[opinion] The Role of Art and Culture – Part 1

What is the difference between situation A and situation B?

We are seeing two different depictions of two interactions. One is that of a consumer receiving (education, enlightenment, entertainment); the other is that of a consumer giving or responding (complaints, compliments). These pictures also depict the difference between two types of cultural productions: one in which the audience is asked to critique, study, and sometimes amend one’s opinions; the other in which the audience is given agency to compliment, complain, or otherwise personally respond to the product. Within the institution of high culture, the audience must take or leave what is put before them; within the public agora of consumerism, the audience gains the agency to choose, change, and appropriately respond to what they have invested in.

It is arguable then, that the difference in agency is very much due to the material, product, or art form at hand. In the same way, we can say that some culture products are created to be enjoyed on one level (“high”: artistically, metaphysically, or emotionally), while other products are created to be enjoyed on another level (“low”: uncomplicated, relaxing, fun). It is very similar to the difference between Journey and Call of Duty.

How do these differences effect us? It is difficult to extrapolate, but increasingly important, as the comic book, game, and film industry – producers, corporations, reviewers, and audience members – clashes over issues surrounding quality control and content of the art/cultural forms in question. It is the push-pull between high and low culture, elevated and mass art, consumer and artistic interests – all of which have been complicated by corporate influence.

Oddly enough, the rising climax surrounding the issue of consumer agency within the video game industry in particular began in earnest around the same time I was watching training videos for my new job at Tim Hortons (a famous Canadian coffee shop). The training video went into great detail about how the customer was to be treated with respect, which bordered on that older idea that “the customer is always right”.

This is what the training video taught in regards to handling complaints:

Here are the proper steps to take to resolve a Guest complaint.

Your Guest approaches the counter, ”I ordered a plain bagel, toasted with cream cheese. This is not a plain bagel!”

Your job is to listen carefully to what they’re saying without interrupting them. When they have finished speaking, it’s up to you to apologize that they received the wrong order, thank them for giving you the opportunity to ‘Make it Right’, then immediately fix the order.

“I’m sorry you didn’t get what you ordered and thank you for bringing it to my attention. Let me get you your plain bagel, toasted with cream cheese right away”.

And that’s it. Guests just want what they ordered, and it’s up to you to give it to them.

Keep the experience positive without challenging them, without arguing, and without placing blame. Just ‘Make it Right’.

-Tim Horton’s employee guide

A nuanced perspective would suggest that the customer is not always right, but the idea behind this video is to recommend a humble attitude on the part of the producer – an appreciation that without the consumer, the producer would not exist. There is an awareness and acceptance of the push-pull between producer and consumer.

On the other hand, evidenced in my guilty pleasure, Project Runway, the push-pull of the producer/consumer is complicated by the need to hold firm to one’s artistic values and the need to sell. There are several episodes scattered throughout the seasons in which fashion designers have the tough challenge of working with demanding clients. Christian Siriano in Season 4 and Nathan Paul in Season 10 particularly come to mind. Siriano struggled with handling his customer in the prom dress challenge because the girl had very specific ideas in mind – ideas that did not jive with Siriano’s personal taste and showed a certain lack of taste on the customer’s part. Siriano fought to keep his voice, and in some aspects, kept the dress a little more pared down than it might have been. On the other hand, Paul attempted (and failed) to refine his and his client’s vision. The judges, in the case of Paul, suggested that it was his responsibility to lead the young client toward a more tasteful and hip design. In these cases, the customer is not always right, and the producer has the responsibility to “enlighten”, “enhance”, or “reveal” to the consumer what the consumer does not know they want. However, it is important to note that in both cases, the consumer was not some willing sheeple without a voice, which is what we are starting to see recently in response to certain cultural movements and issues arising within various cultural industries.

In short, society and culture is a contested space in which the producer/consumer have (sometimes intense) dialogues about what is good, valued, and worthwhile and what is not. Furthermore, personal opinions surrounding “high” and “low” culture also create different demands of different producers on the part of different consumers. Finally, producers are considered to have the responsibility to not only create educative material but also high quality (neither mutually exclusive); therefore whether content is high or low culture, technique, style, and success of creation is still important.

Let us follow the historical timeline of this continued dialogue.

1500s-1800s: Art and High Culture

A long time ago, harking back to the times of Matthew Arnold and David Hume, art and culture was seen as being the purview of the educated, the noble, and the spiritual.

Matthew Arnold in his famous writing, Culture and Anarchy, muses over the role of culture on the general public:

Now, the use of culture is that it helps us, by means of its spiritual standard of perfection, to regard wealth as but machinery, and not only to say as a matter of words that we regard wealth as but machinery, but really to perceive and feel that it is so. If it were not for this purging effect wrought upon our minds by culture, the whole world, the future as well as the present, would inevitably belong to the Philistines. The people who believe most that our greatness and welfare [20] are proved by our being very rich, and who most give their lives and thoughts to becoming rich, are just the very people whom we call the Philistines. […]

Culture and Anarchy

“Taste” was the ability to tell the difference between good and bad production or art – something developed over time and must be free of prejudice (Hume, Of the Standard of Taste).

In each creature, there is a sound and a defective state; and the former alone can be supposed to afford us a true standard of taste and sentiment. If, in the sound state of the organ, there be an entire or a considerable uniformity of sentiment among men, we may thence derive an idea of the perfect beauty […]

One obvious cause, why many feel not the proper sentiment of beauty, is the want of that delicacy of imagination, which is requisite to convey a sensibility of those finer emotions. This delicacy every one pretends to: Everyone talks of it; and would reduce every kind of taste or sentiment to its standard. […]

It is impossible to continue in the practice of contemplating any order of beauty, without being frequently obliged to form comparisons between the several species and degrees of excellence, and estimating their proportion to each other.

Of the Standard of Taste

In short, people during these centuries more than likely experienced a very clear hierarchy of entertainment – high and low – with the understanding that high culture produced elevated art forms that inspired and taught (as seen at an art gallery), while low culture produced populous art forms that entertained and catered to public interest (as seen at a restaurant). Eternal value, universalism, and inspiration were the hallmarks of such great culture, but reverence for these art forms began to dissipate.

1900s-1990s: Art and Mass Culture

As the modern era progressed, artists and writers underwent a variety of existential, metaphysical, social, and artistic upheavals, as seen by the works of the Cubists, Surrealists, and Dadaists, for example. The heavy impact of pop culture and mass culture, empowered by corporate interests, took advantage of the existential and metaphysical vacuum created by the horrors of the World Wars and the philosophical-theological changes within Academia.

Paglia, in Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, suggests that painting “has never recovered from the birth of pop” (147). She goes on to reveal the links between Andy Warhol’s art process and the technological, industrial, and ideological changes taking place in the 40s and 50s.

Warhol had an outsider’s perspective on American popular culture. He saw brand names, logos, and advertisements as American heraldry. […] Warhol deliberately sought a mechanical effect to subvert the hallowed value of the unique “masterpiece”. Disdaining authorship, he often used a rubber stamp to sign his paintings, and he professed indifference to their fate: they were as disposable as any other product of American manufacturing, then geared to planned obsolescence.

Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, 149

Even so, Paglia connects Warhol’s Eastern European Catholic background – Mary and Mary Magdalene – to the Monroe Triptych, showing that despite his Pop art leanings, Warhol still had a foundation somewhere in older forms of meaning.

However, at this time, this foundation was eroding in other areas of culture. A kind of disbelief in the “aura” of art began to circulate in Germany’s Frankfurt School thanks to Walter Benjamin and others, creating the seeds of postmodernity – the heavy skepticism of meta-narratives and accompanying importance of mythology. Benjamin suggested that it was natural for art to succumb to becoming a mere tool for corporate or national interests.

Like Warhol, Walter Benjamin questioned whether art had spiritual meaningfulness anymore as the “aura” was lost in reproducible or pop culture.

One might focus these aspects of the artwork in the concept of the aura, and go  on to say: what withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art is the latter’s aura. […] It might be stated as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition. by replicating the work many times over, it substitutes a mass existence for a unique existence.

The Work of Art in the Age of its Reproducibility, 103-104

Benjamin suggests that older cultures, such as the Greeks, due to their lack of technology were forced to “produce eternal values in their art” (108-109). On the other hand, modern film, art, and photography, being replicated, loses uniqueness – and therefore eternal value. Benjamin goes on to argue that this loss of eternal value devalues art as a whole, relegating art to a position of serving either escapism or politics.

If one considers the dangerous tensions which technology and its consequences have engendered in the masses at large – tendencies  which at critical stages take on a psychotic character – one also has to recognize that this same technologization [Technisierung] has created the possibility of psychic immunization against such mass psychosis. It does so by means of certain films in which the forced development of sadistic fantasies or masochistic delusions can prevent their natural and dangerous maturation in the masses. Collective laughter is one such preemptive and healing outbreak of mass psychosis. The countless grotesque events consumed in films are a graphic indication of the dangers threatening mankind from the repressions implicit in civilization. American slapstick comedies and Disney films trigger a therapeutic release of unconscious energies.

The Work of Art in the Age of its Reproducibility, 118

After discussing fascism, Communism, and the inevitable role of art in politics, Benjamin ends his essay very clearly:

Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.

The Work of Art in the Age of its Reproducibility, 122

What had become of art? It had become a battle ground for ideology. Perhaps it always had been, on some sort of level, but the movement from modernity to post-modernity exposed the (arguable) machinery behind art and denounced it as manipulative and evil. Whether fascistic or communistic, some academics began to see art as a kind of hegemonic tool. More recently, the post-modern, cultural Marxists in university view art and culture as a space wherein the masses negotiate power but more often than not uphold the status quo. This has led to current tensions within popular culture.

[Second Part coming as soon as possible]

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