When I was 10 years old, I had an argument with my parents. We were on our way back from a family holiday and I was pained by the fact we were not going to get home in time to watch a Simpson’s episode after religiously watching every episode since its release in 1990. I was excited to get home and be meaninglessly entertained not understanding the many messages ‘The Simpsons’ contains.
Little did I know, at the ripe age of 10, that I was a victim of the Culture Industry and its many implications.
So what is the culture industry? Being an etymology lover, I was immediately drawn to that fact that the word culture, has the word ‘cult’ in it, and herein lies an essential ingredient of the ideology behind the Culture Industry. ‘Culture’, to cultivate and grow, and ‘Cult’ denoting worship or divinity, is a fine mix of the paradigms Adorno and Horkheimer’s touch on in their theories of Culture Industry.
The term ‘Culture Industry’ was coined in the book Dialectic of Enlightenment, in 1947. Both Adorno and Horkheimer (2002) proposed that popular culture is synonymous with the standardization, commodification and homogenization of mass-produced goods, for us as consumers to passively consume. Consequently, the culture industry has an inherent contribution and relationship with our capitalist society, globalization, and insatiable need to consume media and products. My own empirical observations of how we consume media and its products are in alignment with Adorno and Horkheimer’s ideas. This is partly due to my background in business as well as previously studying advertising, PR and consumer behaviour as a part of my Bachelor degree. I have always been particularly interested in consumer behaviour and the next book on my reading list is “What Makes Us Tick” by Hugh Mackay.
They discuss the concepts of ‘low-art’ and ‘high-art’ i.e. that High art is appreciated by those with the most cultivated taste and low art is for the masses, accessible and easy to comprehend. Which begs the question, does art lose its value if it appeals to the masses? Wouldn’t one assume that an increase in popularity means that is value is higher? And, what does it mean to have cultivated taste? Just because art has a limited audience, does it mean it is of high sophistication? And how does one value art, or the culture industries, if not by its direct response by the market in which it operates and its popularity of what has been created? Or should I say curated?
Taking things a step further, Adorno and Horkheimer acknowledge that even when we are aware of the mechanics of the culture industry, and understand the economics and commercial implications of art, culture, and creativity, we still participate, support and involve ourselves in the industry. Whether that be by creating cultural products, or consuming them, or both. We seem to voluntarily participate in what appears to be some sort of mass psychosis.
Cultural products are goods and services that include the arts (performing arts, visual arts, architecture), heritage conservation (museums, galleries, libraries), the cultural industries (written media, broadcasting, film, recording), and festivals. J. Dayton-Johnson (2000). The primary purpose of popular culture, according to (Crothers, 2009), was to be consumed by users who paid for the privilege of reading a mass produced book or magazine. Such production was essentially secular in nature, meaning nothing was sacred or holy – everything was available for marketing and consumption.
Walter Benjiman argues that art is devalued by mechanical reproduction. Though I am unsure that I agree. I don’t believe that something is devalued simply because there is more of it. Look at population growth; this does not devalue the significance of one person’s life. Or does it?
Yes, there are capital implications of mass-production, though, dare I say, this does not mean that capitalism and the free market economy is all bad. It just requires awareness and management.
I have previously referred to Banksy in a video found here and below view from 2’00” to 2’28”. I am a big fan of his work, simply because it is difficult to create new and innovative art pieces. I see his work as bold and full of risk because it challenges social norms, and confronts the art world and the culture industry, by being unique, provocative and experimental. Does this mean I enjoy high-art? Perhaps, or is Banksy considered mainstream due to his popularity? Perhaps it is low art, or perhaps it is both. At what point does art hit a tipping point? What are those metrics? How are they measured and defined? When does a song become mainstream? After how many plays and via which channels?
Banksy’s contribution to the Simpson’s opening scene is incredibly powerful. Not only is it a blatant mockery of western civilization and the issues of Culture Industry, it introduces broader ethical themes such as white privilege, racial-economics and political nuances that you would expect The Simpson’s production team to feel uneasy about. The fact that one of the first scenes involves a little boy in close proximity to highly toxic material introduces the theme of child labour as well as toxicity and what it represents metaphorically: the degree to which a substance can harm humans or animals. The following scenes touch on fast fashion, animal cruelty and the abuse of animals for the purpose of trade and entertainment, and links these activities to mass production.
The exploitation of people, resources, and animals is fanciful given Matt Groening’s net worth has been reported as $500 million. Wikipedia contributors (2017). Matt Groening has earned an impressive fortune by creating The Simpsons. And there is a part of me that thinks, “good on him”. As practitioners of the arts, we can’t be envious of financial success yet seek it ourselves. What quandary!
The irony in the short introduction is very well done. I had no idea, previous to this discussion that ‘The Simpson’s’ outsourced their animation work to South Korea, and while I am assuming their workers conditions are far more superior to what is depicted in this short artistic statement by Banksy, the American producers’ reasons as to why they are outsourcing the work to South Korea is because, well, it is cheaper to make the production there. And here lies out the connection to capitalism and it’s ensuing issues.
If I am honest about my reflection on this topic, it makes me sad, discouraged and a little depressed to participate in the Culture Industries. 30 years on, I can honestly say that ignorance is bliss and there is a part of me that craves to be 10 years old again.
ADORNO, T. W., & BERNSTEIN, J. M. (2001). The culture industry: selected essays on mass culture. London, Routledge.
BENJAMIN, W., (2011) Notes on Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, a commentary by Gareth Griffiths, Aalto University, Harvard University Press.
Crothers, Lane (2009) Globalization and American Popular Culture. Maryland, Rowman & Littlefield.
Fisher, J., A., (2013) High art versus low art Authored by: John A. The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics Print publication date: April 2013 Online publication date: April 2013
Horkheimer, Max, 1895-1973. (2002). Dialectic of enlightenment: philosophical fragments. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.
Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (1993). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In Dialectic of enlightenment, (pp. 120-167). New York: Continuum.
J. Dayton-Johnson (2000), What’s Different About Cultural Products?: An Economic Framework. Ottawa: Canadian Heritage.
Storey, J. (2014). What is popular culture? In Cultural theory and popular culture: An introduction, (pp. 1-15). Harlow, England: Pearson Longman.
Wikipedia contributors (2017) Focus On: 100 Most Popular American Agnostics. Amazon Digital Services LLC.