In my previous post on the commercialisation of culture I looked at the division between the creation and consumption of cultural works that appears to take place, as people grow older. In this post I will trace the development of culture from a product of the family and the small locality to the centralised, multibillion-dollar industry it is today.
Some of the earliest evidence of man is also some of the earliest recorded artistic works. In 1940 in the south of France a group of teenagers stumbled upon a series of caves known today as the Lascaux Caves. Upon the walls of these underground complex animals, plants and humans are rendered in fabulous detail and fantastic colour. These paintings are around 17 000 years old but are only half as old as some prehistoric art. Art, and within the broad category of art we may include stories, drawings and music, is the “signature of man” ; it is impossible to imagine a human society without it.
Lacking the technology that makes mass media possible previous generations played an active role in the creation of the family and local culture, whether it be stories by the fireside or songs sung uproariously in a pub. When, in her Little House series, the American author Laura Ingalls Wilder described life on the American frontier during the 1800s some of the most charming and memorable passages were when the author’s Pa returned from the days work to sit by the fireside, tune his fiddle and sing a song for his two daughters. In the preindustrial age such scenes must have been common to almost all households. The human need for songs, poetry and stories transgresses boundaries of time, place and technology and for the majority of human history it has been the family and locality that has been best positioned to fulfil this need.
With the advent of the industrial revolution in became possible, for the first time in history, to organise cultural creation upon industrial and commercial lines. As the modern worker became more specialised society became more incline to view culture as merely one business amongst many.
With the advent of the industrial revolution in became possible, for the first time in history, to organise cultural creation upon industrial and commercial lines. As the modern worker became more specialised society became more incline to view culture as merely one business amongst many. While professional or semi-professionals have always existed within cultural and artistic spheres (think of Shakespeare, Dante, the village bard etc.) in the Victorian era it became possible to envisage a society in which cultural creation could depend solely upon these professionals with no need to interact with local talent or creation. In urban centres and in everyplace accessible by rail one no longer needed Pa to sing a song or the village to put on a play, for a small fee one could see a professionals sing the same song, and act the same play requiring little effort from the audience.
Compounding this change in the 20th century was the transition of the cultural median from the written word to the visual image. Though I proceeded with the assumption that all mediums of cultural consumption are identical this of course is not true. It requires different faculties to engage with books, art, music or television. Some mediums are more passive, more prone to unthinking consumption than others. When watching television for instance, ones brainwaves diminish until they approach sleep. This is not surprising. After all the television experience is comprehensive. There is no call for the imagination to furnish the characters with form or appearance. There is no need to imagine the setting or the action. Everything is presented, everything is passively consumed.
In comparison reading is a far more active activity. Reading involves both the author and the reader. It is an activity both active and receptive, it creates and it consumes. The author guides the imagination of the reader but it is left to the reader to cloth the author’s ideas in form, to give life to the story. Thus the change in cultural medians from the books to television and film compounds upon, and compliments, the creation of the ‘pop’ culture produced by our contemporary ‘entertainment industry’.
In the next post I shall examine both the consequences of mass culture but also the means of subverting this culture, to create a new culture
Back to part one
Forward to part three