The Popular

In 1936, Walter Benjamin wrote a seminal essay reflecting on the impact that the new technologies of mechanical reproduction (lithography, photography, sound recording, movies) were having on Western culture.4 What distinguished a work of art before these technologies was its "aura," the sacred, one-of-a-kind quality that inheres in a painting like the Mona Lisa or the live performance of a Beethoven symphony. The genius and originality of this paint on this piece of canvas hanging on this wall in this city, the unrepeatable inflection reverberating on these strings in this concert hall - demand a kind of reverence to which we intuitively assent. Benjamin speculated that we extend this recognition out of a cultural memory of the fact that the earliest works of art originated as rituals in the service of religion, as means by which our ancestors made the gods present in icons, told their stories through drama, and worshipped them through music. With the Renaissance, artists began gaining autonomy from religion, but the residual sense of reverence for cultic works of art persisted, reattaching itself to "the secular cult of beauty" - now no longer reflecting divine powers, but instead the archetypal form of beauty-itself, which sustained the sense of aura associated now with any work of art. The authority that had derived from the sacred realities depicted in art was transferred to the genius of the artist herself, who still conveys transcendent knowledge through the work of art, but of a different sort.

With the advent of mechanical reproducibility, Benjamin continued, the aura of the individual work of art is shriveling. When the same image or sound can be multiplied endlessly, the uniqueness of the original, its mystical power and the ordeal undergone to come into its presence, disappears. The authenticity of art gives way to the commodification of art, readily accessible through the conduit of technology. Like the pipes and wires that bring water, gas, and electricity into our homes at the flip of a switch, these reproduction technologies deliver visual and auditory images with ease. Instead of undergoing an ordeal to reach and contemplate a work of art, a sea of art washes over us.

Benjamin then made the interesting move of refusing to lament this development. The proliferation of art - its being liberated from museums, cathedrals, and mansions and taken out into the streets - will have two positive effects, he predicted in 1936: it will make art connoisseurs out of a broader public, equipping them with the potentially revolutionary habits of criticism, and it will alter the objectives of the artists, who will seize this opportunity to use art as a medium to mobilize the masses for political (i.e., Marxist) reform. Both consumer and producer will be transformed. And film, he concluded, the very artistic medium that had to await the invention of reproduction techniques, will be the most emancipatory art form of all.

In the subtle argument of this landmark essay, Benjamin was offering a critique of the highbrow/lowbrow distinction of aesthetic taste that was common among his colleagues in the Frankfurt School in the 1930s. There is some irony in the elitism that is found among this Marxist-oriented school of culture criticism. While new forms of popular art were not produced by the proletariat (popular art is not folk art), popular art was having some genuine leveling effects on society. Commercial forms of entertainment like amusement parks and World Fairs, phonograph records, radio and film were blurring the boundaries between upper and lower class leisure, creating occasions for people of different walks of life to be thrown in together to consume entertainments that had broad appeal. As a nascent phenomenon in America it wasn't foremost in Benjamin's thinking, but there was a populist movement underway in the US in the 1930s (an echo of the populist revolt of the 1880s) that was being supplied with salvaged mythological material coming from the story boards of a film studio in Hollywood.5 Throughout the 1930s, Walt Disney Studios churned out a steady stream of animated short films with strong egalitarian messages and social satire, manufacturing some of the most enduring folk heroes in the mythology of American culture. Mickey Mouse was the quintessence of "the little guy" who struggled against ferocious odds and through pluck and an underlying sense of fairness triumphed over whatever forces were arrayed against him (cats, autocratic boat captains, corrupt sheriffs). This established a David and Goliath theme that was one of Disney's trademarks, evoked through a series of transmutations through the 1930s, including Donald Duck, Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi, and numerous characters in the Silly Symphony series - the Ugly Duckling, Tortoise and the Hare, the Country Cousin, the Grasshopper and the Ants, and the Three Little Pigs. Aimed at all ages of theatergoers, these animated features and shorts were enormously popular, and Disney was the recipient of 13 Oscars between 1932 and 1941.

This was the period of the Great Depression, and a ready explanation offered by some of a more Marxist-tilt was that these simple stories of plain folk conquering formidable adversaries provided the pacifying reassurance that the meek shall inherit the earth. This message, delivered via such a mesmerizing vehicle of entertainment as moving pictures in Technicolor and high-fidelity sound, served as the opiate de jour. The leitmotif of these little stories was that if you work hard (on the farm or in the factory), exercise self-discipline and moral virtue, and if you can celebrate ordinary satisfactions as your reward, your current hardships will surrender to a happy ending. In the refrain of the 1941 smash hit Dumbo, "Persevere! Don't give up!"6 In this analysis, Disney offered pure escapism to the masses, reinforced their false-consciousness, and did its part to divert American society away from class revolution.

However, a different analysis is possible. If Disney's cartoons were reinvigorating an atrophied memory of the David and Goliath story, as well as forgotten assurances of the Beatitudes, he was drilling into a deep layer of biblical advocacy on behalf of the victims of political oppression and tyranny. He accomplished this by casting folktale characters in the crucial roles - plodding tortoises, lithe fairies, diligent ants, elves, dwarves, wise old trees, talking crickets, flying elephants - in effect, repopulating the disenchanted world of modernity with otherworldly avatars of a proven message of resistance to oppression. While Disney was not the sort of avant-garde filmmaker that Benjamin had in mind, it is possible that the masses were mobilized sufficiently by culture producers like Disney to demand the sort of social reconstruction that was initiated through Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. It is possible to see this decade of Disney's work as providing stories and characters that were used by a cross-section of Americans to interpret their lives in ways that restored their dignity and empowered them to demand at least incremental justice. There were elements of social critique in this body of work from the 1930s that would lend themselves to a moderate subversiveness for anyone who soaked them in. The Silly Symphony short, Three Little Pigs, released in 1933, became a cultural phenomenon in economically depressed America. With so many in the country losing their homes to bankers and dust storms, this little fable about a voracious wolf depriving rural farmers and craftsmen of their homes struck a chord. In the end it was by taking in the weak, hard work, the denial of self-indulgence and collective resistance that the big, bad wolf was defeated. Many theater operators reported that the cartoon was a bigger draw than the feature movie it preceded, and its theme song, "Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?" became a hit song on the radio and a best-selling piece of sheet music.7

Disney was fluent in the ideas common to populism, such as the pitting of rural values and an agrarian way of life against urban industrialism, the innate goodness, wisdom and dignity of plain folk, the importance of hard work, the sanctity of the family, and the communitarian sense of civic obligation, which are found in abundance in these films. They contain a strong undercurrent of resentment toward the "survival of the fittest" ethos that dominated the US economy at the time, and a corresponding assurance that the viciousness of the powerful ultimately exhausts itself if its victims refuse to acquiesce. The socialist activist and cultural historian, C.L.R. James, compared Donald Duck to Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, for his "perpetual exasperation with the never-ending irritations of modern life" - its authoritarianism, inhumane technology, alienating bureaucracies and insults to human dignity - to which Donald responds with anger and acts of sabotage. In the view of James, Donald Duck came across as a model liberator.8

Another feature of Disney's populism that has had a lasting impact on the aesthetics of popular culture was his mission to bring "high art" to the people. This was the driving force behind Fantasia, the 1941 masterpiece that blended classical music and animated shorts that was produced by Disney in collaboration with the highly acclaimed conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski. Disney structured Fantasia like a formal symphony concert, including the gathering of the musicians, tuning the instruments, and inserting an intermission. Stokowski was the on-screen and actual conductor of the 100-piece studio orchestra, and a prominent musicologist at the time, Deems Taylor, served as the narrator, providing the audience with bits of biographical, aesthetic, and musicological clues to educate them as listeners to classical music. Disney set out to bring not only the high art of orchestral music to the people (Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Moussorgsky, Schubert), but also the reigning form of visual arts - abstract expressionism. The first piece in the film is Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," which is accompanied by a mix of abstract and lightly representational images cavorting across the screen - violin bows and reverberating harp strings, starbursts, geometric shapes, hieroglyphs, and sizzling jet streams, reminiscent of the paintings of Kandinsky and Joan Miro. In its interpretation of other pieces, the film evoked images and narrative elements from Greek, Russian, and Celtic mythology, European fairytales, medieval Christian ritual procession, and even an epic visual telling of the modern cosmogonic myth of the fiery origin of the earth and its evolutionary generation of the dinosaurs. In its effort to enable its audience to see the music and hear the pictures, Fantasia produced a hybrid of high and low art forms.9

But the groundwork had been laid for this earlier in the Silly Symphonies series. Feeling confined by the Mickey Mouse formula, Disney and his associates had introduced Silly Symphonies in 1929 with The Skeleton Dance, an eerie tarantella of the dead with black cats, spiders and bats scattering at midnight as skeletons rose from their churchyard graves and jitterbugged each other's bones into tidy stacks, set to music reminiscent of Edvard Grieg's "March of the Dwarves." The Silly Symphony concept was to develop animated shorts that were designed primarily to illustrate music, both classical and jazz. There would be no recurring characters to constrain the generation of new ideas, and the animators were encouraged to use the series as a forum to experiment with new techniques in animation and film production, such as Technicolor - the first three-tone Technicolor film out of Hollywood was a 1932 Silly Symphony, Flowers and Trees. The series coheres as various shorts blending comforting images of nature and rural life and traditional fables and other simple narrative plots with arrangements of classical music lifted from Mendelssohn, Wagner, Schubert, etc. It was here that Disney first hit upon the use of the low culture medium of animation to introduce his movie theater audience to classical music. In the visual solace of pastoral scenery, accompanied by the reassurance of traditional folktales (with a populist twist), and in the plebeian comfort of the movie theater, the highbrow music of Europe's great composers was not as intimidating as it would be in the hushed reverence of a Carnegie Hall concert. In time, the series matured to include the use of jazz as well, as is found in Woodland Café, a Harlem Cotton Club for the insect world, where ants, beetles, spiders and snails jitterbug to the music of Fats Waller performed by thick-lipped grasshoppers in tuxedos playing trumpets fashioned from honeysuckle blossoms and drums made of acorns.

This blending of high and low cultures was raised to the level of social commentary in the 1935 short Music Land. The story opens with a map of two islands, the Land of Symphony and the Isle of Jazz, separated by the Sea of Discord. As the camera zooms toward the Land of Symphony, it passes through the gates of an elegant palace situated in the center of spacious formal gardens and into a great hall where living harps, violins, and flutes are playing a delicate minuet and waltzing before the throne of the queen and the princess, each with shapely violin bodies. The queen is asleep and the princess is obviously bored and distracted, and sneaks off to a balcony to gaze over the Sea of Discord toward the Isle of Jazz. Over on the Isle of Jazz, which has the appearance of early twentieth century Coney Island, a pile of buildings built entirely of brass instruments is pulsating with jiving jazz. Inside the drum-shaped dance hall the king and his son, both with saxophone bodies, are entertained by swinging trumpets, French horns, tenor saxophones, saws, ukuleles, tambourines, and ragtime pianos banging away in syncopated rhythm. While the king thumps his drums, the prince slips away to a balcony overlooking the Land of Symphony. Catching sight of the violin princess as she signals to him with her handkerchief, he leaps to the dock, boards his xylophone raft, and paddles with his musical note-shaped oar across the Sea of Discord to rendezvous with his forbidden lover. Once ashore the Land of Symphony, he is caught by the queen who has her soldiers imprison him in a giant metronome. When word of this reaches his father, the Isle of Jazz launches a blitzkrieg of free-form jazz, firing redhot musical notes out of trombone canons. The pipe organs on the Land of Symphony retaliate with a barrage of Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries." The princess attempts to cross the ocean in her violin dingy to surrender, is struck by musical ordinance, sinks, is rescued by the prince, whose xylophone raft is then pierced by falling debris, the battle is halted, the queen of Symphony and the king of Jazz motor out to their drowning children, look each other in the eye, and fall in love themselves. A double wedding follows, the wedding of the queen of classical music and the king of jazz and their two children, and as Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" plays in a lovely arrangement of violins, a jazzy horn section gracefully rises and merges with the strings, while the camera shows us that a stone bridge has been erected between the two islands, across the Sea of Discord, and engraved with the words, "Bridge of Harmony."

This synthesis of lowbrow and highbrow cultural materials was so quintessentially Disney that any rendering of high culture into accessible forms of popular entertainment has come to be described as "Disneyization." Merchandising of this hybrid aesthetic soon followed, adding an additional layer of meaning we generally associate with Disney's name. Merchandising of this hybrid aesthetic has come to be a very thick layer of contemporary popular culture, indeed. Paging through several museum shop catalogs turns up the following sample: a pillow sham silk screened with Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, a wrist watch based on a Frank Lloyd Wright window, a necktie imprinted with a variation of one of Kandinsky's Composition masterpieces, a four-foot wooden totem pole "inspired by" the art of the Tlingit Indians of British Columbia, a hieroglyphics tea towel, and a Chagall wall calendar. The 1997 feature, Bean: The Movie, in which the actor Rowan Atkinson brings his Mr Bean character from British television to the big screen playing an inept museum guard who is mistaken for an eccentric art critic, builds its storyline around the merchandising of the painting, Whistler's Mother, which is on exhibit at a Los Angeles art museum. The cups and towels and figurines in the image of the dour woman in the rocking chair generate more of a sensation than the painting itself. While the original painting is displayed to accentuate its Benjaminian "aura," these facsimiles are what engross the stampeding crowds of art connoisseurs.

And then there is the great reservoir of high culture icons that have become vernacular images - "visual quotations and aural images," in the expression of cultural historian Thomas Hine, who argues that certain visual images like Edvard Munch's The Scream, Whistler's Mother, Stonehenge, the planet earth floating in space, Ansel Adams's photographs of Yosemite Valley, the fingers of God and Adam touching on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Eiffel Tower, the tilting Titanic, the Manhattan skyline, filmmaker John Ford's Monument Valley scenery, Einstein, Che Guevara, the lone protester stopping the tank in Tiananmen Square, the collapsing World Trade towers, and certain aural "images" like Beethoven's Fifty Symphony, the Shaker hymn "Simple Gifts," Chopin's Funeral March, "Amazing Grace," Rossini's William Tell Overture, and the eerie staccato theme song of The Twilight Zone - are widely recognized. And over time, as they are imitated, reproduced, repackaged and adapted, again and again, each of these fragments of art, music, cinema and news footage accumulates a thicker profile of semiotically loaded meanings. Visual quotations and aural images become one of the most exercised languages of popular culture, traversing the spectrum from high art to consumable merchandise, and back again. In this historically novel, but now widely practiced manner, Hine argues, "high" Western culture is far from dead. "Quite the contrary," he claims, "we're swimming in it."10

As Hine points out, human beings have always imitated the images, sounds, and gestures - the meaning-rich symbols - that were available to them. Mimesis of the symbolic material around one is fundamental to communication and self-expression. What has changed is the sheer number of the symbols and their range. In an earlier age - before the boom in the machinery of reproduction and broadcasting - the symbols available to one for imitation would have been produced by a relatively local community, reflecting its historically acquired traditions and ways of knowing. One would imitate, absorb, and build one's world around the words, images, sounds, and gestures of one's family, neighbors, and local figures and institutions. The invention of the printing press was the first serious breach in this highly localized sphere of mimetic communication of our ancestors. Printing presses made it possible to reproduce texts and images - and the symbolic worlds they reflected - in large numbers and to deliver them across multiple communities. The production and circulation of books and newspapers were tremendously important in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for creating the national cultures that ultimately made modern nation-states feel like natural and obvious ways of organizing ourselves. The empathy that extends naturally to family and local community opened out to a larger domain when the printed word spoke of the achievements, hardships, and thoughts of more far-flung neighbors - and the fresher the news, the more immediate the effect. Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the US from France in the 1830s, in puzzling over the proliferation of newspapers here, concluded that newspapers persuade individuals that their private interests are enmeshed with the common interest, and encourage people to become involved in common actions with strangers they will never meet. "Only a newspaper," he wrote, "can put the same thought at the same time before a thousand readers." For this reason, he decided, newspapers are necessary for maintaining the kind of small associations that hold American democracy together, and ultimately, for the maintenance of civilized life itself.11 Without them, free citizens are more inclined to devolve into a war of all against all.

Still, the impact of print had its limits. Economic conditions, shipping difficulties, literacy rates, national boundaries and language barriers pinched the circulation of the print media. With respect to the flood of words, images, sounds, and gestures that now freely cross every cultural boundary to wash over us every day, the invention and refinement of telecommunications technology has been a quantum leap beyond the printed page. Telephones, radio, television, the cinema, videocassettes, video games, compact disks, fax machines, computers, the Internet, cable, satellite, broadband and digital technologies, along with newspapers, magazines, catalogues, and books, are essentially instruments we have for throwing words, images, sounds and gestures - meaning-bearing symbols - to one another from a distance and at great speed, crossing all traditional boundaries that once prevented, slowed, or regulated such traffic.

Taken together, these instruments of delivery are what is meant by the term "media." But the media are not neutral instruments; they are not simple pipelines that deliver symbols produced elsewhere in the traditional spheres of culture (art, science, state, market, family, etc.), serving their ends. The rapid expansion of media technologies has raised media to the level of being a cultural sphere itself - a media-world - complete with its own central organizing good and all the supporting symbols, rituals, codes, secondary goods and institutions that are necessary to maintain and promote it. The media-world is more than a messenger. The media, in Marshall McLuhan's well-known phrase, is the message. Yes, the media-world delivers the goods of other spheres, but only when doing so corresponds with serving its own ends. And that inevitably means modifying whatever other goods it handles.

A simple example of this was the appearance of the 3-minute hit song in the 1950s, a formula that was necessitated by the physical limitations of the 45 RPM record disks that juke boxes required and had become the recording industry standard. Everything a song was meant to accomplish had to be pulled off before the stylus hit the hub of the platter. It is hard for love or war or death or whatever other experience the lyrics set forth to be probed very deeply in 3 minutes.

A more damaging example is found in the heavy hand that television has had on the information that it mediates. It has accentuated the horse race aspect of politics to the point where there is little else left. Practically every election and every policy deliberation is outfitted by the evening news as a contest between self-serving egoists who keep their eye on the camera, special interests, and the next election. Substantive social visions are set out of view. In her telling study of news coverage of the 1968 and 1988 presidential elections, sociologist Kiku Adatto discovered that in 1968 the average television sound bite from a candidate was 42.5 seconds; in 1988 it was only 9.8 seconds.12 Three tendencies inherent in television contributed to this evaporation of substance. First, the image takes precedent over the word. Second, television thrives on spectacle because spectacle holds viewers - so a tedious policy debate gets juiced up into a clash of the titans. Third, news divisions work with a finite number of plotlines in reporting on politics, and the athletic race is one of them. Some scripted plot must be imposed upon much messier real life in order to fit the report into the minute or two that is assigned to it.

Another effect of television is how it flattens out the momentous and the trivial. In one weekend of television viewing, one can see more drama, human tragedy, comedy, feats of spectacular achievement, and sexual escapades than most of our ancestors would have seen in a year or even in their lifetimes. And these highs and lows flow out of the set in a steady stream, interrupted only by ad pitches to buy the sponsors' products. The flow itself, Bill McKibben points out in The Age of Missing Information, his rich little book on how television narrows our picture of the world, "means that if something exceptional happens it hardly matters - it is quickly forgotten, averaged out, eroded by this ceaseless flood."13

What is unsettling about these effects of television is that their distorted representations of reality are so pervasive that reality becomes these representations. As the British moral philosopher, Iris Murdoch, has suggested, "Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself and then comes to resemble the picture."14 Politicians become racehorses, and politics comes to attract individuals who value winning more than they do any particular social vision. And, too much television viewing does numb our capacity to feel joy and grief, and can be correlated to diminished participation in the life of our communities.15

The very capacity of the combined technologies of the media to store and basically never lose a text, image, or sound that has been entrusted to them has remade our world into a cacophonous place that will never again have the built-in coherencies our forebears experienced. The bricolage that postmodernism celebrates as the "little bit from here, little bit from there" process through which we now grab and assign meaning to the world and improvise in an ad hoc manner our own deepest identities has become a possibility only because of the new media. This has far-reaching repercussions on the way our imaginations work in each of the other cultural spheres. It alters our consciousness and cognitive processes, much the way these were altered in an earlier era when Western societies were transformed from oral to print cultures.

As Peter Horsfield has described this, the media form the matrix "where most people now get most of their insight, influence, values, and meaning." A power shift has occurred, and now instead of various social institutions using the media to convey their own "reality," they "are placed by the media on the web of culture in different positions and for different purposes." We no longer view the media through the lenses of various other social institutions; media are "so pervasive and such an inextricable part of people's lives and culture that we now see all other social collectives (including religious faith) through the lens of our enculturation in media."16

In effect, the media have colonized the other spheres of life, and now extract the riches found in them and put those riches into circulation in whatever combinations are most suitable to the media's own processes and the most conducive to achieving its own ends - disseminating information, accelerating communication, finding, creating and enlarging audiences, rendering borrowed ideas and symbols accessible, making its categories and genres the dominant forms with which our minds and imaginations grasp, classify, and interpret reality. The success of media can be measured both by how much knowledge they put within our reach, and the degree to which they become the gatekeepers for us knowing anything.

Douglas Rushkoff has suggested that the term "media" no longer really fits this phenomenon of communications technology. What we are dealing with is bigger and more extensive than media ever were, and he gives it the name "datasphere."17 At some point in the middle of the twentieth century, he suggests, the technology "got too big and too complex for any one group to control," and the media grew into the datasphere, which is much more autonomous, adaptable and unruly than all preceding media.18 He describes it as "the circulatory system for today's information, ideas, and images,"19 and to emphasize his point about how it has come to permeate our lives, he draws attention to the fact that, "The average American home has more media-gathering technology than a state-of-the-art newsroom did ten years ago."20 Looking back, the 1960's appear to have been the point of no return:

By the sixties, the media had become a world of its own. Kids could grow up spending more time in the media world than the real world. The datasphere became our new natural environment. ... We compared our own lives to those of Marcia Brady on "The Brady Bunch" or Will Robinson on "Lost in Space." Television characters filled our discussions, our fantasies, even our dreams. Social engagements were structured around television schedules. Our cultural references had more to do with what cartoons we admired than which sport we played or which church we belonged to.21

In subsequent years, the datasphere has spread far beyond American society, and "has become our global society's weather system, touching us all with the same (if superficially inane) iconography and spectacles."22 And it touches us inside of our homes, through all the media utilities that carry through screens, speakers, headphones, and the printed page versions of the world that might corroborate our own, or pose serious threats to them. While this sometimes has the positive effect that de Tocqueville praised, broadening the horizon of our private interests to take into account the needs, hardships and achievements of others, it can also have a bewildering, alienating effect. The parade of alternative worlds that the privacy of the home once provided haven from now has around the clock privileges.

Another alteration of our consciousness that can be attributed to the media-world is that it has conditioned us to expect that exposure to the stream of knowledge should be accompanied by pleasure. Visual images, music, skilled narration and plot construction, titillation, humor, style, hipness, quick resolution of ambiguities, action, spectacle, catharsis - we will gravitate toward the sources of knowledge that best perfect these delivery mechanisms, that best entertain us. As film critic Neil Gabler has explained it, "More and more, American life [will] come to resemble entertainment in order to survive."23 Politicians, economists, preachers, scientists, educators, moral teachers, novelists and journalists all come under the spell, and must modify their message if they hope to have an audience.

Popular/culture is the amalgamation of these delivering media and the delivered cultural symbols. The media remold what they mediate; they colonize and extract cultural materials that they have not produced. But how are we to understand this encompassing thing called "culture" that supplies them with their materials?

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