The Illusion of Choice: On “Popular” vs. Mass Art
Commentators and activists with a leftist bent have been raising the alarm over the monopolization of the culture industry for as long as anyone can remember. Neo-liberalized ownership rules and lax regulatory frameworks have allowed a small circle of plutocrats to devour smaller companies left and right. Far too often, these alarms are wedded to the premise that media can be fair or balanced under capitalism if only there are enough small players. Long before the current round of consolidations, the culture industry in capitalist centres made it its business to propagate a desolate, one-dimensional popular culture. What is happening here is just the normal mechanisms of capitalism at work, and we know that “The enormous growth of industry and the remarkably rapid concentration of production in ever-larger enterprises are one of the most characteristic features of capitalism.”¹ Power and wealth concentrate in fewer and fewer hands as the vast majority of workers, and eventually even smaller capitalists, fall victim to monopolization.
It’s helpful to keep the above in mind because one of the most important challenges confronting the Left is the creation of truly mass art, culture, philosophy, etc. Often, however, liberal tendencies in media criticism tend to misidentify the current popular culture as the culture of the masses, believing that there is a correspondence between what people want and what the culture industry manufactures for them. Critics who buy into this mystification often attack cultural work that is imagined to be highbrow or obscure, as well as the critics who champion such work, as snobs or elitists. Popularity, expressed as attendance figures, ratings, and, in the final instance, dollar figures (i.e. capitalist profits) becomes for them a vital metric for the significance of a work.
One particularly unsightly manifestation of this phenomenon is in “poptimist” music criticism. While it has a few valuable insights about how conventional music criticism is constricted by an unquestioning allegiance to “rockist” standards, it ultimately amounts to nothing more than a crude celebration of Billboard and whatever the monopolists promote as valuable at a given moment. Popularity is mistaken for relevance to the masses, market categories for meaningful “diversity.” While it is important to understand “pop” music (here understood as a marketing category and production process that de-centers the individual writer-artist rather than a coherent genre or style), it is far too easy to slide into simply validating what the monopoly feeds people. Another error I’ve addressed in the past is the direct opposite, imagining that the sophisticated and “independent” producers can somehow escape the dictates of the market, the crude economist straitjacket that binds all of culture in the capitalist centres and increasingly extends its grip to the rest of the world as well.
Ultimately, consuming one form of art or another can render no particular virtue to anyone. But art criticism tends to only concern itself with the moment of consumption, the subjective experiences of the critic or audience that has paid its admission fee. For Marxists, the question of production takes the first priority. Who is producing art, and for whom? Popular art today might need the masses to line up for blockbusters and tune in to The Big Bang Theory to generate profits, but that makes it in no way genuine mass art. It is art by and for elites, designed to promote and profit from the basest human desires––and this is often the case in a more obscure way for more highbrow art as well. “As Chairman Mao states, Whatever is under the leadership of the bourgeoisie can- not possibly be of the masses.”² Mass art proceeds from the masses, through production facilities and distribution channels collectively owned and democratically managed by all the people. It fulfills people’s needs, provoking their curiosity and encouraging their noblest attributes. Mass art recognizes neither the elitism of the old aristocratic arts nor the crass pandering of popular entertainments. For the sake of nuance, I am obliged to say that, within the current order, it is possible and, for revolutionary artists, necessary to create mass art, if only on an experimental basis. The criterion for such works, however, is not beauty alone but their capacity to move people toward revolution. This is articulated beautifully in the manifesto “Towards a Third Cinema:”³
“Any attempt, no matter how virulent, which does not serve to mobilise, agitate, and politicise sectors of the people, to arm them rationally and perceptibly, in one way or another, for the struggle – is received with indifference or even with pleasure. Virulence, nonconformism, plain rebelliousness, and discontent are just so many more products on the capitalist market; they are consumer goods. This is especially true in a situation where the bourgeoisie is in need of a daily dose of shock and exciting elements of controlled violence (7) – that is, violence which absorption by the System turns into pure stridency. Examples are the works of a socialist-tinged painting and sculpture which are greedily sought after by the new bourgeoisie to decorate their apartments and mansions; plays full of anger and avant-gardism which are noisily applauded by the ruling classes; the literature of ‘progressive’ writers concerned with semantics and man on the margin of time and space, which gives an air of democratic broadmindedness to the System’s publishing houses and magazines; and the cinema of ‘challenge,’ of ‘argument,’ promoted by the distribution monopolies and launched by the big commercial outlets”
Whether arising from the avarice of the big bourgeoisie or the solipsism and petty academic concerns of the petty bourgeoisie, the art of capitalist centres is in the main corrupt and reactionary. Its watchwords are tedium, mindless repetition, and gross violations of the human person. Only the revolutionary seizure of the means of production––cultural and otherwise, since the culture industry is utterly dependent on the other industries to survive––by the proletariat can allow for the conditions in which truly mass art can bud and flourish. Our criticism of media cannot stop at our impressions and opinions; it must extend to the very origins of whatever we are observing. Only then can it serve as a truly radical critique, understanding not only what something means but who it means something to and whose interests it serves. If we do not understand these things, we will fail to understand art, which is every much as part of the concrete world as it is the world of ideas.
3. Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, “Towards a Third Cinema”
Other helpful links on the subject:
Walter Benjamin: “On the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
(I did not speak much on the issue of imperialism as it relates to reproducing capitalism as a world system and its role in oppressing the peripheral nations to the profit of the centre, which I will rectify at a later date.)