High, Low and Mass Culture
A critical discussion by Andrew Giddings
The purpose of this essay is to critically discuss whether it is possible to distinguish between ‘high culture or art’ and ‘popular media’ (It must be noted that words such as ‘media’ and ‘culture’ and ‘art’ sometimes have interchangeable meanings between some of the reference materials used). The way in which to do this is to discuss whether the categories themselves can be clearly defined. If so, can they be defined as individuals or only as part of a whole? Could one exist without the other, or is each category defined by that which it is not? Various statements and theories will be analysed and held against each other in an attempt to reach an agreement. Once the criteria for each category become clear, the lines draw themselves. If agreeing criteria proves impossible, then it is only reasonable to conclude that it is also impossible to clearly categorise a medium.
‘Mass media’ has been defined in many ways. Strinati suggests that “mass culture is produced by mass production industrial techniques and is marketed for profit to a mass public of consumers.” (Strinati, 1995, p. 10), rather than for the sake of art or expression. This definition covers two criteria; the motives behind the production and the target audience. But using motive as a defining characteristic presents a problem. In modern times, very few things are produced if profit is not to be made. And not only produced, but reproduced. Symphony orchestras play the ‘high culture’ music of classical composers to houses packed with people who each paid a fee. That fee is determined by a simple calculation that ensures that the income gained from ticket sales will exceed the cost of the production. If demand for tickets is not high enough, the show is cancelled. If CD sales are too low, production ceases. Does this mean that Chopin and Beethoven are ‘mass media’? If not, then why not? When they produced their works, they certainly did not do so for free. Nor did Shakespeare and nor did Mozart. In addition, it is impossible to explore the motives of all creators of media; the fact that profit is generated does not prove that profit is the driving force behind the production. This kind of speculation is not enough to make an airtight distinction. It is best to work only with the second part of Strinati’s definition: the consumer.
Defining ‘high culture’ presents its own problems. Many examples of that which is considered to be high culture today have existed for hundreds of years. Often, the reason that these things have lasted for so long is that their producers and consumers had the wealth and influence required to preserve them. This is the reason that the works of people such as Tchaikovsky have survived to this day where many of the efforts of the poor from the same era, such as folk music, are long forgotten. As these forms of entertainment have survived, so has their reputation for being high culture.
One would not have to look far to find exceptions to this rule. But even if there were none, it is only a reason for the survival of certain forms of art and culture; it does not draw a line between ‘high culture’ and ‘popular media’. Finding origins of the categories would be useful in this endeavour. Paul DiMaggio offers one, suggesting that ‘high culture’ is a category deliberately created in an aggressive movement of the social elite: “Only when elite taste was harnessed to a clearly articulated ideology embodied in the exhibitions and performances of organizations that selected and presented art in a manner distinct from that of commercial entrepreneurs… did an understanding of culture as hierarchical become both legitimate and widespread.” (DiMaggio, 1992, p. 22)
This would suggest that a medium can be labelled ‘popular’ simply because it was not appropriated by the elite. After all, if the elite chose a slice of the arts for themselves and making it unpopular with the masses through, as DiMaggio says, “entrepreneurship, classification and framing” (DiMaggio, 1998, p. 454), it leaves ‘popular media’ behind as a by-product. Due to the historical research, this may be a more reliable description than that of Hebdige, who describes ‘popular culture’ as simply “a set of generally available artefacts: Films, records, clothes, TV programmes, modes of transport etc.,” (Hebdige, 1988, p. 47) a description so vague that there is no separation between media and transport. Either way, this does not explain ‘mass culture’. Noel Carroll feels that the word ‘popular’ is often misused and that ‘mass media’ is a different thing altogether: “Perhaps the most misleading way to label the phenomenon is to call it popular art” (Carroll, 1998, p. 185). He argues that ‘popular’ simply means liked by many, making it impossible to apply time to it, as things have always either had, or lacked, popularity. Instead, Carroll insists that the title ‘mass art’ provides a clearer definition: “It is art that is designed to serve mass society by using the means of that society- mass technologies- as a way of performing this service… Mass art is designed to seek out a mass audience, irrespective of class…Mass art is for mass consumption,”” (Carroll, 1998, pp. 186, 187)
So it is reasonable to suggest that the world of media can be divided into three categories: ‘High culture’ captured by the elite, ‘mass media’ as defined by Carroll, and the ‘popular culture’ which, if left behind by the elite and ignored by the media industry, would now be called ‘folk culture’.
But while it is possible to draw lines, the modern world blurs these lines and makes it more difficult to categorise art and media than it may first appear. The first problem is the fact that perceptions of the media shift over time. John Storey observes that the popularity of Shakespeare’s plays were not confined by class in the early nineteenth century, but they later underwent “a movement from entertainment for the many to education and enlightenment for the few” (Storey, 2003, p. 35), demonstrating that it is not the medium itself, but public perception or sociology.
Storey also summarises a second hurdle: “What is changing is this: rather than consume only high culture, members of the dominant class now consume much of what they had previously dismissed as mass culture…the strategies for securing distinction are changing. Put simply, what matters is not what you consume but how you consume it.” (Storey, 2003, p. 46) He ends this thought with a quote: “It may just mean that the image of the taste-exclusive highbrow, along with ranking from ‘snob’ to ‘slob,’ is obsolete” (A.Peterson, 1992, p. 252).
So even if culture was once divided into ‘high’ and ‘popular’ by ‘high’ society, the arrival of mass media has not only added a new category, it has shaken the definition of ‘high culture’ as well. It now seems as though classical music is ‘mass media’ when heard on the radio or CD, but remains ‘high culture’ when experienced in a theatre. Can the work of Picasso simultaneously be both ‘high culture’ and ‘mass media’ as one person observes it in a museum in Barcelona and another views it on the internet in Berlin?
It may difficult to accept the suggestion that the same material switches category according to the medium by which it is experienced, but artist Roy Lichtenstein demonstrated the notion in the early 60s when he caused controversy with pieces such as ‘Whaam!’ [Fig.1] and ‘Drowning Girl’ [Fig.2], which he created by taking single panels from comic books (mass media) and, by painting them in a larger size for wall hanging, turning them from mere ‘artwork’ into ‘high art’. So it would indeed seem that ‘mass media’ becomes ‘art’ when an ‘artist’ displays it with a gallery, and so distinction can drawn from the setting or environment in which the product is experienced, or simply that it exists on canvas.
The waters are muddied by deliberate efforts to merge mass media and art. Andy Warhol, often credited as the creator of “pop art”, rocked the art world when he employed staff to produce and reproduce silk-screen images, which were then sold with Andy Warhol’s name on them. To drive the message home, this ‘mass art’ depicted ‘popular culture’: Much of Warhol’s work revolved around depictions of popular American products, such as soup cans [Fig.3] or celebrities (perhaps suggesting that celebrities are products too). These pieces did, and still do, come under the category of art, and therefore high culture (under generally agreed set of terms). But the manner in which they were produced surely put the products into the “mass media” pile, as does the motivation behind the creations: Warhol once declared that “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
Writers and theorists on this subject would certainly debate on the medium of newspapers: Each paper targets and attracts a different reader demographic: The Times attracts the intelligentsia and the social or financial elite, otherwise known to marketing strategists as the AB demographic [Fig 4]. The Sun targets the C2DE market sector; the lower income, working class. If their audiences define them, then The Times is ‘high culture’, while The Sun might be called ‘popular culture’. If instead we look to DiMaggio, who suggests the divide is the result of the elite encouraging the unpopularity of the highbrow, we draw the same conclusion: The Sun has a far greater circulation than The Times (though whether or not its unpopularity is deliberate would spark a whole new discussion). But as all newspapers are produced and consumed en masse and exist to make profit, most experts would agree that all newspapers are ‘mass media’. This would mean that the ‘mass media’ category can actually encompass the likes of ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, rather than being kept separate.
Another thing to be considered is the amalgamation of forms of ‘high culture’ to produce a piece of ‘mass media’. Video games provide one of many good examples of this. Modern video games often bring together art, architecture, classical music [Fig.5], actors and writers to name a handful. Most if not all of these things would be classified as ‘high culture’ if they were to stand alone. And yet when they are used to make a video game, the product would certainly be considered a piece of mass media. This phenomenon demonstrates that media is often categorised by association with an audience. If video games had a price tag which meant they were only available to the rich, it would be reasonable to suggest that video games would shift from mass media to high culture. Noel Carroll seems to disagree: “Something is not mass art simply in virtue of external features, such as the social class that consumes it.” (Carroll, 1998, p. 185) , but it would be difficult to argue this in light of some of the examples.
It seems clear that the divides under discussion exist only in the minds of people; that categorisation is a result of ideology and perception, rather than definitions and documentable facts. DiMaggio observed that culture was divided not by simply categorising and labelling, but by changing attitudes and forming ideologies. Strinati declares that studies “…remain a question of faith and assertion, not argument and empirical research… reflection (and kindred ideas such as construction) may not be the most appropriate way to understand… Concepts such as ideology may also be as important, if not more important.” (Strinati, 1995, p. 244). He concludes that studies need to be “more adequately grounded in sociology,” (Strinati, 1995, p. 245)
The lines that divide the categories of ‘art’, ‘high culture’,’ mass media’, ‘folk culture’ etc. are like the borders between countries: They exist only in our minds. They are there because we are told they are there, and people will always disagree on where those lines lie, whether they should be acknowledged at all, or who has the right to move them. The world of media is rich and varied, but the social structures surrounding consumers and the variation in their individual values and ideologies make it impossible to draw definitions for anyone other than oneself, and this effect is amplified as media becomes more globalised and cultures intertwine. Attempting to exert this influence would be a futile effort to influence the landscape of the minds of others. Whether deliberately or coincidentally, this been achieved to an extent, but the lines which have been drawn will always remain blurred.
On display at Tate Modern, London
Drowning Girl (1963) by Roy Lichtenstein
On display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Campbells Soup Cans  by Andy Warhol
On display at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City
Composer Nobuo Uematsu with orchestra at a Distant Worlds concert in Stockholm. One of several tours which specialize in playing music from video games. Distant Worlds specializes in music from the Final Fantasy series from publisher Square Enix.
A.Peterson, R. (1992). Understanding Audience Segmentation: From elite and mass to omnivore and univore. Poetics.
Carroll, N. (1998). A Philosophy of Mass Art. New York: Oxford University Press.
DiMaggio, P. (1998). “Cultural Entrepreneurship of Nineteenth Century Boston: The Creation of an Organizational Base for High Culture in America”. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.
DiMaggio, P. (1992). Cultural Boundaries and Structural Change: The Extension of the High Culture Model to Theater, Opera and the Dance, 1900-1940. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hebdige, D. (1988). Hiding in the Light. Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk: Routledge.
Storey, J. (2003). Inventing Popular Culture: From Folklore to Globalization. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Strinati, D. (1995). Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. New York: Routledge.