Currency and loose change

A Philosophy of Mass Art
April 3, 1998

It must have been the intention of No l Carroll, philosopher of aesthetics, in writing this book to rescue popular culture from the condescension of philosophers. But the very term around which his elaborate train of thought revolves, "mass art", turns out to be somewhat patronising in itself. Nevertheless, the sheer clarity of argument, and the range of the ideas explored and clarified, compensates for the embarrassment.

Carroll starts by taking apart the arguments of the great patronisers: Dwight MacDonald, Clement Greenberg, R. G. Collingwood, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. They treated the 20th-century phenomenon of the mass entertainment technologies with various levels of highfalutin' disdain. MacDonald thought that popular forms were simply manufactured commodities utterly remote from the purposes of real ("high") art; for Greenberg the new mass forms relieved the audience of the active and contemplative participation necessary to the reception of art. Collingwood thought that the new utilitarian formulas of mass entertainment were just the bread and circuses of a new age. The Critical Theorists, represented by Adorno and Horkheimer, believed that the new mass art was stultifying the population and narcotising the masses into believing that social realities were unalterable. Carroll detects behind the range of these discourses a misreading of Kant's conception of "free beauty", taken up by the anti-popularist theorists of the earlier part of this century, who wrongly attached to the appreciation of art ideas that Kant had seen as dimensions of the appreciation of the beautiful.

Carroll goes on to demolish the philosophical celebration of mass-communicated art at the hands of Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan but without betraying it into the hands of the denigrators. Carroll marches through McLuhanist sophistry pointing out that automatic perceptual responses can in no sense be taken to stand in for the act of contemplative appreciation. The grand utopian narrative of McLuhan is as suspect as the dystopian narratives of the mass-art disparagers.

What the celebrators of mass art have in common is their Hegelianism, the belief that art mutates with the passing modes of production. All the definitions and criteria that apply at one moment simply do not work for other times and other societies. For the new mode of technological production, the art of mass reproducibility is necessary: it expresses and promotes the ethos of the new culture of the proletariat. Benjamin, still today the most widely preached surviving example of the historical-materialist approach, thought that the arts of "mechanical reproduction" had a built-in propensity to penetrate social reality and serve the political ends of the masses. Simply by being reproducible on a mass scale photography, cinema and the newspaper were said to possess the potential for galvanising the mass audience into expressing a collective social criticism and a mass political end. The art of the age of mechanical reproduction would be on the right side of history.

Carroll proceeds to set his fuse with some care beneath this detritus of Marxist cultural theory (as beneath the others) before proceeding to the construction of his own definitions of the phenomenon of "mass art". His own position is less assailable because it is, though eloquently so, rooted in the obvious. Mass art is not the only art around. But it is and has to be accessible and therefore is linked to widely felt emotions and to a morality and ideological range that are commonplace. If the practitioners of mass art were to attempt to engage "uncommon emotions" they would have no uptake, though that still does not mean that they depend on the passivity of the audience. In fact none among the patrician critics has ever quite provided durable definitions of the differences between active and passive reception of art - how does one know when an audience is being "active" and "participatory"? The whole phenomenon of mass art exists in a special historical relationship of contrast with the avant-garde, in a historical dialogue of accessibility. Both are emanations of the century, its technologies and its audiences.

While mass art is designed for the untutored audience, the various kinds of esoteric art "presuppose audiences equipped with specialised knowledge of various kinds". Moreover, they are something more than distinct, they are mutually dependent.

This is an unusual book and unravels whole skeins of arguments in a useful way. But it is a book about arguments much more than it is a book about mass or popular culture. It does not begin to use or explore the notion of pleasure in relation to the phenomenon it is examining - the very word that plays so important a role in all current thinking about mass entertainment does not even appear in Carroll's index. Nor does Carroll's train of thought lead him to wonder whether "mass art" exists any longer outside the various works he analyses so expertly - or has ever existed.The mass art of one era is transmuted into the high art (if that exists) of another and today these eras tumble past one another in such rapid succession, with their accompanying theoretical circuses, that they have become thoroughly indistinguishable and mutually derivative. That is not to say that anything goes, nor that there is no moral discourse to be held; but it ought to take place somehow closer to its object than this book manages to do.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

A Philosophy of Mass Art

Author - Noel Carroll
ISBN - 0 19 8711298 and 874237 1
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 425

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