I’ve been reading cultural critics for my Invention, Design and Mass Culture class. And I have been thinking about a lot of things, but one thing lately is the role of high art as a participant or resistor to mass culture.
Adorno lauds modernist music (especially Shoenberg’s 12-tone stuff) and theatre (Brecht) as resistant to the Culture Industry and its implicit ideologies. Barthes, in a similar way, references modern poetry as language that is resistant to mythologization (if that is a word). Adorno likes modern art (by art here I mean all the arts, not just visual) because it is resistant to understanding – it takes work – and he sees this as counter to the Culture Industry because it forces those who choose to interact with it to think, whereas products of the Culture Industry do not. In fact, it is the very unthoughtfulness of the Culture Industry is the problem – it encourages us to believe in stereotypes and archetypes that are familiar and keep us apathetic. It keeps us from thinking, criticizing, and perhaps creating a Marxist revolution. Barthes, on the other hand, is not so explicit about the danger of Mythologies, but it works in much the same ways. He says that mythologies are the implicit meanings, connotations, understandings that we connect with words, concepts and images. These are highly culturalized and very tied up in the cultural values and ideologies that they represent. He notes that poetry is perhaps the only language that mythology cannot appropriate as a signifier into its myths. He says this is because modern poetry attempts to bypass conventional meaning and signification to get at deeper truth. I’m not sure I buy this about modern poetry, but there you have it. Both of these theorists don’t think that art is the primary mode of resistance. For Adorno it is criticism, for Barthes it is counter-mythology.
Since the 1950s when these guys were writing, contemporary high art has moved away from that and become more accessible. There are few people (at least not getting any attention) that are doing stuff like Schoenberg or Eliot, that is thick to the point of inpenetrability. Some Adorno scholars suggest that the distinction between high art and the culture industry has become so blurred that it is no longer worth discussing. It seems to me that a lot of contemporary high art uses the resources of the culture industry and cultural myths to create something new. This might be Barthes’s idea of counter-myth or even the sort of parody the situationists practiced. Do you think the movement toward more accessible high art is a result of realizing that difficult art does not necessarily resist in any effective way? Maybe it’s a result of the laziness of the public: there is no audience for difficult art anymore. This is the most pessimistic hypothesis, but I think some complex films might me to reject it. I am inclined to think that artists have decided it is better to bring any kind of thoughtfulness to a larger public than work that is very difficult to very few. Am I too optimistic about the state of contemporary art?