Thoughts on Audience

Martha Rosler’s article, “Lookers, Buyers, Dealers, and Markets: Thoughts on Audience,” positions the photographic medium within the art world, while deconstructing notions of the spectator and high culture. Rosler’s discursive argument is concerned with when and how photography penetrated high culture, which she claims occurred in a “moment of hesitation” (Rosler 37) in the art world. Furthermore, Rosler begs the question of how the ownership of culture is determined and who defines the dichotomy of taste.

The art world is constituted of a set of relations.  The cultural capital of great works of art translates into economic capital.  Thus, art can be understood as a form of currency.  When uncertainty is lacing economic conditions, as now, many investors look to buy art. The commodity fetishism of art is unique in that its use and exchange value is hinged on taste and is thus ambiguous. As it were, there are works of art out there that the hegemonic order has deemed priceless. These masterpieces are in the possession of a select few individuals of the elite.  In short, those who can afford high art, define it. This just goes to show “how closely art is tied to commodity production” (Rosler 32).

High culture may be owned by the elite, however, “the widest audience is made up of onlookers- people outside the group generally meant by the term ‘audience’” (Rosler 14). This article is in many ways temporally tied to the time in which it was written, as the distinction today differentiating low culture from high is in a state of decay due to pervasive nature of popular culture. I dare not be so bold to suggest that high culture cease to exist, but rather I’d argue it has been redefined. After all, popular culture, although a vexed and indisputably polemical term, pertains to 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, and the argument for distinction becomes frail.

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 pervasive and transitory nature of pop culture is not only subject to change but also an initiator of it. 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. Photography’s role in the aforementioned is unparalleled given that it is a medium that has the propensity to manipulate images of the world. It’s relationship with truth, reality and representation positions photography in a category of its own. However, like other art forms photography had to “reconfigure its own high culture/low culture split: a central matter for photography, which has penetrated daily life and informed our sense of culture as no form of visual representation has before” (Rosler 35).

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 itself. The photographic medium’s transgression into the realm of fine art necessitated a re-conceptualization of high and low culture.  The fragility of a dichotomy hinged on the taste of the wealthy is a phenomenon innate to the age of post-modernity.  Artists such as Andy Warhol exemplified the intercourse of art and popular culture, as did many of his contemporaries.  Yet, despite the increasingly blurred distinction between high culture and popular culture, the question of audience still remains U


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