Culture Theory and Popular Culture
Culture Theory and Popular Culture
The study of culture has, over the last few years, been quite dramatically transformed as questions of modernity and post-modernity have replaced the more familiar concepts of ideology and hegemony which, from the mid-1970s until the mid-1980s, anchored cultural analysis firmly within the neo-Marxist field mapped out by Althusser and Gramsci. Modernity and post-modernity have also moved far beyond the academic fields of media or cultural studies. Hardly one branch of the arts, humanities or social sciences has remained untouched by the debates which have accompanied their presence.
They have also found their way into the ‘quality’ press and on to TV, and of course they have entered the art school studios informing and giving shape to the way in which art practitioners including architects, painters and film-makers define and execute their work. Good or bad, to be welcomed or reviled, these terms have corresponded to some sea-change in the way in which cultural intellectuals and practitioners experience and seek to understand the world in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Storey claimed that “postmodernism has disturbed many of the old certainties surrounding questions of cultural value.
” This work will consider the issues of postmodernism versus modernism mostly from the perspective of the critics of postmodernism with reference to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste. Post-modern cultural movements first emerged in the 1960s in painting, architecture, and literary criticism. Pop art challenged modernist art by experimenting with new cultural forms and contents that embraced everyday life, radical eclecticism, subcultures, mass media, and consumerism. Sociologist Daniel Bell was one of the first to take up the challenge of postmodernism.
In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) he identified a moral crisis in Western society bound up with the decline of Puritan bourgeois culture and the ascendence of a post-modern culture that he described in terms of an aesthetic relativism and a hedonistic individualism. Yet the most formidable critic of postmodernism and defender of modernity has been German philosopher and heir to the Frankfurt School tradition of critical theory — Jurgen Habermas. There are two problems with postmodernism. The first problem comes into focus around the meaning of the term fragmentation.
This is a word which, through over-usage in recent cultural debates, has become shorn of meaning. Post-modernity has been associated by Fredric Jameson (1984) with the emergence of a broken, fractured shadow of a ‘man’. The tinny shallowness of mass culture is, he argues, directly reflected in the schizophrenic subject of contemporary mass consciousness. Against Jameson, Stuart Hall (1981) has recently said that it is just this decentring of consciousness which allows him, as a black person, to emerge, divided, yes, but now fully foregrounded on the post-modern stage.
‘So one of the fascinating things about this discussion is to find myself centred at last. Now that, in the postmodern age, you all feel so dispersed I become centred. What I’ve thought of as dispersed and fragmented comes, paradoxically, to be the representative modern condition! This is coming home with a vengeance’ (34). These are, then, two perspectives on the problem of postmodern fragmentation. There is Jameson, who looks back nostalgically to the notion of unity or totality and who sees in this a kind of prerequisite for radical politics, a goal to be striven for.
And there is Hall, who sees in fragmentation something more reflective of the ongoing and historical condition of subaltern groups. Jameson’s unified ‘man’ could be taken to be a preFreudian, Enlightenment subject, and thus be discredited by those who have paid attention to Lacan’s notion of the fragmented subject. But the endorsement of post-modern fragmentation is equally not without its own problems. Have ‘we’ become more fragmented than before? Can we specifically name a time and a place for the moment of fragmentation? Is fragmentation the ‘other’ of ‘humanity’?
Or is the representation of fragmentation coincidental with political empowerment and liberation? Christopher Norris (1990) has argued that post-modernity (and postmodern fragmentation) stands at the end of the long line of intellectual inquiry which starts with Saussure, works its way through post-structuralism and Lacanian psychoanalysis and ends with Baudrillard. In Norris’s terms fragmentation is to be understood as marking an absolute and irreparable break with the unified subject, a break which is now writ large in culture.
Present-day fragmented subjectivity is captured and expressed in post-modern cultural forms, a kind of superficial pick-and-mix of styles. According to Jameson, however, unfragmented subjectivity, by contrast, produced great works of uncluttered ‘heroic’ modernism. There is a degree of slippage in the connections being made here. The problem lies, at least partly, in the imprecise use of the word ‘fragmentation’. There is a vacillation between the ‘high’ psychoanalytical use of Lacan and a much looser notion, one which seems to sum up unsatisfactory aspects of contemporary cultural experience.
Modernists, however, also felt confused and fragmented. Fragmentation, as a kind of ‘structure of feeling’, is by no means the sole property of those living under the shadow of the post-modern condition. Bewilderment, anxiety, panic: such expressions can be attributed to any historical moment as it is transposed into cultural and artistic expression over the last a hundred and fifty years. The category of fragmentation seems to have become either too technical to be of general use (i. e.
in Lacan’s work) or too vague to mean anything more than torn apart. The second question which might be asked of neo-Marxist critics of postmodernity, concerns determination, and the return to a form of economic reductionism in cultural theory. Fredric Jameson argues that postmodernism is the cultural logic of capital, but his argument, as Paul Hirst writing about trends in both New Times and post-modern writing, has suggested, ‘slips from a rigid causal determinism into casual metaphor’ (45).
Jameson, going back to Mandel’s Late Capitalism, has argued that the kinds of cultural phenomena which might be described as post-modern form part of the logic of advanced or late capitalism. This does away, at a sweep, with the difficult issue of explaining the precise nature of the social and ideological relationships which mediate between the economy and the sphere of culture and it simultaneously restores a rather old-fashioned notion of determination to that place it had occupied prior to Althusser’s ‘relative autonomy’ and his idea of determination ‘in the last instance’ (67).
Quoting Lyotard, Harvey (1989) takes up the notion of the temporary contract as the hallmark of post-modern social relations. What he sees prevailing in production, in the guise of new forms of work, he also sees prevailing in emotional life and in culture, in the temporary contract of love and sexuality. Like Jameson he decries this state and looks forward to something more robust and more reliable, something from which a less fractured sense of self and community might emerge.
He views postmodern culture disparagingly, as aesthetic rather than ethical, reflecting an avoidance of politics rather than a rising to the challenge of a politics posed by new or changing conditions of production. Despite their sweeping rejection of post-modern writing, both Jameson and Harvey take advantage of the conceptual and methodological breadth found in these theories to circumvent (or short-circuit) the key problems which have arisen in cultural studies in the attempt to specify and under-stand the social relations which connect culture to the conditions of its production.
Their conceptual leap into a critique of postmodernism allows these writers to avoid confronting more directly the place of Marxism in cultural studies from the late 1980s into the 1990s, a moment at which Marxism cannot be seen in terms other than those of eclipse or decline. Postmodernism exists, therefore, as something of a convenient bete noire.
It allows for the evasion of the logic of cultural studies, if we take that logic to be the problematizing of the relations between culture and the economy and between culture and politics, in an age where the field of culture appears to be increasingly expansive and where both politics and economics might even be seen, at one level, as being conducted in and through culture. Structuralism has replaced old orthodoxies with new ones. This is apparent in its rereading of texts highly placed within an already existing literary or aesthetic hierarchy.
Elsewhere it constructs a new hierarchy, with Hollywood classics at the top, followed by selected advertising images, and girls’ and women’s magazines rounding it off. Other forms of representation, particularly music and dance, are missing altogether. Andreas Huyssen in his 1984 introduction to postmodernism draws attention to this ‘high’ structuralist preference for the works of high modernism, especially the writing of James Joyce or Mallarme.
‘There is no doubt that centre stage in critical theory is held by the classical modernists: Flaubert…in Barthes…Mallarme and Artaud in Derrida, Magritte… in Foucault…Joyce and Artaud in Kristeva…and so on ad infinitum’ (Huyssen, 1984:39). He argues that this reproduces unhelpfully the old distinction between the high arts and the ‘low’, less serious, popular arts.
He goes on to comment: ‘Pop in the broadest sense was the context in which a notion of the post-modern first took shape…and the most significant trends within postmodernism have challenged modernism’s relentless hostility to mass culture. High theory was simply not equipped to deal with multilayered pop. Nor did it ever show much enthusiasm about this set of forms, perhaps because pop has never signified within one discrete discourse, but instead combines images with performance, music with film or video, and pin-ups with the magazine form itself’ (Huyssen, 1984:16).
In recent article, where Hebdige (1988) engages directly with the question of postmodernism, he disavows the playful elements in Subculture…and, more manifestly, in the new fashion and style magazines. In contrast with what he sees now as an excess of style, a celebration of artifice and a strong cultural preference for pastiche, Hebdige seeks out the reassuringly real. He suggests that the slick joky tone of postmodernism, especially that found on the pages of The Face, represents a disengagement with the real, and an evasion of social responsibility.
He therefore insists on a return to the world of hunger, exploitation and oppression and with it a resurrection of unfragmented, recognizable subjectivity. He fleetingly engages with an important characteristic of the post-modern condition, that is, the death of subjectivity and the emergence, in its place, of widespread social schizophrenia. Hebdige seems to be saying that if this rupturing of identity is what postmodernism is about, then he would rather turn his back on it.
The position of Clement Greenberg in his 1980 lecture entitled The Notion of the “Post-Modern” could be summarized in the following terms: modernism in painting has been, since its inception with Manet and the impressionists, a heroic struggle against the encroachment of bad taste or kitsch in the domain of art; postmodernism is only the latest name under which commercial bad taste, masquerading as sophisticated “advancedness,” challenges the integrity of art. Any deviation from modernism, then, involves a betrayal or corruption of aesthetic standards.
Seen from this vantage point, the “post-modern” cannot be much more than a renewed “urge to relax,” particularly pervasive after the advent of pop art, with its deleterious effects on the art world. This type of argument (modernism’s self-conscious mission, to exorcise bad taste from the domain of high art, is today as urgent as it ever was) appears in a variety of forms and shapes in the writings of the defenders of modernist purity against the infiltrations of commercialism and fashion. This realized art, however, is not in a harmonious universal style as Mondrian was envisaging.
It consists mostly in forms of art considered banal, sentimental, and in bad taste by most in the Fine Art artworld. Further, because so many people have no interest in Fine Art, it is often thought that visual art has somehow lost its relevance and potency. People ask what the point of art is, and whether it is worthwhile spending public money on art. When people think of art, they think of Fine Art, and the influence of Fine Art seems to be in decline. However, although Fine Art seems to be in decline as a cultural force, visual art has more power in culture now than it ever had.
Visual art is not all Fine Art. There is a diversity of kinds of art in contemporary culture. Besides Fine Art, there is also Popular Art, Design Art, and advertising. What Fine Art does for us is just a small part of the total cultural value we get from art. As traditional culture recedes from memory, and technology changes our lifestyles, people look for new values and lifestyles. These new values and lifestyles are carried by the art broadcast over the mass media and on the products we buy. The mass-media arts define our heroes and tell us about the good. Advertisements define pleasure and lifestyle.
With mass-market goods we dress our bodies and houses in art, thus using art to define who we are. These contemporary visual arts play a large part in shaping our values, fantasies, and lifestyles. However, conventional art histories tend not to treat the other powerful visual arts of our own time beyond Fine Art, namely, Popular Art, Design Art, and advertising. Advertising is not considered “art” because it is not functionless beyond being aesthetic. Also, the advertising does not typically show personal expressive creativity. So, the Design Arts are typically considered mere decoration.
Popular Art is thought of as in bad taste, banal, sentimental, and so not worthy of consideration either. Since art histories are only looking at “good” art, they tend not to consider these other arts. Standing as they most often do within the Fine Art art world, art historians use the ideology and sense of artistic value of Fine Art to evaluate all art. From the perspective of the contemporary art world, Popular Art is thought of as a kind of Fine Art; that is, bad Fine Art or Fine Art in bad taste. It seems hackneyed and banal to the Fine Art art world.
From their perspective, popular taste is bad taste. For example, Osvaldo Yero, an artist who emerged in the 1990s, has based his work on the technique and poetics of the plaster figures. These figures, mostly decorations, but also religious images, were perhaps considered the last gasp of bad taste. They constituted the epitome of “uncultivated” appropriation of icons from the “high” culture as well as from mass culture, done in a poor and artificial material par excellence, worked clumsily in a semi-industrial technique and polychromed with pretentious attempts at elegance.
They symbolized the triumph of “vulgarity, ” the failure of the “aesthetic education of the masses” proposed by socialism. By the 1920s business and advertising agencies had realized that putting style and color choices into the products they made increased consumption. Through the use of advertising and by designing stylistic variety into their products, manufacturers elevated things into the category of fashion goods that had before just been utility goods, like towels, bedding, and bathroom fixtures.
Previously these items did not have any style component, but now designers added decoration to their functional design. This meant that now consumers could choose products not just for function, but also for style. People could now have pink sheets, green toilets, and blue phones. There is a tension in design style between aesthetic formalist styles like the international style, and design styles that are figurative. Those favoring figurative design tend to think of products as coming in a great variety and designed to appeal to the various tastes of consumers.
Here the style of the products are not dictated by function, but by market pressures. This is a further development of design for sales. This gave rise to what is known as niche marketing, where the styling is targeted to a smaller, more specific group than mass marketing is. Thus, they shun the idea of a unified worldwide machine aesthetic. For example, a razor can be pink with flowers on it to target it to female users, and black with blue accent lines to target it to male users. The razor is the same, but the razor is packaged with different styling to sell the product to different markets.
In designing for niche markets, the styling reflects the class, age group, profession, and aspirations of the target group. This goes hand in hand with advertising, and requires a great deal of research to discover what these values are and what styling motifs succeed in communicating them. The exemplary text or the single, richly coded image gives way to the textual thickness and the visual density of everyday life, as though the slow, even languid ‘look’ of the semiologist is, by the 1980s, out of tempo with the times.
The field of postmodernism certainly expresses a frustration, not merely with this seemingly languid pace, but with its increasing inability to make tangible connections between the general conditions of life today and the practice of cultural analysis. Structuralism has also replaced old orthodoxies with new ones. This is apparent in its rereading of texts highly placed within an already existing literary or aesthetic hierarchy. Elsewhere it constructs a new hierarchy, with Hollywood classics at the top, followed by selected advertising images, and girls’ and women’s magazines rounding it off.
Other forms of representation, particularly music and dance, are missing altogether. Huyssen argues that “Pop in the broadest sense was the context in which a notion of the post-modern first took shape, and the most significant trends within postmodernism have challenged modernism’s relentless hostility to mass culture. High theory was simply not equipped to deal with multilayered pop. ” References Bell, Daniel. (1976). The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books. C. Norris, ‘Lost in the funhouse: Baudrillard and the politics of postmodernism’, in R.
Boyne and A. Rattansi (eds) Postmodernism and Society, London, Macmillan, 1990. Hall, Stuart, Connell, Ian and Curti, Lidia (1981). ‘The “unity” of current affairs television’, in T. Bennett et al. (eds) Popular Television and Film, London: BFI. Harvey, David (1989). The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford: Blackwell. Hebdige, Dick (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London: Routledge. Huyssen, A. (1984). ‘Mapping the postmodern’, New German Critique 33. Jameson, Fredric (1984). ‘Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism’, New Left Review 146.