual and establish moral inertia as a counter to an amoral market place. His book is uncritical of the ability of market forces to accurately respond to peoples needs and seems to promote a liberal democratic idealism.

The current uncritical catholicity of the populist espousal of popular culture (see Savage and Frith 1993) might be traced to the liberalism of Gans's position.

One of the most interesting aspects of the attack on popular culture is the involvement of the left who in their general espousal of working class interests might be expected to be sympathetic:

"Pleasure hardens into boredom because, if it is to remain pleasure, it must not demand any effort and therefore moves rigorously in the well worn grooves of association. No independent thinking must be expected from the audience: the product prescribes every reaction: not by its natural form (which collapses under reflection) but by signals. Any logical connection calling for  mental effort is painstakingly avoided" Theodor Adorno (from The Essential Frankfurt School Reader Continuum NY 1987)quoted in (Shusterman 1991).

Adorno produced his influential theories about culture in the late forties and fifties (see Dialectics of Enlightenment 1947). But it was not until recently that left intellectuals became critical of Adorno's position. Richard Shustermans (1992) strategy is to argue for the value of sensory appreciation and response: "The sensory immediacy (of rock) is negatively misconstrued as entailing effortless nullity and passive 'immobility'".

The somatic quality of our response to rock disqualifies it from aesthetic legitimacy. Shusterman argues that the fallacy here lies with the myth that the somatic and intellectual are exclusive domains within a Platonic tradition. Although I agree that the somatic and intellectual are not separate domains, Shusterman's argument avoids the difficult issue of how classism maintains an intellectual discursive hegemony which does not allow the intellectual potential within working class culture to take flight. Nor does he go far enough in analysing the central place of this somatic/intellectual split in the mechanics of classism.

Pierre Bourdieu claims that the internal references that are required in academic art are missing from popular art (Bourdieu 1979 pp33-35 & 197). Shusterman points out that this is a fallacy which is due to the fact that someone imbued with one culture cannot read the deeper references in anothers. A point already made by Gans and one I will retrun to - you can only read complexity in a culture within which you are 'literate'.

Art, Adorno argued, needs an autonomous space. A space in which the artist can work 'objectively'. An 'art for arts sake' not an art motivated by economic, social or political concerns outside of art. Shusterman points out that this is very narrow and limited definition of aesthetics and one that is a relatively recent, nineteenth century, construction.

Shusterman goes on to identify four main barriers in the way of mounting a successful defence of popular art:

1. "The defence must be waged on enemy territory" (Shusterman 1992). The terms of the critique have to be used. Philosophy and aesthetics has been committed to an anti-populism and is broadly and formally embedded in a high art culture. The new category of Cultural Studies has been the base of some opposition to this onslaught.(For example Dick Hebdidge 1988.)

2. The defenders of popular culture within the formal area of philosophical aesthetics will often offer apologies for popular culture's supposed lack of quality rather than defending its aesthetic values. They end up "perpetuating the same myth of aesthetic worthlessness" (ibid).

3. A popular aesthetic is seen as a contradiction in terms. Aesthetics has been, in the recent historical past, associated exclusively with high art. This monopoly has only recently been challenged and by relatively few people. (For example Richard Anderson 1990.)

4. "the long philosophical theological disenfranchisment of the bodily aesthetic so as to submit the aesthetic domain and its power to the dominion of the intellect"(Shusterman 1992).

Richard Shusterman is perhaps the most influential philosopher defending popular culture since Herbert Gans in the seventies.