The Culture Industry
"People know what they want because they know what other people want"
It is often pronounced by both critics and layman that modern culture is nothing but a cheap imitation of its former lofty heights. Words and phrases such as 'sequels', 'commercial pop’, 'reality TV' and 'soapies' are all used when referring to these supposedly inferior forms of modern culture. Many individuals who would consider themselves so called 'Cultural Experts' will often make boastful displays of their abstention from the consumption of popular culture, similar to how most individuals insistence on never eating McDonald’s (yet the restaurant’s proliferation suggests otherwise…)
In this essay, I shall attempt to explain why there has been a seeming degradation in the quality of culture or “cultural products” primarily within western society. I intend to do this through a critical analysis and comparison of Adorno's, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” found within the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” with that of Walter Benjamin’s, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. These three philosophers all formed part of the Frankfurt School, and collectively engaged in critical social theory during the early 20th century (Corradetti, 2012).
Part 1 — The Culture Industry
The System of Production
In modern society, culture is consumed by most individuals through commercial channels. This is to say that generally we no longer receive our cultural entertainment or artifacts through attending an opera or watching a live play. It is far more common that we receive our cultural products through corporations or businesses that manufacture these products in a similar fashion as to how physical objects such as chairs and tables are produced.
Horkheimer and Adorno argue early on in their essay that modern culture is no longer produced under older systems such as patronage, but instead in a manner similar to a factory line. The culture industry is therefore a phenomenon of modern capitalism, which produces almost all forms of light entertainment in order to satisfy the needs of the general capitalistic consumer. Horkheimer and Adorno stressed that the ‘culture industry’ is not the same as ‘mass culture’ as the products of the culture industry do not arise naturally from the citizenry, but instead is produced and thus provided for mass consumption (Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, 1969).
Whereas under the system of patronage, creators of cultural products such as musicians or artists were free to produce art and music that could stoke or challenge existing ideas within an audience, modern cultural production is seemingly only concerned with producing products that appeal to the greatest number of consumers possible in order to maximise profits. The “Culture Industry” is thus meant to refer to the commercial production and marketing of cultural products intended for mass consumption.
I believe this account of modern cultural production to be accurate. When one listens to popular modern music or the latest television shows, they are all generally produced by a few large companies or corporations. These companies almost methodically turn out new “pop stars” or famous actors to appeal to different age groups at regular intervals. An example of this process would be how the pop star Justin Timberlake was replaced by the younger Justin Bieber as he began to age. This was seemingly done in order to maintain control and in turn profits over a certain market demographic.
The Lack of Variety Within the Culture Industry
It would therefore appear that whilst the culture industry produces what may superficially appear to be artwork, is in fact nothing more than a product within a cultural economy. These artworks are produced not for the purpose of art itself (beauty, admiration, imagination), but instead for the interests of profit and power. As all modern forms of art are thus produced for the exclusive purpose of profit, art has been reduced into a consumer good and thus begins to resemble the capitalist system which encapsulates it.
I believe that this point is largely true, as when one watches the latest blockbuster film or listens to popular music, the format is generally such that it shall appeal to the greatest number of people possible so as to maximise the products audience. The culture industry thus forms part of both the commercial and capitalist system. This is in stark contrast to art’s traditional goal of challenging existing ideas and creating a vision of a world yet to exist. Instead of culture being varied and stimulating, a sense of sameness seems to infect all it produces, and it is this sameness which is what the mass populace demands (Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, 1969).
The television shows, films and music that we consume may on the surface appear all to be different, but in reality all adhere to the same structure or form as their counterparts (The Cultural Reader, 2013). This is seen in how many pop songs follow the exact same chord progression of I — V — VI — IV due to it’s naturally appealing and comforting sound to the human ear (Matthews, 2015).
A further example of this template form of artwork is seen in films and television shows, where plotlines tend to follow very rigid frameworks that tend often not to surprise the audience. This provides a sense of comfort to the audience but does not challenge their preconceived ideas about the world. Many movies, particularly from the romantic comedy genre follow in essence the same plotlines, but however switch out the actors and setting between different films. The same product is thus provided each time, with only trivial adjustments made between films so as to give the illusion of differentiation.
Due to the production line mentality that produces cultural goods, all the films, music and TV shows which are seemingly different are in fact only new instances of a recycled template (The Cultural Reader, 2013). Horkheimer and Adorno successfully illustrated this criticism in the following quotes:
“Sharp Distinctions like those between A and B films, or between short stories, do not so much reflect real differences as assist in the classification of consumers.” “Culture today is infecting everything with sameness” (Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, 1969).
The Consequences of Non-Conformity
I believe that it is possible to object to this claim of sameness by Horkheimer and Adorno through arguing that individuals are free to produce whatever types of film, music or art they desire. This has been seen with artists who fell under the Dadaism movement where existing artistic structures and clichés were rejected. However, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that there is a problem with creating these forms of unique and challenging cultural products through the process of being culturally ostracised.
They argue that if an individual chooses non — conformity or to refuse assimilation within the current culture industry, that individual shall in turn be branded as an “eccentric loner” by society (Tknoell, 2012). The consequences of such a categorisation would according to Horkheimer and Adorn result in, “economic impotence” and “intellectual powerlessness” and ultimately cause the dissenter to, “…fall behind in life and finally go under.” (Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, 1969)
Original art, films and music will either be absorbed into the cultural industry so as to create a new schema and template or otherwise be relegated into obscurity. This insignificance will have consequences for any individual who attempts to create novel cultural products through reduced personal income and potentially limited social influence.
I believe that this argument whilst containing some merit is increasingly less true as technology has progressed. In the recent past, any music or film that did not have the backing of a publishing or production company may well have fallen into complete obscurity. The lack of marketing and worldwide distribution channels would have severely limited any content creators’ capacity to distribute their work. This may certainly have been true in the early 201th century but is less so today.
With the advent of the internet, individuals who wish to produce forms of culture that challenge the existing norms of the culture industry are free to distribute their works over the internet. The costs of getting their work to those who wish to consume it has a very low marginal cost thus making it relatively inexpensive to distribute on a wide scale. Whilst it may still be hard to inform the public of the existence of these products, building up a niche following is now more possible than it was during Adorno and Horkheimer’s time. I therefore believe that their criticism of the culture industry is now less relevant than it was during the early 20th century.
The Commodification of Human Consciousness
The main point made within “Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” is that due to the commodification of culture, human consciousness which consumes this culture has also undergone commodification (The Cultural Reader, 2013). Through the increasing uniformity of the culture industry due to its industrial production, individuals have likewise lost their ability to think autonomously. This has resulted in a loss of many individual’s abilities to imagine a world different to our own, thus serving to preserve the existing status quo.
The industrially produced culture delivers its prepackaged goods such as films and music without leaving any room for interpretation or crucial analysis on the part of the individual, with an example being how many comedies have “canned laughter”. This laugh track tells the audience when a joke has been made and thus cues them to laugh. This is a clear example of how even the basic task of finding a joke and then evaluating whether it is worthy of laughter has been removed from the process of watching a comedy.
Individuals are thus left only with the task of consuming the products of the culture industry without needing to expend any intellectual effort. The culture industry then begins to serve only as a means of rejuvenating the individual before their work the next day, thus making “Amusement an extension of labor under late capitalism.” (Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, 1969)
The culture industry further aims to only replicate the world seen around us through the premise that good culture is one which reflects physical reality as accurately as possible. This is often witnessed when critically acclaimed films are the one’s which are perceived to reflect reality better than others. This is in stark contrast to what is called “Authentic Culture “which aims to stimulate the imagination through presenting alternative possibilities of the world and by extension promoting independent thought (Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, 1969).
Modern Reproduction of Art
In contrast to Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory of the “Culture Industry”, Walter Benjamin in his essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” argued that art had lost most of its value due to new forms of reproduction.
Throughout history, art has always to been reproducible to a certain extent with techniques such as founding, stamping, woodcuts and lithography being a selection of techniques (Stephens, 2006). These replica’s of art have always been produced so as to provide benefits to both the artist as well as the more general audience (Brummitt, 2015) . Yet, despite mechanical reproduction techniques having been in existence for a substantial time, new forms of reproduction such as photographs and film have allowed for far greater accuracy and higher levels of production. Benjamin believed that modern forms of mechanical reproduction had influenced art profoundly from its traditional form.
The Concept of Authenticity
Benjamin believed that when an artwork is reproduced, it is stripped of its link to the originals unique existence as well as its complete history. This is to say that a reproduced artwork lacks authenticity and authority. Yet, this seems to be a strange assertion by Benjamin. If a reproduction of an artwork seemingly contains all the same physical characteristics of the original, shouldn’t it also contain the same authority and meaningfulness as the original?
The authenticity of an artwork is defined by Benjamin as,
“…the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” (Benjamin, 2005).
Therefore, when one reproduces a piece of artwork it loses its connection to the history of the original.
When this history is erased, the reproduction no longer contains the authenticity derived from the originals positon within time and space. In modern times, there is thus a decay in what Benjamin describes as the artworks “aura” with Benjamin providing the vague description of “aura” as “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (Brummitt, 2015). Furthermore, whilst the original artwork could be considered independent of the reproduction, the “aura” is still lost due to the changing of the originals context within time and space.
Due to the scale of modern art reproduction across the world, mass audiences have come to believe that most art forms are in fact all identical due to their lack of “aura”. This is because the uniqueness of an artwork is derived from its place within tradition yet mechanical reproduction has separated artwork from its ritualistic meaning (Larson, 2010).
The Changing Value of Modern Art
It is this potential reality which could help explain why modern art has lost some its impact and importance within modern times, but could it not be argued that the value of art is a subjective quality and thus we would run into problems when considering how to compare the value of art in both the past as well as in contemporary times?
Benjamin believed that art derived its value from both cultic and exhibition value. Cultic value is seen as the value within the existence of a thing and its place within ritual. This is similar to how an ancient idol held value due to its mere existence and whatever rituals would be performed around it. Exhibition value by contrast is value based purely upon the display of the object itself for the means of profit or prestige (Robinson, 2013).
With the decline in cultic traditions and the increasing usage of mechanical reproduction, cultic value has simultaneously declined with the rise of exhibition value. As the masses have increasingly valued exhibition value over cultic value, this has changed the very nature of modern artwork due to it assuming a new function within society based upon its display value.
This is demonstrated in the changing form of value of photography. In the past, people appreciated photographs for their cultic value. The photo’s value was primarily derived from the remembrance of past individuals. The “aura “of a photograph thus came from faces within a photograph (Brummitt, 2015). Artistic photography has however changed in that pictures no longer focus as much on faces but instead their meaning is often derived from contextual information provided around the image in the form of captions or supplementary images.
Due to the value of art no longer being derived from cultic but rather exhibition sources, the interpretation and thus meaning of art is now more flexible than in the past. With the advent of modern mechanical reproduction, the world now has millions of copies of films, photographs of artworks in circulation, yet all of these artworks lack the “Aura” of their original instance. This lack of the cultic “aura” is in my opinion a good explanation for why popular modern art is considered not as challenging or important as in the past.
The Frankfurt school appears to have created two very differing accounts of why art has declined in value in recent times. I find the “Culture Industry” theory highly compelling as it seems to explain why cultural products have seemingly lost their variety due to the consequences for artists who choose to not conform to the industries standards. Furthermore, popular culture seems to contrast authentic art, as it is more concerned with imitating the existing world rather than challenging its audience to envisage a better one.
I also believe that one may incorporate Benjamin’s theory of art losing its cultic value due to a reproduction losing its originals “aura” within time and space with that of the “culture industry”. The loss of “aura” within a reproduction could equally apply to artwork that is produced by the culture industry. I therefore believe that by combining these two distinct theories, one might create a more complete account of how both popular modern art and culture have lost their variety and value within the modern age.
· Horkheimer, M., & Theodor Adorno. (1969). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In Dialectic Of Enlightenment (pp. 120–165). New York, New York, United States of America: Continuum.
· The Cultural Reader. (2013, December 19). Adorno and Horkheimer — “Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”. Retrieved April 1, 2016, from The Cultural Reader:
· Corradetti, C. (2012, June 8). The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory. Retrieved March 29, 2016, from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.iep.utm.edu/frankfur/
· Matthews, E. (2015, February 13). Why Are Four Chord Songs So Prevalent ? Retrieved April 2, 2016, from Music — Theory and Practice: http://music.stackexchange.com/questions/29785/why-are-four-chord-songs-i-v-vi-iv-so-prevalent
· Tknoell, J. (2012, June 20). The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception — An Analysis. Retrieved April 2, 2016, from Prelim Study Group : https://prelimstudygroup.wordpress.com/category/adorno-and-horkheimer/
· Brummitt, J. L. (2015, March 30). Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). Retrieved April 3, 2016, from Jamie Brumitt — PHD Candidate: http://jamiebrummitt.com/walter-benjamin-the-work-of-art-in-the-age-of-mechanical-reproduction-1936/
· Stephens, M. (2006, February 20). Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Retrieved April 3, 2016, from Visual Rehtoric: http://rhetor.blogs.com/visual/2006/02/walter_benjamin.html
· Benjamin, W. (2005, February). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. (H. Arendt, Editor) Retrieved 1 April, 2016, from UCLA School of Theatre , Film and Television: https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm
· Larson, E. (2010). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. (Yale University) Retrieved April 3, 2016, from The Modernism Lab — Yale University: https://modernism.research.yale.edu/wiki/index.php/The_Work_of_Art_in_the_Age_of_Mechanical_Reproduction
· Robinson, A. (2013, June 14). Walter Benjamin: Art, Aura and Authenticity. Retrieved April 1, 2016, from Ceasefire: https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/walter-benjamin-art-aura-authenticity/