What's your favorite movie? Did you watch that season finale last night? No spoilers! Popular cultures pervades modern life.
A lot of the popular culture we consume these days is produced and distributed by large studios and record companies. Should that worry us? Are doomed to mediocre music, television, and film? Or even worse: are we doomed to songs, shows, and movies that secretly serve a hegemonic propaganda machine?
That’s what Theodor Adorno seems to have believed. Back in the 1940s, he and Max Horkheimer published a rather, well, feisty chapter on what they called the “culture industry.” Their argument was complicated, and it was dressed up in sometimes impenetrable language—that’s how you got famous those days!—but the central idea seems to have been that every single product of mass culture is designed to preserve the status quo, holding the evil capitalist system in place. (“Automobiles, bombs, and movies,” they wrote, “keep the whole thing together.”)
Take the example of movies. Most films, Adorno says, try to convince us that capitalism is a fantastic thing, by showing people in trouble getting a helping hand. In the rare case where a movie shows things going badly, the point is to persuade us that resistance is futile, so we may as well not bother trying to protest. (I’m being charitable here and tidying up the argument; Adorno and Horkheimer prefer simply to contradict themselves, without explanation.) This isn’t an accident: on the contrary, movie studios deliberately produce such “rubbish.”
And so all movies are essentially the same, the differences between them being totally superficial. That’s why every single one of them is entirely predictable: “as soon as the film begins, it is quite clear how it will end, and who will be rewarded, punished, or forgotten.” Movies are just a device for the studios to make money and for the state to get its propaganda out; they are not an art but just a business. Gone are the days when people made culture for the sake of culture!
That all sounds pretty rousing; the only problem is that it isn’t true. First, movies are not all identical, and they’re not all predictable. That was already true in Adorno’s age, which was the heyday of film noir (I defy anyone to predict the outcome of, say, The Big Sleep) and which had enjoyed classics like The Rules of the Game and The Grand Illusion. There was no shortage of interesting, unpredictable movies in Adorno’s day, and there certainly isn’t in ours (I’d include Get Out, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Blade Runner, The Big Lebowski, Stories We Tell, and Do the Right Thing; tell us some of your own favorites in the comments).
Adorno was also writing in the heyday of jazz, one of the most innovative and unpredictable artforms of all. (Ella Fitzgerald recorded “Flying Home” in 1945.) Faced with this problem for their argument, Adorno and Horkheimer simply decided to pretend that jazz was boring. They spoke of jazz as a “machine”; they said its innovations were mere “pseudo-individuality”; and they talked scornfully of “the standardized jazz improvisation,” as though that were an actual thing.
So Adorno and Horkheimer were profoundly mistaken about movies and popular songs: they are not all identical, and they are not all predictable. It’s also not the case that their sole ambition is to make money. It’s hard to imagine that Spike Lee’s only purpose in creating the masterpiece Do the Right Thing was to earn a quick buck, or that Martin Scorsese directed The Last Temptation in order to get himself a new Porsche.
Finally, popular culture does not always seek to reinforce the status quo. If you believe that, you need to listen to more Sex Pistols and NWA. Now Adorno has an ingenious method for dismissing cases like these: it’s called sophistry. He knows that Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator is an anti-fascist movie, but he has to pretend it’s a failure like everything else, so he says that “the ears of corn blowing in the wind at the end of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator give the lie to the anti-Fascist plea for freedom. They are like the blond hair of the German girl whose camp life is photographed by the Nazi film company.” What can one say to such cast-iron logic?
None of this means, of course, that every movie, every TV show, or every song is a fabulous achievement: plenty of artworks, whether popular or otherwise, are uninspired and uninspiring. (I’m not about to defend Justin Bieber!) Further, some do indeed reproduce the ideology of the day, and even those that challenge the status quo can, at times, end up getting co-opted. And yes, some are driven or distorted by the profit motive: think of all those sequels, all that product placement. But this is far from being the whole of the story, and neither is it particularly new.
There has always been mediocre art, just as there have always been aesthetic constraints and incentives. (Adorno sometimes writes as though the situation before capitalism was a utopia—as though artists never had patrons, never performed for food, never pandered to the “groundlings,” never worked for the Church.) And yet there has also always been good art, in spite of everything. Even in the age of the big studio, there are still genuine artists out there, making genuinely great artworks, and for reasons other than greed. Some of these great artworks end up getting read, or seen, or heard by a higher percentage of the population than was ever possible in previous ages. Is it really all a catastrophe?