The American sociologist Herbert Gans analyzes in his work, Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste, whether the distinction differentiating popular culture from high culture remains relevant in the contemporary society we live in today. With the borders of imagined communities incessantly shifting, commercial culture, due to the multi-linguistic nature of the media, breaches the subdivisions of pride regardless of religious, political, societal, or language barriers. This transgression of borders not only metastasizes the mass circulation of products, but also facilitates the spread of hegemonic ideologies that appropriate cultural codes. The recent debate arguing that it is no longer pertinent to distinguish between high and popular culture may be true, however high culture has not ceased to exist but rather it’s been, on the contrary, redefined. To consider the repercussions of the aforementioned it is important to first reconsider the relevance of the past distinction between high and popular culture.
Popular culture, although a vexed and indisputably polemical term, can be loosely defined as everything outside the particular interests of the elite class whose allegedly refined taste falls under the category of high culture. However with museums, orchestras, ballets and higher education open to the general public, the territory formally occupied by the educated and privileged is now becoming a cultural arena open to the masses. The boundaries marking the disparity have blurred.
As the separation between popular culture and high culture slowly diminishes, the argument for distinction becomes frail. As my Professor Nico Vink wrote in his book Dealing with Differences, “the traditional opposition between elite and popular culture has almost disappeared. In modern times, they were each other’s opposites, yet now they are mix.”[i] (13) To further support his point, Vink refers to Andy Warhols’ lithographs rendering the repetition of icons quintessential of American pop culture, such as Marilyn Monroe. These works of art not only serve as a social critique mirroring America’s inclination towards mass production and ceaseless consumption, but furthermore blur the lines dividing high culture from pop. Yet, I suggest that this bleeding together of cultures is not unilateral in the sense that the mainstream is inundating a space formally occupied by the upper class, but rather the elite have also recognized the economic and political potential lacing the mass media.
The global onslaught of the multinational conglomerates owned and controlled by the elite must not be overlooked, as their role in the production of television, music, advertisement, films, brand names, commercials, magazine and fashion is indisputable. The pervasive and transitory nature of pop culture is not only subject to change but also an initiator of it. Infused with political propaganda that fuels the naturalization of stereotypes and globalization of capitalism, the hegemonic agenda mediated by the mass media is veiled by ideological innocence. Due to popular cultures faculty to sway the minds of the masses, it harbors a political dimension in its ability to manipulate the public via infiltrating the media with hegemonic ideologies that support the socioeconomic interests of the power that be. Popular culture in its multitude of forms engenders the possibility to be lived vicariously through, thus influencing not only the way people think but also live. In short, although the distinction between popular culture and high culture has become increasingly irrelevant, it is important to acknowledge that high culture has not disappeared but rather redefined and disguised itself within the realm of popular culture.
[i] Vink, Nico, Dealing with Differences (Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2005) 12-13.