Popular Culture – Defined

The first part of this series is defining what Popular Culture is and maybe what it does. This is a nearly impossible subject. Popular Culture ranges over so many subjects and aspects of the economic, political and cultural aspects of our everyday lives. We buy, we dress, we vote, we chat and we live through this vast sea of images, blurbs, products and narratives. It is an enormous program, a societal construct that organizes our existences, creates human networks and defines cohesive communities. In the 21st Century Popular Culture runs through every aspect of our society as it never has before, thanks in part to the online world, and the seemingly endless proliferation of technological advancements and product placements. For instance cell phone network technologies now cover nearly the entire globe allowing for instant communication and information sharing. And as these handheld devices have become more ubiquitous and technologically complicated the amount of programming applications that stream “culture” directly into our everyday lives has increased exponentially. Aside from contacting your friends across the globe (from nearly anywhere at any time) you can access the New York Times, Financial Times or the London Times on your cell phone. You can purchase popular music and see entertainment videos with the same handset, and very soon, more of us will be able to directly purchase goods and services using this handheld computer as a wallet. What all this technology is for is not necessarily the betterment of one’s intellect (as we are made to believe in the constant publicity surrounding the torrents of history, learning and information electronically available to the masses,) but more likely, it is used for the quantified movement of products and services, the tracking of financial information and the ultimate commercialization of lived experience.
Popular Culture is the “face” and object of all this programming. It is the collective subjective – a quick immersion in our desires, our needs and our aspirations. In a walk through Times Square you can get a taste of Popular Culture and the societal power that drives it. On 43rd Street one can look up to see two immense electronic screens streaming constant images and information from around the world, one from the NASDAQ and one from Reuters. The NASDAQ screen is the most compelling and forward-looking, because it has fused with the actual architecture of the building, wrapping around a turret on the side of the building. Pictures, videos, news, commercials and financial information are pumped into the physical world around it – they emanate from the structure itself. The building houses Conde Nast, the publisher of fashion and lifestyle magazines, Skadden Arps, one the largest and most powerful corporate law firms in the world, and the NASDAQ broadcasting facilities which dispenses financial information to millions through subscription viewing. The Reuters screens look more like an after-thought on the architecture, but it pumps out animated news information, images of the latest entertainment and sports icons, and beautiful pictorial videos into the Square. Reuters, too, is a power media player. It is one of the largest news clearing houses in the world. It is also one of the very few institutions that determine what will be seen, what is important to know, and how it will be examined, noticed and understood by the data hungry masses. All of this information reaches billions of people everday, every second in every country. These Wizard of Oz screens broadcasting the images of our Popular Culture mask the legal, political, financial and cultural powerhouses that reside within the same block. This is just on 43rd Street. CBS, ABC & MTV along with Disney, ESPN and the US Army also reside in the Square creating a confluence of popular culture-shaping electronic programming power. Those giant moving images are the masks of power. What we see, what we are allowed to see is the thin veneer, the surface that is Popular Culture.

Pop Face

Content is what shows up, what we experience, what moves us, what we talk about and what we blog about. Content is the ephemeral, the incidental, the unknown element in the program itself. What will catch on, what will capture the imagination, what will drive the society, what has meaning, what will be sold? One minute we all watch American Idol, the next it’s Lost. One minute we love Jeff Koons, the next it’s Damien Hirst. So much of the unknown element that strikes a chord in us is driven by something deeper, something not necessarily quantified. It is what we desire without knowing why. It is the thing that entices us. Once we fall for this unquantifiable allure the machinery of the popular kicks in. Repetition is the ultimate goal for this programming. Repetition is the road that leads to the palace of success. We are inundated with images, phrases, slogans, jingles and packaged information in order to continue to foment desire in us. Once activated our desire can be mined for money, power or fame until like financial debt instruments, oil futures contracts, political catch phrases or Matthew McConaughey it bottoms out beneath our collective consciousness. Aside from the business that happens around the mechanisms of Pop Culture, something unaccountable has also transpired. We have created a kind of false history, a history of false events that impact our real lives. This cultural success in itself is not easily understood, but its effects can be easily tracked. What begins with the search for the X factor, the undefinable, always ends in the same way.

Through the years as technology has become more sophisticated so has the idea of controlling Popular Culture and its manifestations. Not just in what is presented, but how it is presented, how something gets to be popular, how it makes money and creates influence. Advertising, publicity and production all go hand in hand to create a roadmap for this content. The program is there ready to go, always already, waiting for the next unquantifiable thing to be slotted in. Those things that seemlessly fit into the code, proliferate quickly, those that don’t either morph into something else that can be used or fall away. It’s the seemlessness in the unquantifiable that creates the facility in the program. And we, as consumers, as viewers, as participants get wrapped up by the facility of it all. Let’s face it, the ease at which we can obtain and attain popular culture is astounding. It is far more than our personal preferences – that annoying jingle in your head, the half remembered commercial images or wearing corporate logos – none of this was “chosen.” The workings of this culture are more involved, more manipulative and they exist outside of the comfortable individuality that we believe determines our likes or dislikes. Just as the unquantifiable is the beginning of the program we are the end-part of that delivery system, the end-part of the program itself. We complete the circle in the programming of Popular Culture.

So What About Art?

Clement Greenberg’s critical writing was a long polemic against the power of Popular Culture. He was the last great Modernist art critic. He wrote about the rising materialism of American Postwar painting and laid out the end game that eventually left advanced painting in a no-win situation. The end finally came in the early 1960s as a new culture was proliferating in America. Unfortunately for Clement this newly rising tide of Postmodernism quickly sunk the withering power of the Modernist avant garde. With electronic media, consumer culture and the influx of new corporate money came the idea that high art should be no different from Popular Culture, that today’s Popular Culture would be tomorrow’s High Art. Any pretensions, any aspirations, intellectualizations or visualizations about what “high art” could be was made instantly redundant – for Art it was the end of history. The avant garde was dead, the expression of a greater or higher culture was passe, and artists were now machines producing in the now, “bringing home the bacon.” For these new artists the popular culture was The Culture. The harder artworld would begin to cultivate this change using corporate business models to create markets and build institutions. It would develop its own Popular Culture industry. As artists pursued this new Pop attitude in their studios Postmodernism provided both a theoretical base for the elevation of Greenberg’s hated Kitsch and an institutional backdrop for the new face of contemporary art. Postmodernism allowed artists to develop a mass-market public image based on the business executive while recontextualizing the process of art making as a process of production and R&D. It was a spectacular and decisive paradigm shift. We’ll discuss this shift in the next post – Overheads and Screen Shots

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