For about a century, Western Culture has really been divided into two cultures, the traditional type of ‘high culture’ and a ‘mass culture’ manufactured wholesale for the market. High culture is the arts that require some form of intellect to comprehend, so therefore can only reach a tiny segment of the population, whilst levelling accusations of elitism. High culture includes ballet; the forms of operas, operettas and symphonies; types of film; certain novels; theatre and plays.
Mass or popular culture is derived from high culture, so for every item in high culture, there is a corresponding item of lesser importance in popular culture. Forms of popular culture include television, comics and magazines, pop music and the cinema. It is acknowledged that mass culture is to some extent a continuation of the old Folk Art that grew through the Industrial Revolution as the culture of the common people. The notifiable dissimilarity is its own spontaneity and ability to satisfy the needs of the people, without the benefit of high culture.
To satisfy the popular taste, as Robert Burns’s poetry did, and to exploit tastes, in the manner of massive industries like Hollywood does, are very different indeed; folk art was a separate institution, created by and for the people; wheras businessmen’s only interest in the cultural field is to produce profit- and even to maintain their class rule fabricate Mass culture. It is accepted that mass culture began as, and to some extent still is, a cancerous growth on high culture, as shown when Clement Greenburg stated, ‘Kitsch (German term for mass culture) takes advantage of.
Fully matured cultural tradition, extracting its riches and putting nothing back’. Constantly evolving, kitsch reduces so far away from high culture as to appear quite disconnected from it. Mass culture is imposed from above, as Karl Marx recognised, onto the passive susceptibility of the ignorant masses, to which decisions lie between consumption or no consumption. It is therefore, the ‘Lords of kitsch’ that are the sole beneficiaries; mass culture integrates the masses in a form of debased high culture.
This lack of control proves the power of the mass culture businessman, shown when during the 1929 depression, when capitalism was in chaos, focus was turned from the ‘idols of production’ to the ‘idols of consumption’ such as Hollywood movie stars, creating a ‘dreamlikeworld’, a marketing heaven, for the masses to aspire to. Mass culture can therefore never be worthwhile. Commodities are imposed upon the masses, taking away freedom of choice and individuality. Instead of being related to one another as members of a community, the relation is formed with a system of industrial production, something abstract and untouchable.
The great culture-bearing elites have communities with members having an individual role and sharing similar interests. In contrast, mass society sinks to the lowest level, to that of its most primitive members, its taste complies with that of the least sensitive and most ignorant member. Members accept any idiocy if it is wholly agreed as knowledge in the capitalist superstructure. Homogenized mass culture is so rigidly democratic, refusing distinction or discrimination that it succeeds in destroying all values and dissolving any form of barriers.
The homogenizing effects of kitsch also denote a blur in age segregation. The easy access to all mass culture means that all forms of mass culture means that children are subjected to the worst kind of capitalism; that which encourages infantile regression and escape via consumption of commodities or ‘over stimulation’ resulting in growing up to quickly, and a barrage of associated problems. Without further detail, mass culture could reveal capitalism to be an exploitative class society; rather than the harmonious commonwealth openly alleged.
This makes mass culture a form of political domination, as Soviet Communism and its own kind of mass culture have shown. The conservative proposal to rescue Avant-gardeesque values of old class lines from the domination of the two great mass nations, USA and USSR, seems increasingly infallible, due to internal causes and the increasing suffocation of the Avant-garde movement by mass culture. Where class lines ever-blur, the cultural tradition is absent, the greater kitsch manufacturing abilities become, dragging any form of cultural elitism further downwards.
The result is the weakening of the intelligentsia, where work is limited to specialist fields and whose isolation keeps greatening. This is an alarming prospect to confront, considering the intelligentsia hold the key to our future development, and most importantly, understanding of us. Mass culture continually brings down the standards of the people and degrades high culture, meaning it can never attempt to be equal to, or superior to, high culture. Only a type of culture that was derived entirely from, not imposed upon, the people, such as the Folk Art movement, could ever be comparable to high culture.