Is mass culture still culture?

For a long time, the term “culture” referred only to the erudition, the “savoir-vivre” and the intellectual know-how of an elite. However, the term “mass culture” denotes the popular imagination (without being confused with “popular culture”, but rather in the sense of a large number of people). It has nothing to do, therefore, with the withdrawn and overhanging part that the elites represent in society.

First and foremost, the subject presupposes the need for a definition of culture. Culture in the sense that interests us is opposed to nature and designates the genius of each civilisation/people, the knowledge of this genial production, and more generally the process of forming the mind through knowledge itself. And common sense leads us to admit that this knowledge will depend on empirical factors; and that its constitution will be established from an environment, a context, an education. From there, a paradox arises. How can a notion full of individuality, based on the singularity of a people and of the individual learner, be annexed to a term that massifies?

There is indeed a contradiction here.

One would think a priori that culture is a phenomenon of humanisation, of the elevation of man through knowledge and the development of his reason. But mass culture has the gift of sounding negative. As if stained with impersonality, it seems to refer to the greatest number, to the crowd (and Nietzsche would say of the crowd that it is nothing more than a “sum of errors that must be corrected”), not requiring the exercise of judgement, as if it were addressed to a single melted being: mass society.

The so-called “mass” culture is in fact information, knowledge that is established as such “as a function of its massive distribution and tends to be addressed to a human mass, that is to say, to an agglomeration of individuals considered outside their professional or social affiliation”, according to Edgar Morin’s definition in “Sociologie”, published in 1984. But we could more simply define it as a phenomenon of pleasure-seeking on the part of this mass society. Often described as “subculture” or “decadent culture”, and considering the internal contradictions of this notion of mass culture, a massifying culture that is a priori depersonalising, can we still consider it as such? Are all the means of dissemination (from the point of view of the media) and assimilation (from the point of view of the individual), as well as their necessarily simplified content, legitimised precisely in the name of culture itself? In other words, is mass culture still culture?

The easy life, the hijacking of the difficult: the decadence of culture ?

From the outset, we notice that mass culture is an act of consumption. Consumption that is no longer only intellectual, but also and above all financial, and which thus translates into instantaneous and disconcertingly easy access to knowledge. This culture is therefore often based on a voluntary act, the act of choosing to consume the product of a cultural industry. But don’t we often find, on the contrary, that it is imposed on us, as a kind of social necessity? Certain ideals of being in the world, of experience and knowledge are often required to fit perfectly into the social fabric. It will be music to know, films to have seen, things to have done. Doesn’t the short distance between us and knowledge, and the little effort required to access this culture presented as a social necessity, finally contradict by definition the term culture? The term is derived from the Latin colere, which means, among other things, to cultivate the land. Doesn’t cultivation require time and effort? Today, culture is reduced to a market value, and is therefore acquired as instantly as it is transmitted. It is subject to the force of simplicity (reading Aristotle and reading a comic book summarising Aristotle’s main theses do not require the same level of effort). It is a spontaneous culture, in which we do not invest ourselves.

From then on, is it still culture that does not obey its fundamental principles? Should we not prefer the term entertainment? Hannah Arendt, in her book “The Crisis of Culture”, presents the phenomenon of the rejection of culture by mass society in favor of leisure and declares that “culture is destroyed in order to generate leisure”. It is in fact more to entertain oneself, in other words, fundamentally to turn away from death and fill the emptiness of one’s existence, than to try to understand it, that man resorts to the consumption of entertainment. In doing so, he turns away from the real meaning and perceives only the superficial meaning of the content conveyed by the media (derived from medium, meaning the means of). Here, it is a question of the means of appropriating knowledge, through works that are nonetheless empty of meaning because of the uniformisation and infantilizing simplification that they undergo and thereby subject man’s reason to. Culture, which is supposed to elevate man through the exercise of his reason and faculty of judgement, is apparently found in mass society under the reality of entertainment, the product of a market that breaks the links between signified reality and effective reality, and puts people to sleep instead of awakening their consciences. (Hannah Arendt reminds us how important it is for man to apprehend the world as it really is in order to forge a thought process that will enable him to escape from his reassuring illusions).

Mass culture would therefore be a real promotion of passivity and conformity; a source of debasement of thought and culture engendered, among other things, by the industry that produces it and lowers it to the status of a commodity. Produced by industries and based on strategies aimed at profit (we speak of cultural marketing), culture, which is then transformed in mass society into mere entertainment, is entirely standardised and uniform, as Adorno demonstrates. Cinema is produced by meter, comedy is produced by meter, and literature is no exception. Every cultural object then has a market value (the Louvre, for example, opens a duplicate in the United Arab Emirates), and tends to be aimed at the greatest number, as the term “mass” indicates. But if culture is now called “mass”, there remains the possibility of hope: by considering this new culture from a new angle adapted to the evolution of society, and not from a reactionary point of view. After all, hasn’t culture evolved to want to bring people together? Shouldn’t this mass culture be considered as different, and with its singular advantages, instead of being simply reduced to a subculture, to a culture of decadence, or even to a vulgar entertainment? Difference does not presuppose a degree of value in comparison. It should also be remembered that the very term “mass culture”, in the negativity it implies, also implies that it was invented by its detractors, out of rejection of a decline. “Mass culture” was in fact invented by the elites themselves, in order to segment culture into the good and the bad. There would be the one that elevates you, and the one that dumbs you down. Do we really believe this?

Mass culture as social cement

Being a phenomenon in which art participates (although culture is not art, it participates in it, and even more so if we understand it in the sense of the Ancients, i.e. covering the Tekné, the production resulting from the hands and intelligence of man), the idea of its large-scale dissemination, thus making art accessible to all, would be a good thing. Advertising in France, for example, now reaches the entire population without exception through the channels it uses, and re-uses the codes of contemporary art (among others). The masses do not in general feel the meaning of contemporary art, and on this point are rather reactionary. The public does not naturally gravitate towards this new form of art, which may partly explain the interest of the advertisement “if the public does not go to the art, the art will come to them”. The outlines of a true democratisation of culture are thus taking shape, a permission to access a privilege formerly reserved for the elite and the erudite. Access to a popularised culture, which as we have seen can be more of an entertainment, can, instead of alienating and feeding the masses with emptiness, incite creation, arouse inspiration, or even vocations. Without the reproductions of paintings available on the Internet, how many people could afford to look at a Vermeer? Mass culture, seen in this light, would be culture for everyone. Moreover, the evolution of society in terms of speed and technology should not be overlooked. Culture implies time, which we no longer have, or more precisely, which we no longer take. Instead of always vainly trying to propose inapplicable solutions to this “decadence of culture”, should we not simply stop comparing with the past and accept mass culture in its form, in other words in the form of a large-scale and rapid distribution of cultural products?

But mass culture also has the merit of being able to establish itself as a link between all social beings. It is indeed the need for a common base that drives the consumption of cultural products. And this common base, this faith in a culture that brings people together, can be compared to the Myth of the Autochtonous created by Plato to lay the foundations of politics, which is impossible without a belief, meaning a common base. Mass culture would then be constitutive of the community. Thanks to this popularisation, especially in the case of art, democracy is applied. Kant, for example, believed that culture is what enables people to “come out of their minority” and to be in the world by developing what nature has endowed them with, i.e. their reason. In 1936, with the arrival of paid holidays in France, the question of how to occupy free time was raised: this was the beginning of a road towards the democratisation of culture. André Malraux, one of the engineers of mass culture, founded the Maison de la Culture and the “Art et Essai” label for the cinema. Later, Jean Vilar set up his festival in Avignon, on the holiday route of most French tourists. The problem of mass culture would then not be one of form, but of substance, and would simply need to be rethought.

Rethinking a democratic culture

By proving its democratic character, are we not being a bit idealistic? Mass culture also has its anti-democratic character, because it can be used as a tool. Dictatorships are rarely satisfied with the official press to establish their power, and prefer to reach the people through mass culture, such as television soap operas.

In general, mass culture is still culture when it reflects the uniqueness of a people (K-pop in South Korea, French chanson…) and exports it in a way that makes it accessible to (relatively) everyone. Although it does not require the time and labour that the etymology implies, mass culture must be considered in its own time, not comparatively in time. It could be called a new culture, easy and relaxing; and this must be understood in the context of the already demanding and heavy society in which we live. Will the worker coming home from work want to read Voltaire, or a Harlan Coben thriller? The example of Michel Onfray or Stéphane Bern is also interesting. Qualified as mass culture, is it not nevertheless the impulse of the most intellectually deprived people to access technical knowledge, albeit democratised?

It is simply a matter of enhancing and changing the relationship of the masses to a demanding culture BY mass culture. Who created the system of thought that allow us today to differenciate precisely between classical culture, elite culture, and mass culture? Precisely the tenants of the dominant culture, or classical culture, mentioned in the introduction. The reasons for such fragmentation, but above all for its clear hierarchization, have more or less the same reasons linked to the constant devaluation of women’s works in history. There is the privileged angle, the angle of analysis in terms of differences in education, stimulation, vulgarity. This angle is the one we need to question, and it reminds us of how the duality between mass culture and elite culture was constructed at the end of the nineteenth century, reinforced by the class distinction, between the educated public and the vulgar public. Whatever their field, creators and art critics reproduce the elitist scheme, opposed to the popular one. This effective way of classification draws the line between legitimate and illegitimate culture, and maintains hierarchies between works. Isn’t it high time to put an end to this?

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Gabriele Diana
Gabriele Diana
3 months ago

The article is enlightening to say the least, comprehensive and well rooted in serious humanitarian studies, it gives great insights on how to proactively relate to mass produced culture and art today. Definitely worth a read, complexity should encourage you to read this.