The shortcomings of mass media and the culture industry.
I’ve never particularly been a fan of mindless mass media. It gets boring after a while. It happened to the Simpsons, it happened to Family Guy, Futurama and American Dad and a host of others in between.
The culture industry takes something that does, or once had a cultural significance and produces it en masse for consumption by the masses, but by doing so I think it loses its original intent. By the standards of popular culture, it is popular by numbers, and because it has market saturation, it is recognisable as cultural. It is, Paul Valéry calls it, the conquest of ubiquity. In this essay, he says “Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign”. (Valéry, 2020) Sounds very much like a TV, a radio, or a mobile device with a touch screen, doesn’t it. Ubiquity is highly-desired within the capitalist framework the Simpsons and other forms of entertainment thrive in. Ubiquity requires the capacity for rapid reproduction. In Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction” (Benjamin, 2020), Benjamin calls into question the concept of art by linking the concept, meaning, and value to the historical conditions of its production, distribution, and reception. The more ubiquitous something is, the less artistic it becomes. But that is not to say all mass media is not art, because it depends on the context. A film, for example, can be mass media, but it can still be art because it is evocative. By evocative I don’t mean laughing at something because of the absurdity of a thing, but something that makes you think. Art has a narrative to it. A visceral experience attached.
In 2019, Martin Scorsese stated that the MCU is not cinema. It’s an interesting comment because the definition of cinema is a theatre where films are shown for public entertainment. But I don’t think that’s what he meant. In the early days of film, going to the cinema was much more of an affair than it is now because of its rarity. It was a multi-modal experiment. Large parts of the experience were getting there and home and the conversations that were had.
Throughout the history of film, there have been films that have been so thick in the narrative that some of them had a running time of between 210 minutes and 260 minutes with an intermission between so people could talk about it and digest the narrative up to the point of the intermission. I would disagree with Mr Scorsese on his comment because the MCU has a visceral experience. It has a narrative. I would even say it has a narrative within a narrative, but because that narrative is so thick, it had to be spread over 20 films. But it is part of the culture industry, so the real question is not is the MCU cinema, but rather is it art?
Now take this intro to the Simpsons as an example. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSU1IJk70i4&feature=emb_logo
It’s a fair bet that most won’t even realise that it’s been edited until halfway through the clip because it’s become so familiar that people switch off, assuming they even stay in the room. A few people will notice the big capital BANKSY written in a few places and made to look like spray paint. Fewer still will notice the other edits.
Banksy is famous for the critique of culture and the society in which it exists. At around the 35-second mark of the clip, we start to see a critique of the culture industry. The remainder of the clip is a visual representation of the embodiment of the conquest of ubiquity. It tells the narrative or mass production and the suffering it can cause people with lesser means. It softens the blow a little by using a panda and a unicorn, but the narrative remains the same. It also draws on Benjamin’s work in showing that mass production, in many cases, ultimately diminishes the worth of the work being reproduced. Mass consumption ultimately involves a hegemony. Those who create it, those who consume it, and those who reproduce it for the lowest price, and in this clip, he is drawing attention to that hegemony of the culture industry. That the Simpsons DVD’s are made by machine, and the toys almost exclusively made by machines doesn’t change that hegemony between production, consumption, and reproduction.
I would even venture to say that it is this cycle that helps create popular culture. Something is made and then consumed. The rate at which it is consumed lends itself to the capitalistic worth of reproduction. It is an embodiment of popular culture by numbers.
Another good example of the culture industry and the hegemony between production and consumption are limited production runs of lithographs. A lithograph is a hand-carved picture that is to be used for limited printing. It is often stone or aluminium, but mylar can be used as well. With each pressing, the plate slowly degrades and at the end of the run, it is destroyed. This creates a hegemony between the artist and the consumer because it is the artist that is in control of the number of pieces being produced. In Walter Benjamin’s work he talks about a concept called an aura. In this context, the aura is how authentic something is. In his essay, Walter Benjamin says that the aura diminishes the further away from an original work a reproduction is. As such, for something like a limited edition, the smaller the run, the more it will be worth, and the greater the aura will be because it has not strayed too far from the original work.
Aura can be mixed as well, for example the book Small Shen (Chan, 2020), authored by Kylie Chan, and illustrated by Queenie Chan (no relation). The book itself is mass produced so its aura decreases with every printing run, but within that book, on page 139 to be exact, is a panel in the Manga style. Both Kylie and Queenie have been asked by several people if they can get a printing of that panel. To date I am the only one who has a print of it. It is at this point a 1 of 1 complete with certificate of authenticity signed by both the author and the artist, and because of the panel not being mass produced in this format, it has an aura. Perhaps it would be best described as a different colour aura than a first run printing of the book.
But is the Simpsons, as a mass media and segment of the culture industry actually art? I would have to say no because it does not meet any of the requirements. It has no narrative. It is not a limited run. It is not evocative, nor does it induce a visceral experience. The video link though, is, because it is unique and it tells a story. It has no aura as Walter Benjamin would say.
Popular culture is not always art, but art is always popular culture to the demographic it is aimed at.
Benjamin, W. (2020, Oct 20). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Retrieved from MIT: https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf
Chan, K. (2020, Oct 22). Small Shen. Retrieved from Kylie Chan: https://kyliechan.com/small-shen/
Valéry, P. (2020, Oct 20). La conquête de l’ubiquité. Retrieved from Art And Popular Culture: http://artandpopularculture.com/La_conqu%C3%AAte_de_l%E2%80%99ubiquit%C3%A9