“The Culture Industry”: Elitism, Tradition, and…Aristocracy?
In, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer argue that capitalism (with its focus on production, standardization, and the commodity form) created conditions that produced a mass culture that both retards individuality and reproduces a flawed aesthetic form. On the surface, this piece functions as a sort of critique on the substance of mass culture and as commentary on the lack of agency on the behalf of the public to overcome this flawed cultural system. However, when this piece is more closely read, it appears as though Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of this culture may actually be symptomatic of anxieties of the elite over the turn away from classical tradition to modernism and of a general disbelief in the capability of the general public to make sound decisions concerning culture and rule. It becomes apparent that the disdain that these authors have for this new mass culture comes entirely from its deviation from classical tradition more than anything else. By both revealing the intended audience of this work, and attending to selections from “The Culture Industry” on the public and on the problems of mass culture, the real discursive end of this work materializes for the reader.
Despite their origins in the Marxist tradition, Adorno and Horkheimer appear to expose their hand in their orientation towards the elite when they make a few (likely intentional) slips siding specifically with the elite class in this cultural debate. In their critique on the content and arrangement of art in mass culture, they write, “The whole and the parts are alike; there is no antithesis and no connection. Their prearranged harmony is a mockery of what had to be striven after in the great bourgeois works of art.” It seems to be a concern of the elite to care so much about the way in which the bourgeois have “striven” to create their art that they would call it’s antithesis a “mockery.” “Strive” and “mockery” are very passionate and charged words that wouldn’t naturally strike the layman as he views a work of pop culture. The anxiety, passion and tension in these words would seem to reflect only the concerns of the elite or bourgeoisie, their intended audience. Later in this work, they also lament that, “The connoisseur and the expert are despised for their pretentious claim to know better than the others, even though culture is democratic and distributes its privileges to all.” Hints of elitism also materialize here in their concern over the validity of “connoisseurs” and “experts” that have historically functioned as appraisers of the authenticity of traditional art for the purpose of preserving its value, value that only the elite typically reap benefits from. Once it is apparent that this work is tailored to an audience of the elite or bourgeois classes, it becomes easier to locate and understand the anti-modernism and pro-classical biases underlying their argument against new mass cultural forms.
Throughout this work, Adorno and Horkheimer align the structure of mass culture as nuanced and critique it by highlighting the ways in which it deviates from tradition or from the aesthetic standards of the classical era. In this critique they claim that the reason why the mass cultural art is inferior is because it does not follow “tradition”. It’s important however, to call into question the assumption that these authors make about mass culture here. The recurring critique of mass culture evident in this text rests almost entirely on the understanding that it is malevolent or inferior primarily because it is not traditional. A perfectly rational person could quite easily name a number of circumstances in which adhering to “tradition” didn’t necessarily guarantee better or beneficial outcomes. The utilization of traditional practices in medicine in modern times makes for one example. This rational seems to be a little empty and weak. It would seem like the only people who would value tradition over progress would be those who have had some stake in benefiting from the old order, namely elites. The anxiety here is an anxiety that fears the modernist move away from classical tradition. This point evidences once again the function of this text as an expression of the particular frustrations and concerns of the elite class.
More concerning than their apparent allegiance to the elite in this text is the infantile view of the public that Adorno and Horkheimer construct that seems to create problems for democracy. The public is repetitively portrayed in this text to be lacking agency make its own decisions. In one moment in this text, the authors align the democratic elements of the radio with oppression because the viewers lack the ability to choose the programs that go into the broadcast. They then highlight the role of casting directors and producers in choosing programing for the masses. There does however seem to be a bit of a contradiction here when one recalls a point made previously about these authors’ concern with the rejection of connoisseurs in choosing for the public what can be deemed art. Adorno and Horkeimer seem to be more concerned with limiting who may choose for the public to an elite few than with proposing ways expand the public’s ability to choose. Aristocratic concerns seem to underlie the argument made in this text at nearly every turn.
A major concern produced from this particular reading of “The Culture Industry” surrounds the question of how exactly Marxist discourse could be appropriated for a sort of elitist cultural project. It’s unclear whether the pedantic (and seemingly elite) form of Marx’ work (supposedly written to incite revolution in the working class) may have facilitated or encouraged its use in this way.