17 Feb - Art & Mass Culture

Art & Mass Culture

Following written material is produced and displayed on the Wiki as the last part of assignment B. In this context it is to be said that the gathering of notes below is based on the oral presentation held February 17. Furthermore we, as a group, have tried to incorporate the constructive criticism, given at the same occasion, to adjust our presentation in such a way that the written material hopefully reflects the advice handed to us. We have therefore decided to concentrate primarily on our product of American Idol and adjusted our theory likewise.

The issue

The advent of mechanically produced "art" in the beginning of 20th century made it possible for mass culture to emerge as an independent entity and a completely autonomous institution in its own right. With art institution's position in society now threatened by the new and more popular mass culture new movements emerged as an attempt to somehow make art more relevant. The following issue will deal with the duality of art and mass culture:
Can the art institution and mass culture unify, so that the institution is no longer autonomous? Who owns artistic value?

The concept of American Idol

A short description of the concept is needed in order to proceed in the process of bringing our points about. American Idol is an American reality television competition which finds new solo musical talent. It was created by Simon Fuller and aired for the first time in 2002, a spin-off from the British show Pop-Idol from 2001. American idol is an interactive mass-media production that in spite of its mainstream being present itself as capable of constituting something extraordinary like art.

The artistic value is, in the end, decided by the audience through text-voting, hence the interactive part. This selection process is guided by the ‘expert panel’ of the show. Following YouTube-clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yN50xpLYpRk display how Victoria Beckham is introduced as a guest judge on the show. Her opinion in the ‘expert panel’ is given value through the already gained value that V. Beckham has established within and through the mass-culture, from her days as a Spice Girl throughout today.The value of art is set within the Institution of Mass-Culture itself and not by the Art Institution.

A program like American Idol raises the questions:
- Is this art?
- What is art?
- Who decides what art is?

In order to determine whether American Idol is an art form or not, it is useful to try to classify it in terms of Bürger's evolution of art from the ancient to the bourgeois, with American Idol and other mass culture products in a category following the bourgeois. Looking at it this way, it becomes clear that American Idol has more in common with the cultic art of the ancients than the self-reflective art of of the last 200 years. Like sacral art, American Idol creates a cult object- a celebrity. The cult of celebrity is not something new. Benjamin refers to it in his artwork essay as the replacement for the aura in film. Also like sacral art, American Idol is received collectively. The community makes their opinion on the cult object (performer) known with text/telephone voting. The interface of American Idol allows the "art" audience to reconnect in a way that that cold museum corridors of the traditional art institution does not allow.

One might say that when Bürger speaks of The Avantgarde movement as failed. Because the Art Institution has been able to integrate these tendicies along the way (Duchamp ex), that maybe the kind of ‘indirect’ provocation from the Mass-Culture Institution points to the fact that mass-culture is succeeding where the avant-garde failed. The mass-culture phenomena American Idol uses the mainstream, instead of rejecting it like the avant-garde, to raise the questions the avant-garde wanted to illuminate. The questions of art-value are raised through the mainstream.

Theodor W. Adorno "Culture Industry Reconsidered"

Adornos main concern in this text is the relationship between the individual and mass culture, or the Culture Industry as he names it. The culture industry not only eliminates the critical judgement in the individual, it also forces together the two pheres of 'high' and 'low' art to great damage for both of them. The loss of the peoples critical judgement, the end result manipulated into existence by the culture industry, turns them passive and unrebellious. By wondering over the efficacy of 'high' art and putting constraits on the 'low' arts rebillious resistance inhereted from historie, the culture industry lulls people into an existence of, what he calls, an eternal sameness. The culture industry contains no inner contradictions, it exists purely for profit. But they (the culture industry) would like us (the people) to think otherwise - therefor, according to Adorno, the manipulation runs deeb enough so that it convinces us of an individuality, a freedom of choice and an identity (or 'aura' based on Walter Benjamins describtion) that is nothing, but a decaying aura or a foggy mist.

Therefor in the case of a show such as The American Idol, this is an example of what Adorno would condem as a creation of the culture industry. His point being, that the culture industry introduces us with manufactored realities of the status quo that means to bring us comfort, but they are false comforts since there are no real comforts in them. These 'advices' and 'behaviour patterns' that are being introduced to us are comformist and helps us (our conciousness) to develope retrogressively instead of developing us as strong and selfthinking individuals. Adorno writes:
"It solves conflicts for them (people) only in appearance, in a way that they can hardly be solved in their real lives."
This concept can be found in American Idol as well. This world that grants dreams and where you can even help make them come true (the voting). But it is not how the world works and therefor Adorno ends the text with the following conclusion:

"The total effect of the culture industry is one of anti-enlightment, in which, as Horkheimer and I have noted, enlightment, that is progressive technical domination of nature, becomes mass deception and is turned into a means for fettering consciousness."


Where the historical avantgarde has failed in regards to blur the line between practical life or mass culture and the art institution, certain neo-avantgarde movements have been slightly more succesful. Pop-art from the 1960's has especially managed to blur the line because it embraced mass culture and absorbed it into the art institution, turning pop-artists (Warhol) into stars of their own rights. Pop-art did not reject mass culture but instead displayed mass culture and thereby pop-art to a certain extent became part of mass culture as well as the art institution. The question of art value here, although still determined by the institution, is more mainstream than the historical avantgarde because the public embraced pop-art as their own. Who hasn't played around in photoshop in an attempt to make a Warhol-esque portrait at some point?


During our discussion in class we touched upon the question of democracy in art and how the mass culture was a more democratic instance because it is commercially driven, therefore the user in the end has the last word. The problem with the art institution is that it is governed by people within the institution who does not necessarily now what the user wants and as a result of that, the art institution has a tendency towards removing itself from practical life and alienating itself. However, we mustn't forget that the "choices" that mass culture offers can hardly be considered choice. You can choose to vote for any number of the top 10 on American Idol, but the top 10 are there by virtue of the fact that they were selected by the producers of the show as representing the kind of values and talent that they want to share with the audience.

The presentation slide

The presentation slide as pdf.

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