Popular Culture – The Middle Brow

The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience. This is what is really meant when it is said that the popular art and literature of today were once the daring, esoteric art and literature of yesterday. Of course, no such thing is true. What is meant is that when enough time has elapsed the new is looted for new “twists,” which are then watered down and served up as kitsch. Self-evidently, all kitsch is academic; and conversely, all that’s academic is kitsch. For what is called the academic as such no longer has an independent existence, but has become the stuffed-shirt “front” for kitsch. The methods of industrialism displace the handicrafts. Clement Greenberg “Avant Garde and Kitsch

My work will use everything that it can to communicate. It will use any trick; it’ll do anything – absolutely anything – to communicate and win the viewer over. Even the most unsophisticated people are not threatened by it; they aren’t threatened that this is something they have no understanding of. They can look at it and they can participate with it. Jeff Koons

…the story here is about catering to a much larger public than the small elite who used to define a country’s mores…The new mass culture has become the most important culture because, in a democratic age, quantity trumps quality. How many listen matters more than who listens.  Fareed Zakaria  – The Post American World

During the fin-de-siècle of the 20th Century artists were determined to be seen as the new communicators of an advanced culture. In their self conscious attempts to appear connected to the history of Modern Art and their own fast-changing electronic times artists began to appropriate the deluge of information and imagery that was reaching a critical mass in the Popular Culture industry. The combination of electronic imagery and the academization of art history meant that making art became a self referential enterprise, one in which its history was reformulated as a giant Pop Culture entertainment. This media friendly barrage of images and pop-theoretics has opened up institutional pocketbooks and advanced the profitability of the corporate art world. As “difficult” art has become more accessible to the masses “advanced” art has changed its practices preferring to move away from innovation in order to embrace controversy  –  for instance, look to the practical differences between Picasso’s or Matisse’s stylistic innovations versus Koon’s or Serrano’s pornographic representations. One is about style change the other is about creating recognition or communication. This change of focus from innovation to controversy has a great deal to do with art and markets, the marriage of Surrealism with popular imagery, the end of avant garde practice and the rise of Postmodernism. Middle Brow culture is now so pervasive and ubiquitous in our society that it has taken over the focus of advanced art-making and has expanded the demographics of those who participate in the culture itself.

Museums have led the way in this march to the middle with blockbuster shows of formerly avant garde works of art. In these shows the difficult becomes accessible as the theoretical work is “synergized” with the products made for sale and the “selling” of the show itself. Advertising levels difficult aesthetic concepts into sound-bytes and buzz words. It also promises an “experience” of culture much as one would experience a thrill ride at Disney World. With each new blockbuster enterprise the theoretical lines between what the work means and the meaning of the products sold begins to disappear. A good example of this is the Metropolitan Museum’s (I’m not picking on the Met – this goes for most all of these institutions) penchant for placing seller kiosks at the end of each exhibition. After making your way through the show you emerge into a room filled with memorobilia of the experience – catalogues, key chains, scarves, plates, post cards, playing cards, greeting cards, jewelry, and assorted bits and bobs usually displaying one or more of the works from the exhibition. Suddenly the imagery of the visual work has been extended into the realm of saleable reproductions making that image the focus of a product, an accessible idea or concept. This extends the exchange value of the one-off by separating the imagery from the object.

Separating the image from the object opens a different dialog about the meaning of the image itself. Additionally, breaking up the imagery from the object makes money in the same way the corporate raider sells off the assets of the takeover target – the parts are worth more than the whole. Meaning becomes fuzzy as aesthetics and marketing merge in the selling of the product itself. The shopping process goes somewhat like this – you, as a spectator of the show, essentially have been browsing and shopping while taking in the exhibit. This idea is something with which we POMO citizens are very much at ease. To see art, or for that matter any object, as a part of the process to purchasing would have been considered a Low experience, but this is no longer the case. Art as commerce has none of the low connotations that used to be associated with the monetary valuation of things. The concept of “exchange value” has become so large and encompassing in our everyday lives that every economic, political or cultural transaction is now part and parcel of the workings of this aspect of Popular Culture itself. We no longer look to distinguish how we might experience Art. We accept that it must “communicate” as a desirable product to everyone immediately. 

Popular Culture is Middle Brow, because it rarely rises above being an entertainment, a product for sale or some sort of memorabilia of an experience. Now there are shades, gradations of involvement within the middle brow – from low to high – that detail nuanced engagements or in your face confrontations, but its main reason for existence in all its forms comes down to its exchange value. This is different than either High or Low culture, both of which offer a real critique of the theoretics of culture, politics, and economics. High and Low are contra-forces to the Middle Brow, a rebellion, or in the extreme, a revolution. They emerge from a personal necessity, an artistic stance. High or Low define a moment when concepts clash or freedom manifests itself physically. The Middle Brow, on the other hand, is the status quo. It may indeed offer a critique of itself, but it does so while offering itself as a market commodity. It stays within the confines of the theoretics of Middle Brow Culture itself – its value lies in the fact that it is self-perpetuating, self-regulating and self-organizing.  Middle Brow critique wages its changes through popularity and audience size. It prefers to renegotiate known precedents rather than dismantle or change concepts. Ultimately these critiques and upgrades are actions of compliance, adherence and integration, and part and parcel of the flow of capital and the stability of markets. It is the rule of commerce that guides the changes within Middle Brow Popular Culture.

The Illusion of Change

Popular Culture’s illusions of innovation are constantly promoted and disseminated to the public in order to reboot taste and fashion or to create larger market share. There is always the promise of the New. Popular Culture especially in the Middle Brow is always “new.” In order to maintain this marketing illusion it must constantly erase the recent collective memory – “…that’s so last week” – which it will revive again sometime later as nostalgia – the reworking of junk bonds, the musical hits of the 90s, a return to elegance in fashion. Popular Culture is always returning to things it destroyed and discarded. The endless forgetting of historic meaning and original purposes generates something we call the New New – which is really a reformulated recontextualized precedent. The changes of fashion in Middle Brow culture have always been administered in this organized way, and this manner of contextualization is now the intellectual technique most used in the academies and corporate institutions that support culture itself. It is nothing more than an illusion of change or innovation. Acceptance is the ultimate goal by those who determine culture in the Middle Brow and market acceptance fosters imperative connections between statistical economics and Popular Culture. More is always better and how one gets more is always on the table. This quantitative commercial imperative has proven to be problematic for the cherished concept of an advanced culture, particluarly in the Art World, where the idea of the masterpiece or the singular art object, the one-off is connected to achievement and greatness. 

For the Art world this is where Postmodernist theoretics comes in. POMO institutes both a critique and a re-classification of culture focusing mainly on the contextual interpretation of meanings behind that culture. For the painter or the sculptor ALL culture is fair game – a vast resource for recombination.

For the postmodernist, art was a cluster of images and materials to be manipulated. The fragmentation of modern life was not a bad thing, in fact it was liberating. The aesthetic attributes of quality, artistic integrity, and beauty were held to be meaningless – products of outmoded meta-narratives. Artists sought to redefine art and “the artist” in a way that emphasized multiplicity of style and viewpoint. The postmodern artists appropriated symbols and images freely in the creation of eclectic art.” WHAT IS CRITICAL POSTMODERN ART? By Leonard Koscianski (2002)

Postmodernism did away with the avant garde, the masterwork and even the making of art to create a new type of post-artist, the Auteur. 21st Century mannerism is born. Postmodernism exists only as technique, a professional method used in the practice of one’s profession. It is a theoretical tool that allows Middle Brow imperatives to retain and maintain their connection to Popular Culture market economies of all kinds. Art becomes a media spectacle, an experience for commodification and an entertainment – something that anyone can participate in – it communicates.

The Postmodern artist works within these systems of commerce and culture. He critiques the system as he perpetuates those very systems. The Postmodernist doesn’t develop theoretics, doesn’t offer a competing system, doesn’t innovate against the grain, doesn’t challenge the systems. The Middle Brow artist becomes the embodiment of Greenberg’s idea that the once historic New can be constantly looted or mined to create the New New. For instance contemporary Abstract Painting has lapsed into a mannered reclassification of its short history, it feeds endlessly on itself – the geometric, the hard edge, or the expressionist – you name it, each new Auteur customizes the previous innovation without changing the initial premise of the primary visual innovation. Ultimately we find ourselves standing before a highly mannered very polished professional art object that has little meaning outside of its historical contextual relationships and the fetishized materiality of its making – a customization of a reproduction of an established theoretical visual idea. The Auteur makes art for a marketplace, for institutions, the artist makes work for himself and posterity. We are in the realm of a new Kitsch based on market acceptance and modeled after the morphing digital download – an electronic kitsch.

In the end the new art world and art economy is based on Zakaria’s dictum “how many is more important than who.” Is it any wonder that ambitious artists raised in the electronic media world, schooled in POMO institutions and let loose in the corporate art markets gravitate to the Middle Brow Pop Culture world that grounds this entire enterprise? We will look into these practices in the coming posts when we discuss the differences between style and brand. 

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