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The Culture Industry and Art (2017)

The culture industry offers a classic vision of a society and in some way causing the society to lose part of its capacity to nourish true freedom and individuality, as well as the ability to represent the real conditions of existence. Since the late 90s, there have been more artists, galleries, fairs, and museums. However, some critics believed that this glut of art, artists and markets will not only disappear, but will also turn art into a hodgepodge, where the seemingly infinite number of artistic genres have blurred the boundaries between diverse art forms. According to Clement Greenberg’s essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, there is a distinction between high culture and low culture, and he refers to popular culture as kitsch. In popular culture, television programs popularize and generalize both artists and celebrities. The question that arises in such processes is: is art entertainment? The boundary between contemporary art and popular forms continue to be ambiguous. Contemporary artist Gavin Turk points out that while the art and entertainment industries may have merged, as entertainment, art is not very entertaining. As consumers and critics of both popular entertainment and so-called fine art, we need to be on the lookout for more in-depth relations between the cultural industries and contemporary art.

With the growth of the art market, new art is being split into two market sectors, gallery-based sales and private independent buyers. In a certain degree, an artist putting entertaining elements into his or her artwork could be considered an attractive effect. This action reflects a limitation of art creation, but also indicates one of the reasons why contemporary art has become so popular. In addition, the contemporary trend of art as entertainment calls into question the hypothetical motivations of why the artist created the work in the first place?  Is this artist attempting to investigate an ineffable theme or topic? Or is he or she merely trying to appeal to popular tastes in an already oversaturated market? This points back to Greenberg’s pursuit of the idea of avant-garde; art for art’s sake. Should artists make work to express themselves, or to meet the demands of the popular marketplace?

On one hand, Theodor Adorno and other critics from the Frankfurt School defend the idea of high culture, criticizing popular culture and the culture industry. Adorno believed that modern society produces popular culture for mass audiences and, as the apparent borderline between popular art, and refined and marginalized culture becomes blurred, the influences of low art, or kitsch, poses a threat to high culture. This standardization of cultural products has watered down the so-called highbrow in order to meet the demands of public consumption. Moreover, reality shows, relatively popular modern forms of entertainment, make the identity of artists and celebrities more attractive.  The modern-day entertainment industry has invaded all aspects of daily life, where fashion symbols and trends, influence the mass public to adhere to the strict rules of contemporary style. This phenomenon, to varying degrees, has killed human personality and creativity, creating a large number of homogeneous people who accept without thinking. So from a relatively pessimistic point of view, does this mean that true art is on life support in this age of mass entertainment? As Neil Postman said, “we will eventually be destroyed by what we love.” As the title of his book (Amusing Ourselves to Death) suggests, modern consumer culture will destroy the richness of human existence. 

On another hand, Walther Benjamin in his article, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, argued that the advent of the cultural industry was inevitable and that it brought new dimensions to the arts. What Benjamin wants to say is the technology of reproduction, indeed, creates more possibilities for art creation and how do people perceive the artworks. However, the reproductional technology challenging the status of artwork between high and low, such as Andy Warhol and his pop art, algorithmic art, video, and photography. It becomes an unavoidable fact for an artwork: is the artwork has to be superior status (be fetishism)? If so, the audience worships to a unique artwork and ridicules to fakes or reproduction also symbolizing a core value in the market – scarcity.  The critics, such as Adorno treats Benjamin’s idea mere as meet the public demands, but he misses the essential part of using the technology of reproduction – the establishment of simulacra. It could be considered as a way to produce the symbol of the reality that can go beyond the true or false. That is to say, the technology of reproduction no longer stand for the idea of kitsch, either produce standard products, but a way to views an art in order to offer a new creating process.

For getting into the detail, I want to compare Richard Billingham’s photography and a popular entertainment cartoon, the ‘Simpsons’. Because George Walden once wrote about the art of elegance, “it can provide some entertainment or pastime, but if these are the standard, in terms of wisdom, intelligence, originality, social commentary or philosophy, rarely rose to the United States the most successful.” His concept is to counter Simpson by contrasting with the Simpsons, but he ignores the difference between pop culture and art.


Richard Billingham, Ray’s A Laugh, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery, 1995

Billingham’s series of photographs are sorts of the family photography showing a certain element of humor and fun. He uses photos as a medium to record his family, and the essence of family photos is to freeze some happy moments in everyday life. But in his works not only reflects the value of the family but also let the audience think metaphorical elements in his works. This process of thinking transforms this seemingly humorous work into a very serious work that echoes the entertainment as content represents. From the family’s point of view, the Simpsons and Billingham’s works reflect a similar role, both from the family point of view and mapping out the relevant issues, but standing on entertainment standards, the “Simpsons” is more interesting than Billingham’s photography. First, both work between the static and dynamic images of the aesthetic differences can be communicated to the audience more viewer-friendly concept, the audience can easily follow the story of the trends, this approach has a strong guide. Secondly, there are differences between purposes of the creation of the fundamental, as well as differences in presentation. In addition, the “Simpsons” also focus on the use of humorous elements to ridicule the American society to meet demands of popular entertainment. But for artworks, it is often the process of individual speculation. After contrast, it can clearly see the difference between art and cultural industries. The Simpsons have a commercial purpose for the general public, but Billingham as an artist only to express the concept.

However, compared with the artistic value, Adorno clearly distinguished pleasure must sacrifice the truth. He asserted, what is done in a false world is wrong. It also applies to the pleasure of art … in short, the entertainment of this idea needs to be removed from the essence of art, what really needs is knowledge or better impartial cognitive judgment. From his point of view, Adorno draws the essence of opposition between reality and entertainment. But as Richard Shusterman questioned, “Why should there be an essential antagonism between reality and pleasure, knowledge and pleasure?” For example, the Simpsons used humor to ridicule facts, which meant that it describes what happened around, and “Simpsons” not only for the senses of entertaining, but also an expression of understanding.

Julian Stallabrass in the book, ‘High Art Lite’, mentioned an interesting point of view, she believes that the art in the entertainment has two advantages over the mass media, surprise, and sensuality. The surprise comes from entertaining, and sensuality comes from galleries. Specifically, the audience can appreciate Billingham’s photography in the gallery among the real connection, and television programs cannot achieve this. Admittedly, entertainment to the art has brought a value of communication, a simple way to accept the audience. From this way of receiving and thinking, is bound to be easier for a wider audience, but here there is another question: is art needs a wider audience? It is difficult to define whether art needs a wider audience because it expresses the artist’s own concepts, which often require the active participation and reflection of the audience, rather than passive acceptance. It is also the so-called “artist cannot foresee all of his audience’s own understanding.” Therefore, a work of art can only be satisfied with a small part of the audience, not for everyone. As the audience, can according to their own experience and read the artist’s work, may not be objective consciousness of the artist control. For the artist, once the diversion of the target from the expression of their turn to attract the audience, to some extent, he has focused on meeting the needs of the public, although still the case, this is worth explaining Should be the art and cultural industries that business boundaries and differences.


Jorg Heiser (2008), All of a sudden: Things that matter in contemporary art, Sternberg Press, Berlin, pp. 7-12

Clement Greenberg (1965), Art and Culture: critical essays, “avant-garde and kitsch”, Beacon Press, Boston, pp. 3-21

Julian Stallabrass (1993), High art lite: British art in the 1990s, Verso, London, pp167, quote James Roberts, “Last of England”, Interview with Gavin Turk, Frieze, no. 13, November-December 1993, pp. 28

Julian Stallabrass (1990), High art lite: British art in the 1990s, Verso, London, pp.11

Steve Edwards & Paul Wood (2004), Art of the Avant-Gardes, Yale University Press, London, pp. 2-3, quote Clement Greenberg, ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’.

Theodor W. Adorno (2001), The Culture Industry, Routledge, London, pp. 98-106

Neil Postman (1987), Amusing ourselves to death: public discourse in the age of show business, Methuen, pp.160-168

Walter Benjamin (2005), The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, proofed and corrected Feb

Richard Shusterman & John Hyman (2011), British Journal of Aesthetics, Oxford University Press, pp.299-300, quote Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1986)

Theodor Adorno (1984), Aesthetic Theory, London: Routledge

Helen Molesworth (2003), Work Ethic, in Work Ethic, Baltimore, Maryland; The Pennsylvania State University Press; The Baltimore Museum of Art, pp. 31


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