What is popular culture and why is it important?
Well, first, lets go back two centuries. Up until the nineteenth-century, all societies in the western hemisphere had always been broken up into two separate classes. The rich and poor. The wealthy had its learned high culture while the peasants embraced their local folklores and superstitions. This included early America as well. But then the large-scale industrial movement changed everything. It created a division of labor, the concentration of urban populations, a growing centralization of decision making, the development of a complex and international communication system and the growth of mass political movements. The powers shifted. And the significant contribution of the industrial revolution is that it created a middle class. The result was a middle culture, or popular culture.
The aristocrats of those times cried foul and linked a moral crisis to the weakening of traditional centers of authority. They predicted our society would be dominated by philistine masses. To a large extent, this is probably true. High culture, no longer having moral or cultural authority, permanently cut its links with the masses as a mode of survival and withdrew as an asylum for threatened values. Society is still separated between pure traditional art and commercialized popular culture.
What is popular culture? Simply stated, it’s the totality of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, images, collective habits, and other phenomena that represents the mainstream of society.
Modern conservatives argue the weakening of traditional values and the liberals argue the promise of socialist values. Both see themselves as the only lights in a zombie popular culture society. Both viewpoints are utopian, of course, their commentaries represented on Fox News and CNN respectively, and both negatively see mass culture as leading to mass passivity.
Both camps fail to see the brilliance of popular culture.
A capitalist economy creates opportunities for every individual to participate in a mass culture which is fully democratized, neither conservative nor liberal, with no group within society able to dominate as content is dominated by the expression of the masses. It’s through popular culture that a free democracy can continue.
I have passionately nurtured my sensibilities to that of the lonely intellectual who quietly observes our cultural storms from within the storms, fully able to enjoy both high culture and junk culture, whereas the average individual can not raise themselves to the learned intellectual discourse of high culture, especially when he or she is the object. High culture requires extensive experience, training, and psychological introspection for a full appreciation.
Some believe that intellectuals have become irrelevant in the electronic age. We’re seen as obsolete managers of a proper, closed-off art domain and thereby, an enemy of mass consumption culture. But it takes an intellectual to understand that the history of popular culture is also a history of intellectuals, of cultural experts who define the borders between what’s popular and what’s legitimate. Our cultural responsibility is to protect art from simplicity and commerce. Our job is to offer coherent interpretations of the issues. Get rid of us, and you’ll have the chaos of decentralized assemblages of conflicting voices and messages, because popular culture has the glittering personality of a car salesman. It produces it’s own argument according to its own logic and interests.
Do I have any criticisms of our current popular culture?
Of course, I do.
Pick up any classic novel from a hundred years ago, and most modern adults will find it practically unreadable. That‘s because the vocabulary of modern adults is only a fraction of what their ancestors possessed. Words are disappearing and illiteracy is growing in the masses. High-quality television dramas are being replaced with inexpensive lifestyle programming and reality TV to the point that mass society is constantly immersed in trivia about celebrity culture. Tastelessness is being produced on a mass scale in order to satisfy our lowest common denominators such as fear, prejudice, violence, revenge, greed, paranoia, and aggression. Subversive elements of pop culture is functioning as anti-culture and the people aren‘t even questioning it. “Bad taste” products dominate the marketplace, drawing their popular appeal from their expressions of disrespect for educated tastes, resulting in a population that is voiding the deep realities of love, death, irony, failure, and tragedy. Ethics are fading. Mass consumerism demands instant pleasure, and instant pleasure is delivered. The totality of these expressions are rooted in feelings of social resentment, of course, but in the end, these expressions only alienate people from personal experience. Television, video games, and movies market themselves as “escapism” entertainment, as an effort to offset alienation, but their content is actually intensifying our moral isolation from each other, from reality, and from ourselves. The tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel topics are becoming the norm. Society is dumbing down and arguing with itself.
But don’t worry folks. I’m not joining the fundamentalists in calling this an apocalyptic culture. It’s a mess, no doubt about it, but it’s a beautiful mess.
Just as it’s been for 150 years.