Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Arts and the Mass Media (L. Alloway)

"Before 1800 the population of Europe was an estimated 180 million; by 1900 this figure had risen to 460 million. The increase of population and the industrial revolution that paced it has, as everybody knows, changed the world. In the arts, however, traditional ideas have persisted, to limit the definition of later developments. As Ortega pointed out in The Revolt of the Masses: 'the masses are to-day exercising functions in social life which coincide with those which hitherto seemed reserved to minorities.' As a result the élite, accustomed to set aesthetic standards, has found that it no longer possesses the power to dominate all aspects of art. It is in this situation that we need to consider the arts of the mass media. It is impossible to see them clearly within a code of aesthetics associated with minorities with pastoral and upper-class ideas because mass art is urban and democratic. [...]

If justice it to be done to the mass arts which are, after all, one of the most remarkable and characteristic achievements of industrial society, some of the common objections to it need to be faced. A summary of the opposition to mass popular arts is in Avant Garde and Kitsch (Partisan Review, 1939, Horizon, 1940), by Clement Green berg, an art critic and a good one, but fatally prejudiced when he leaves modern fine art. By kitsch he means 'popular, commercial art and literature, with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, advertisements, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc.'. All these activities to Greenberg and the minority he speaks of are 'ersatz culture... destined for those who are insensible to the value of genuine culture... Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academic simulacra of genuine culture welcomes and cultivates this insensibility' (my italics). Greenberg insists that 'all kitsch is academic', but only some of it is, such as Cecil B. De Mille-type historical epics which use nineteenth-century history-picture material. In fact, stylistically, technically, and iconographically, the mass arts are anti-academic. Topicality and a rapid rate of change are not academic in any usual sense of the word, which means a system that is static, rigid, self-perpetuating. Sensitiveness to the variables of our life and economy enable the mass arts to accompany the changes in our life far more closely than the fine arts which are a repository of time-binding values."

Alloway, Lawrence (1958) in Architectural Design, London.
In: Harrison, Charles; Wood, Paul (2003) Art in Theory 1900-2000. Malden: Blackwell. p 715.

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