We here at The A.V. Club always enjoy a spirited debate, which is why we welcomed and were not at all frightened by an article on Aeon today called, simply, “Against Popular Culture,” a thing that we are decidedly for. Written by University Of York teaching fellow Owen Hulatt, it synopsizes some of the thinking by the 20th-century philosopher Theodor Adorno, a fierce opponent of pop culture in all of its forms, and then transposes that thinking to our more modern discussions of art and its consumption.
Assuming you, like us, very much enjoy the stuff that Adorno so disdains, it’s an interesting read, applying Marxist critiques to the media we often mindlessly consume. There are a lot of threads teased out within the article, but the basic throughline is that Adorno is no snob but rather an ardent lover of culture, seeing it as an agent of intellectual freedom and an all-important counterbalance to the stifling conformity and productivity of modern labor. But popular culture, he found, is all too predictable and disposable, robbing art of its ability to lead us to freer independent thought.
This sounds a little airy, but Hulatt’s able to keep things grounded. Pop music is built around hooks, for example, individual moments we single out for enjoyment, and films are often praised for set pieces and special effects, but good art (according to Adorno) should have a sort of overriding unity to them that still leaves us with room for interpretation and expression. Pop music and cinema, too, is often built around repetitions—we know the beat will loop again, and we know exactly what purpose each scene in a formulaic movie is filling—which is also stifling, and all too similar to the time we spend at work performing repetitive tasks.
A lot of time in particular is given over to discussion of “guilty pleasures,” a pop-culture phenomenon we are no stranger to, but Adorno would disdain them precisely because of his broader respect for art. As Hulatt writes:
Adorno is no opponent of pleasure. But he would be very suspicious of ‘guilty pleasures’. What sort of a world binds guilt and pleasure together? What sort of a pleasure comes together with an awareness, no matter how dim, that things should be better? It is a world, Adorno claims, that gives us only a faint copy of pleasure disguised as the real thing; repetition disguised as escape; a brief respite from labour disguised as a luxury. Popular culture presents itself as a release of our repressed emotions and desires, and so as an increase in freedom. But in truth, it robs us of our freedom twice – both aesthetically (in failing to give aesthetic freedom in enjoying art) and morally (in blocking the path to true social freedom).
The examples can feel cherry-picked: when citing political music backed by corporate overlords, Hulatt cites Rage Against The Machine, the most obvious possible example; elsewhere, The Dark Knight Rises is pitted against Andrei Rublev for artistic merit. And of course, there are plenty of examples of massively popular artworks in every medium that are nevertheless universally recognized for their richness, from Kendrick Lamar to The Sopranos to The Godfather. But a good pop-culture grouch is always nice to engage with, and Adorno is the all-time heavyweight champ of pop-culture grouchiness. Come for the outrage, stay for the quotes like, “Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse.” Sounds like someone who never saw Boss Baby to us.
Check out the whole article here.