The Frankfurt School

The earliest concerted effort to theorize popular culture is to be found in the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, which was founded in Germany in 1923 by neo-Marxist sociologists who pioneered the field of "critical theory." Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Leo Lowenthal, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm were among its celebrated roster of intellectuals. Expelled from Germany by the Nazis, all of them migrated to the US in the early 1930's and temporarily relocated the School to New York and California. Their founding problem was the puzzling fact that the working class failed to see the wretched conditions in which it labored and consequently failed to overthrow its oppressors. Indeed, the underclass had grown rather comfortable with capitalism. Marx had predicted that capitalism was an unstable system, on the verge of crisis and a revolution from below. What the Frankfurt theorists concluded was that the masses had so deeply imbibed the ideology of the ruling class that they were operating out of it and sustaining it without protest. They had been deluded with what Marx called a "false-consciousness." According to Marx,

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.30

In Marxist thought, that is to say, ideology refers to the presence in a society of a set of ideas and values that organize people's perceptions and vision of life. These ideas and values are so deeply embedded in their consciousness that they are taken for granted as reflecting what is most true about reality. The prevailing ideology in a society reflects the interests of the ruling class in maintaining their dominance. It is built into a society's myths and philosophy, and when the proletariat adopts it as their own view of the world, they have been co-opted by a false consciousness that hides from them the desperate condition of their lives under the capitalist system. In the twentieth century, the capitalist ideology circulated through what the Frankfurt theorists came to refer to as "the culture industries."

The culture industries churn out art and entertainment that lull the oppressed into believing that they are actually happy with their lot in life. These industries are overseen by the powerful heads of economic, political, and military establishments who hire specialists to reiterate through various media the ideology of capitalism. Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film, Modern Times, is a well-told Frankfurt parable - in it, the owners of industry are portrayed as using the media to exercise power over the laboring masses. Reading essays from the Frankfurt critics, we learn that through the diversions of such popular pastimes as baseball, jazz, Hollywood movies, radio, television, best-selling novels, comic books, and Disney's animation, the masses are distracted from the unbearable conditions in which they live, and their resentments and rage are dissipated. It is a kind of bread and circus effect. Their real need for political and economic liberation is transmuted into a "false need" for the freedom of choice between a plethora of consumer goods and brands that the great engines of capitalist production are ready to satisfy. Lured into the endless pursuit of satisfying their desires as consumers, the masses are diverted from becoming politically enlightened and also from devoting their energies into the production of a genuinely folk culture - which, if they put their minds to it, would allow them to give artistic expression to their resentments and thus make them aware of their condition. In this vein, Lowenthal wrote in a 1950 article, "Historical Perspectives of Popular Culture":

There is considerable agreement that all media are estranged from values and offer nothing but entertainment and distraction - that, ultimately, they expedite flight from an unbearable reality. Wherever revolutionary tendencies show a timid head, they are mitigated and cut short by a false fulfillment of wish dreams, like wealth, adventure, passionate love, power, and sensationalism in general.31

In one of the Institute's most influential essays, "On Popular Music," Adorno, inspired by his recent discovery of American popular music and Broadway musicals, attempted to articulate the way the culture industry manipulates mass psychology. After examining the work of performers such as Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, Artie Shaw, and Ginger Rogers, Adorno converges on the "releasing element" of popular music that reconciles people to their unhappiness: "It is katharsis for the masses," he writes, "but katharsis which keeps them all the more firmly in line."32 He then concludes that the energy expended on the weekends to master the frenzied histrionics of "jitterbugging," or "simply to 'like' popular music," depletes the reserves of energy that might otherwise further one's social transformation "into a man."33

This criticism of the hypnotizing effect of mass culture, driven by the culture industries, is the central assertion of the Frankfurt School. A second important feature of their dismissal of popular culture is its affinity for kitsch. They refined the notion of kitsch into a technical term with both aesthetic and political import. Unlike genuine art, which is difficult to experience, the reception of kitsch is effortless. According to Adorno, a genuine work of art requires effort to understand -substantively, because it explores the dialectic of the beautiful and the ugly, and formally because it portrays this dialectic through abstract and complex media, all of which demand sustained and disciplined reflection in order to grasp the inspiration behind them. Kitsch, on the other hand, is "sugary trash," which presents "the beautiful minus its ugly counterpart."34 By concealing the ugly, Adorno argued, kitsch panders to our longing to "feel on safe ground all of the time," gratifying our "infantile need for protection."35 Moreover, it is "pre-digested" art, which, as in the case of popular music, offers a "composition which hears for the listener" and "promotes conditioned reflexes," thus leaving the imagination dormant.36

A third feature of the Frankfurt School's disparagement of popular culture is found in its insistence that art - and specifically avant-garde art - is the cultural activity where the resources necessary to revolutionize the consciousness of the masses can be expected to arise. It is through such experimental and uncompromising artists as James Joyce and Picasso, Horkheimer insisted in 1941, that the appropriate responses of grief and horror to the "gulf between the monadic individual and his barbarous surrounding" is expressed.37 According to Adorno, an Expressionist work such as Picasso's Guernica evokes a public outcry that testifies to its power to "bring to light what is wrong with present social conditions."38 In contrast to the entertainment industry, Adorno proposed, modernist art "respects the masses," in that, "It puts before them an image of what they might be, rather than adapting to their dehumanized condition."39 Genuine art, he reasoned, is always ahead of the commonly subscribed values in a culture, turning on them in protest.40

Horkheimer, in his influential 1941 essay, "Art and Mass Culture," argued that genuine art always has a utopic dimension. "Art," he wrote, "since it became autonomous, has preserved the utopia that evaporated from religion." This is achieved in the way that art erects a world above the familiar world, and true works of art thus "harbor principles through which the world that bore them appears alien and false." When this effect is achieved, the experience of art can recall one to a "freedom that makes prevailing standards appear narrow-minded and barbarous." In inciting this judgment, true art - avant-garde art - enables one, then, to imagine a world different from that in which we live.41

These are the three most forceful criticisms of popular culture proposed by the Frankfurt critical theorists: popular culture is an instrument for maintaining class privilege, its heavy use of kitsch panders to people's infantile wishes for how the world ought to be, and it does not present to its audience a vision of the world that is different, and morally better, than the one in which we live. Only the art of the avant-garde can do this.

A fourth criticism of popular culture that can be found in the Frankfurt School, but which was further developed by a similarly-minded group of New York intellectuals who were associated with the journal Partisan Review, is found in the distinction they draw between "folk art" and "mass culture."42 Folk art in this schema is a precious achievement that arises authentically from "the people," and is a genuine expression of the insight they have into their own condition. Mass culture, on the other hand, is a new phenomenon made possible by new technologies of mechanical reproduction, a new set of artifacts that have been inserted between the old and discrete categories of highbrow and lowbrow art. Mass culture is a debasement of highbrow culture, diluting it for mass consumption - filling people's stomachs with objects that look like real art but are just empty calories. Ultimately, this dulls everyone's appetite for real high culture and the social benefits it conveys. In the words of Dwight Macdonald,

Folk Art grew from below. It was a spontaneous, autochthonous expression of the people, shaped by themselves, pretty much without the benefit of High Culture, to suit their own needs. Mass Culture is imposed from above. It is fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen; its audiences are passive consumers, their participation limited to the choice between buying and not buying. The Lords of kitsch, in short, exploit the cultural needs of the masses in order to make a profit and/or to maintain their class rule.43

Macdonald reaches the absolute conclusion that "Mass Culture is not and can never be any good."44 What is particularly insidious about it is the way it compromises both high culture and folk art. It usurps folk art by drying up the energies of the folk for producing their own artifacts, thus rendering them into a passive audience for mass culture - which is not art, but a commodity produced for profit and manipulation. And it vulgarizes the aesthetic and moral values that have traditionally been borne by high culture, even high culture in its avant-garde manifestations, leveling taste and moral sensibility down to the lowest common denominator. Disney, of course, came under sharp criticism from this point of view. He desecrated folk tales, symphonies, and abstract expressionist art by turning all of it into cartoons.

Eagleton has noted how various schools of cultural criticism have presumed an affinity between high and folk culture. "Whenever one hears admiring talk of the savage, one can be sure that one is in the presence of sophisticates. ... The overbred and the underdeveloped forge strange alliances."45 This is particularly the case in Marxist circles, where it serves as a means to demean the middling tastes of the bourgeoisie. Here, viewing "the habits of the majority" with distaste "is an abiding feature of 'high' or aesthetic culture. The patrician and the dissenter can thus link hands over the heads of the petty bourgeoisie."46

It is easy to dismiss the Frankfurt and Mass Culture critiques of popular culture as being shrill and elitist. The insistence that only the expressions of art that most people find alienating contain the truth - the assertion, that is, of the prophetic role of avant-garde modernism - is a bit haughty and overly pessimistic with respect to common tastes; and the idea that there are agents of culture industries who operate as a cabal, plotting the oppression of the masses, comes across as a bit paranoid. When one considers the hundreds of names that roll by in the credits following a movie, for instance, all of whom are employed in the culture industries, one must wonder what kind of power at the top would turn them all into collaborators. A movie represents so many layers of creative input - film editors, director, screenplay writer, book author, set designer, actors - that, even given the current small club of media conglomerates, it is hard to imagine all these notoriously cranky artists would consent to only telling stories that keep the masses hypnotically happy with their oppression. Particularly today, while there is a genre of formula blockbusters that may justify the suspicions of the Frankfurt School to some extent, the movie industry is not now the standardized entity that it may have been in the 1930s when the studio system was still operating and the Frankfurt School was developing these theories.

But there are still plenty of theorists in the Frankfurt camp, although the central critique that popular culture is an opiate of the masses is now blamed more on impersonal forces that have taken on a life of their own than on powerful individuals. J├╝rgen Habermas, Noam Chomsky, Neil Postman, and Jacques Ellul are among the more persuasive thinkers along these lines.47 And the effects of media and retail conglomerates like Time Warner-CNN and Wal-Mart do raise the specter of centralized control in the distribution of popular culture. There are now a handful of corporations that are approaching a monopoly on media properties, combining under a relatively small number of executives' control the country's dominant newspapers and magazines, radio stations, cable suppliers, Internet providers, television networks, record labels, and movie studios. The big retail chains like Wal-Mart have considerable clout in determining the books, music, and videos that Americans buy. Authors, musicians, and filmmakers have gone public with complaints that Wal-Mart's buyers are screening what they make available in the stores, and given that 100 million people shop at Wal-Mart each week, and that the big chain stores together now account for roughly 50 percent of the sales of all best-selling books, albums, and DVDs sold in the US, they are effectively becoming the arbiters of popular culture in this country. If Wal-Mart will not carry it, the studios and publishing houses may become less inclined to produce it. While this does not necessarily make chain stores the agents of subduing the masses, it does have a homogenizing effect on the popular culture materials that manage to attain broad circulation.48 Another unsettling statistic: according to sociologist Michael Dawson,

Big business in the United States now spends well over a trillion dollars a year on marketing. This is double Americans' combined annual spending on all public and private education, from kindergartens through graduate schools. It also works out to around four thousand dollars a year for each man, woman, and child in the country.49

Spending of this magnitude makes one consider again the seriousness with which the Frankfurt School believed that the vested interests of the economically powerful dominate the public consciousness with messages that generate profit and valorize the capitalist system.

Another reason to avoid hastily dismissing the Frankfurt critique: there is a curious fractal effect in the way most of us view popular culture that owes a debt to the Frankfurt School. Their distinction between genuine art and manufactured kitsch - art as an authentic expression of some unsettling truth, which can be fully appreciated only by the initiated, and kitsch as a form of commerce that panders to our illusions about ourselves and that prettifies reality - continues to serve as a norm familiar to most of us. Even within the hermetic world of popular music, judgments along these lines abound about both what music is good and who is worthy of listening to it.

This roving high art/low art norm is what was expressed in the boos from the crowd when Bob Dylan fired up his amplifier at the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival. It is the default norm of every music critic who has praised the pure authenticity of the sometimes off-key singer-songwriter (Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, Joe Strummer) and dismissed the overly engineered sounds of the pop performer (Paul Anka, Wayne Newton, Three Dog Night, Madonna, Britney Spears). It is what drives the distinction between the fresh, avantgarde innovation of musicians like Pink Floyd, the Velvet Underground, Moby, and the Flaming Lips in contrast to the stale, predictable formulations of performers like the Osmonds, Aerosmith, Garth Brooks, the Spice

Girls and Backstreet Boys. It is the aesthetic differentiation that separates "underground" radio from Top Forty. Assessments tend to follow these fractal lines with each new genre that appears - the blues were more authentic than jazz, jazz was more authentic than soul, black soul was more authentic than white soul, the Rolling Stones, who blended the harshness of blues with the hooks of rock, were more primitive, truer to the grittier side of life, and therefore better artists than the Beatles, whose themes of simple romance, brotherly love, and utopianism were sung in harmonious melodies. While the Frankfurt critics would not have shared these judgments, the mix of affection for autochthonic folk art, exaltation of the eccentricities of the avant-garde, and revulsion toward any manufactured enhancements that characterized their aesthetic persist as reference points for judgment in contemporary music.

It may be said that the Frankfurt theorists were more elitist than they realized. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would argue that this moving edge of art which is forever being domesticated for mass consumption can itself be explained by the efforts of the highly privileged to preserve their status and the bourgeoisie to get a piece of it. Bourdieu argues that the economically privileged classes always manage to stay one step ahead as the aesthetic tastes of the lower classes approach their own. So, it is precisely in the constant motion of the content and norms of good taste that the cultural markers that maintain class privilege are preserved.50

This is not to say that the Frankfurt aesthetic has given us a faulty cluster of standards. My point here is that it is a highly versatile aesthetic that has been deeply absorbed into our culture, yet it was sufficiently ambiguous to be deployed in ways the Frankfurt theorists would never have sanctioned, allowing for concrete judgments that have wandered far from what they intended. It has been transformed from an aesthetic elitism that absolutely dismissed all manifestations of popular culture into an elitism that is internal to popular culture. Thus, Ray Charles is an artistic genius, the real thing, while Michael Bolton is a mawkish crooner, a singing commodity. Stanley Kubrick is a virtuoso filmmaker; Stephen Spielberg is neo-colonialist ideologue. These judgments may be valid. Nevertheless, consistent with Eagleton's acerbic remarks, they evoke an elitism that is used to distance the critic from the tastes of the bourgeoisie, at least the demographic center of the bourgeoisie. As that center moves, judgments in the Frankfurt lineage follow.

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  • Sarah
    How does the frankfurt school view popular culture?
    7 years ago

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