Mass art

"Mass art has been said to render audiences passive. Theorists like Benjamin and McLuhan attempted to shortcircuit these charges of passivity by claiming that mass art possesses the capacity either to engender critical spectatorship (Benjamin) or to reactivate multi-dimensional tribal thinking (McLuhan).

But both these claims seem to me to be exorbitant as well as insufficiently motivated by the data. Instead, I tried to rebut passivity theorists like Greenberg* by showing how routine, widely acknowledged audience responses to every kind of mass art presuppose participatory audiences involved in co-creating the mass artwork — at least in the special sense that mass artworks require readers, listeners, and viewers to fill them in" (Carroll 1998:414).

*"Irving Howe says that movies are 'put together along strictly stereotyped patterns that permit us the pleasure of relapsing into passive spectators.' See Irving Howe, "Notes on Mass Culture"', Politics, 5 (1948), 123 (Carroll 1998:414).

Note: Carroll's argument does not deal with all the criticism of mass art as managed in the interests of capitalism, for example Hal Himmelstein's in his 1994 Television Myth, where he says:

"In a corporate society fueled by the drives of advanced capitalism, art increasingly becomes a function of management. When corporations become art patrons, supplying the capital by which art is produced and distributed, prestige is measured less in terms of elitist art-circle membership and social status than in the bottom lines of financial statements. Art is plugged in institutional image-enhancing advertisements. Corporate art patronage is equated with such values as trust and sincerity and, most important, tradition. This association is embodied in the underwriting and sponsorship of the more significant works of narrative art broadcast or cablecast on mainstream television" (Himmelstein 1994:16).

This article takes the critics in chronological order, as distinct from Noël Carroll, though this does make sense, even if Adorno's influence was during and post World War II in the U.S.

Responses to mass art

Carroll links many of the complaints against mass art to the influence of Plato and a misunderstanding of Kant's views on aesthetics.

He finds Theodor Adorno's rejection of mass art unconvincing because it insists that avant-garde art must be difficult, and mass art uninteresing because it is simple. He also challenges Adorno's assertions, written in the shadow of Nazi propaganda and Socialist Realism, that mass art is an instrument purely of domination.

Later rejectionists, such as R.G. Collingwood and Dwight MacDonald also get short shrift for treating mass art as nothing but trash for passive audiences.

More positive views, such as those of Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan, are also dismissed by Carroll for materialism and determinism in their explanations of development though giving these a positive twist.

He reserves most scorn for the 'ersatz Kantians' — such as Daniel Bell, F.R. Leavis and Alan Bloom — who dominated academic approaches either at the start of the post-war period or during its 1980s backlash.

"Leavis and Bloom do not even seem to have to bother to spell out what is wrong with the correlation of mass art with the passions, so deep is their Platonic heritage," he writes (Carroll 1998:247).

Platonic complaints recycled

"Daniel Bell associates the emphasis on visuality in many of the contemporary mass arts with the stimulation of the emotions. He claims that it 'is the nature of the contemporary temper, with its hunger for action (as against contemplation), its search for novelty, and its lust for sensation [that causes us to want to see things]. And it is this visual element in the arts that best appeases these compulsions.'3 F. R. Leavis chides the motion pictures by alleging that they fundamentally appeal to cheap emotions,4 while Allan Bloom chastises rock music for encouraging the passions.5 John Fuller goes so far as to claim that rock music hypercharges the emotions of young listeners in ways that will seriously damage their will to live,6 while Herbert Blumer and Philip Hauser state that motion pictures can induce a state which they call 'emotional possession', which they allege can lead to delinquency (Carroll 1998:246).

"Quotations like these can be multiplied endlessly. They may be stated in such abbreviated form that they may appear to be little more than ad hominem canards. They hardly seem philosophical. Rather, they may appear just plain cranky. And yet, at the same time, they have an undeniable resonance. There is an obvious reason for this — namely, that these jeremiads rest upon the philosophical arguments developed at length in Books II, III, and X of Plato's Republic. That is, many of the most persistent, recurring arguments against mass art are actually quite ancient in origin. The arguments that Plato advanced against Greek drama and painting supply an arsenal of rebuke from which twentieth-century commentators frequently recycle their deprecations of mass art. Thus, if a great deal of philosophy's resistance to mass art can be labelled Kantian, much of the remaining resistance can be instructively regarded as Platonic.

"Plato's suspicion of representations, moreover, is paralleled by Bell's suspicion of visual media, while the notion of emotional possession is basically a return, in social-scientific lingo, to Plato's fear that audiences are likely to take on the emotions of the characters portrayed in drama. Fuller, in turn, identifies the emotions putatively induced by rock music with the height of irrationality, claiming that they embody a death wish.

"The presuppositions of the Platonic form of the philosophical resistance to mass art often remain implicit in the arguments of twentieth-century commentators" (Carroll 1998:247).Plato: dangerous artists Rousseau: no use for moral education Adorno: domination R.G. Collingwood (1938): amusement art Dwight MacDonald (1939): mass art as deadening.

3. Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism(New York: Basic Books, 1976), 106 (emphasis added).

4. F. R. Leavis, Mass Civilisation. and Minority Culture(Cambridge: Gordon Frazer at St John's College, 1930), 8-10. Here Leavis may be getting at the idea that mass art's arousal of emotions may attach said emotions to things that are not fit to be their proper object. This raises the issue of sentimentality.

5. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 60. Though Bloom makes this passing reference to the emotions, he is most concerned to denounce what he believes to be the unhealthy arousal of the sexual drives by rock music.

6. John G. Fuller, Are the Kids All Right? The Rock Generation and its Hidden Death Wish(New York: Times Books, 1981), 240-56.

Celebrating mass art

"If the most important philosophical sources of resistance to mass art appear to be Kantian (or ersatz Kantian), then the most sophisticated philosophical defences of mass art are Hegelian. This is very evident in the case of Benjamin because of his commitment to historical materialism (a derivative form of Hegelianism brought down to earth by Marx). But it is also the case for Marshall McLuhan, whose brief on behalf of the electronic mass media is that they expand consciousness by way of realizing the fullest potentials of the human sensorium. For Hegel, different historical epochs, and their accompanying levels of consciousness, are emblematized by exemplary modes of art"(Carroll 1998:112).

Benjamin's major assumption: "Art that is appropriate for one epoch is not necessarily appropriate to another. Art evolves over time. So, the criteria for art (and, presumably, even art status) that are fitting at one point in history, may not be appropriate at a later point in history.

"Moreover, this feature of Hegelian aesthetics provides the celebrant of mass art with a strategic advantage in debates with many of the opponents of mass art. For many who criticize mass art do so from the perspective of more traditional art-forms and aesthetic theories. Mass art is not like previous art, and so the enemies of mass art argue that it is not art at all. However, a Hegelian art theorist does not presume that art is static. Art may change from epoch to epoch, and consequently, the Hegelian might contend, one should not assume that the criteria appropriate to earlier art-forms or the criteria developed by earlier theories of art are suitable for art of succeeding epochs"(Carroll 1998:113).Walter Benjamin Marshall McLuhan Althusser and interpolation John Fiske and resistance in popular culture.

Effects of art

"We must admit that we know virtually nothing about the consequences of consuming art, including mass art. For example, we have no precise, reliable account about why violence is high in Detroit but low in Toronto, where the respective populations are exposed to the same violent entertainment media; nor do we have anything but exceedingly general ideas about why there is less violent crime in Japan than in the United States, despite the fact that Japanese programming is far more violent than ours" (Carroll 1998:301).

Refrain from bluffing

"It may be argued that since we don't know how to calculate the behavioural consequences of mass art for morality, we should refrain from bluffing about our knowledge of the supposed behavioural consequences of mass art and stop trying to invoke knowledge we do not have to justify our moral evaluations of it" (Carroll 1998:301).

Art judged morally

"For at least two-and-a-half millennia, we have been evaluating art morally" (Carroll 1998:304).

Carroll: Some definitions

"Because of their misappropriation of Kantian aesthetic theory and their allegiance to modernism, theorists like Collingwood, Greenberg, Adorno, and Horkheimer tended to regard mass art as ersatz art. They observed, with some cause: that mass art is formulaic; that, in certain pertinent respects, the response to mass art was what they considered to be passive; that mass art is generally designed to induce certain predetermined effects; that mass artworks are not unique; and so on. Moreover, on the basis of such observations, they surmised that mass art was not art properly so called" (Carroll 1998:174).

"Many practitioners of what is coming to be called cultural studies [...] regard mass art as a suspect — if not altogether spurious — concept, preferring the notions of popular art and the popular as the most appropriate ones for surveying the field" (Carroll 1998:174).

Elimination theory

"The Elimination Theory contends that there really is no such thing as popular or mass art, apart from the role that certain objects play in reinforcing pre-existing class distinctions and social identities. That is, there are no formal or structural features, nor are there any distinguishing affective consequences, that might serve to differentiate popular or mass art from any other sort of art. That some artworks are called 'mass artworks' is purely a sociological matter. It is an arbitrary convention that we group certain objects under the rubrics of popular art and mass art; the merely apparent aesthetic distinction here, in other words, can be reduced to and explained by social facts, such as the social need for signs or markers of certain class distinctions." (Carroll 1998:175).

"But, since my theory claims that mass art is a philosophically worthwhile distinction — one based on specific structural, functional, and ontological properties — The Elimination Theory is a rival to my view, one whose scepticism I need to undermine before I advance my own theory of the nature of mass art. For if mass art is purely a social construction, then my attempt to define mass art in terms of its structural and aesthetic properties is chimerical" (Carroll 1998:ibid).

"The Eliminativist's argument — that mass art has no intrinsic, distinguishing attributes — ignored certain alternative options for characterizing a distinguishing feature of mass art" (Carroll 1998:201).

"What are some of the standard bases for distinguishing between what is called high art and popular art? Four putatively obvious ones are: 1. differences in form (for example, high art is complex, whereas popular art is simple); 2. differences in affect (for example, high art deals in or expresses profound, deep, and nuanced emotions, whereas popular art arouses routine, shallow, and commonplace emotions); 3. differences in origin (for example, high art is produced by individuals involved in adventures of self-discovery and exploration, whereas popular art is produced collectively or even corporately with no commitment to self-expression); and 4. differences in motivation (for example, high art, with its celebration of disinterestedness, is produced in opposition to capitalism's reduction of all value to market value, whereas popular art is a creature of the market-place)" (Carroll 1998:178).

Clearly none of these distinctions can, the Eliminativist notes, withstand the slightest historical pressure. Some high art is simple, described in terms like 'elegance', whereas, by many measures of complexity, popular or mass art can be complex: The Hunt for Red October and Terminator 2 are technically complex, while Twin Peaks and its Danish cousin The Kingdom are structurally complex. Moreover, some fair examples of what is thought of as high art — like the religious art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance — were predicated upon instilling the commonplace devotional attitudes of their times in their prospective audiences, whereas a TV drama like Marty explores some neglected emotions with subtlety" (Carroll 1998:178)

"The Eliminativist's account of the high art/popular art distinction can't be right, at least in the American context, because it is false that class distinctions map on to the high art/ popular art distinction in the way that the Eliminativist's account requires, if it is to be indeed an explanation of the social persistence of the distinction.

In fact, from the viewpoint of social theory, there is something patently strained about dividing our society into two social classes — the ëlite and everyone else — and then mapping the high art/popular art distinction on to this division"(Carroll 1998:180).

"One can defend it by pointing to mass artworks — such as Citizen Kane — that are valuable from both an artistic and a moral perspective. That is, it makes no sense to condemn mass art, as such, if it has produced works of value, including some masterpieces.

"But, the task of either condemning or praising mass art in virtue of its very nature seems to me to be quixotic" (Carroll 1998:184).

"'Popular art' is an ahistorical term. Popular art, in some sense, might be said to have existed throughout the centuries. It is not historically specific. If by popular art one means the art of the common people, then there has always been what is called folk art. Moreover, if popular art just means art that is liked by lots of people, then it seems fair to say that every society has had some popular art.

"But, on the other hand, what is called 'mass art' has not existed everywhere throughout human history. The kind of art — of which movies, photography, and rock-and-roll recordings provide ready examples — that surfeits contemporary culture has a certain historical specificity. It has arisen in the context of modern industrial mass society and it is expressly designed for use by that society, employing, as it does, the characteristic productive forces of that society — namely, mass technologies of production and distribution — in order to deliver art to enormous consuming populations — populations that are 'mass' in the sense that they cross national, class, religious, political, ethnic, racial, and gender boundaries" (Carroll 1998:185).

"Mass art, unlike popular art simpliciter, is not the sort of art that might be found in any society. It emerges in a historical context, namely mass society. And it is art that is designed to serve mass society by using the means of that society — mass technologies — as a way of performing this service"(Carroll 1998:186).

"Mass society began to emerge in tandem with capitalism, urbanization, and industrialization. Mass art undoubtedly made some sort of significant initial appearance with the first mass-information technology — the printing press — which produced some of the first potentially mass-art forms, such as the novel. But then later forms of mass art began to command a more and more dominating position, especially in industrialized societies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as more and more mass information technologies developed-such as photography, sound recording, motion pictures, radio, TV, and so on" (Carroll 1998:186).

"Avant-garde artworks, when produced by means of mass media, are not mass artworks proper. For they are not designed for easy consumption by mass, indefinitely large, undifferentiated audiences. Quite frequently they are designed to confound mass audiences. And even when they are not directly intended to do this, they invariably do so nevertheless, since it is a necessary condition of being avant-garde that the works in question subvert, or, at least, go beyond conventional expectations and understandings" (Carroll 1998:189).

[...]"They are meant to challenge or to transgress the common cognitive and emotive stock that the mass consuming audience brings to the relevant art-form. This is not to say that an avant-garde work cannot be a bestseller" (Carroll 1998:190).

"Avant-garde artworks can be produced and delivered by mass technologies, but they are not mass artworks. For though produced and delivered by mass technologies, such avant-garde artworks are not structured for ready assimilation and reception by mass audiences. Indeed, they are designed to thwart ready assimilation. In the most benign cases, avantgarde artworks are intended to stretch common sensibilities, while in the more standard cases, they are designed to disrupt them, often for the sake of disturbing what are perceived to be aesthetic and/or moral laxities. Indeed, throughout the epoch of mass art, it has been the defenders of the avant-garde, modernist aesthetic (for example, Collingwood, Adorno, and Greenberg) who have been the harshest critics of mass art" (Carroll 1998:190).

"But if the avant-garde art produced by a mass medium is not designed for mass consumption, it may nevertheless provide valuable clues about what is involved in eliciting mass consumption. That is, inasmuch as the avant-garde is the antithesis of mass art, it affords, in a Hegelian fashion, insight into the 'thesis' — mass art — against which it draws its programme and its purpose. Avant-garde art is designed to be difficult, to be intellectually, aesthetically, and often morally challenging, and it is inaccessible to those without certain background of knowledge and acquired sensibilities. / Mass art, in contrast, is designed to be easy, to be readily accessible, with minimum effort, to the largest number of people possible." (Carroll 1998:191-2).

Note: this does not logically follow. Avantgarde art (Andy Warhol, Pop Art, Roxy Music, Philip Glass) can seek to exploit aspects of mass art (reproducibility, immediacy, mass forms or simplicity) without becoming mass art.

"Avant-garde art is esoteric; mass art is exoteric. Mass art is meant to command a mass audience. That is its function. Thus it is designed to be user friendly. Ideally, it is structured in such a way that large numbers of people will be able to understand and appreciate it, virtually without effort. It is made in order to capture and to hold the attention of large audiences, while avant-garde art is made to be effortful and to rebuff easy assimilation by large audiences. In so far as mass art is meant to capture large markets, it gravitates toward the choice of devices that will make it accessible to mass untutored audiences" (Carroll 1998:192).

"Obviously, mass consumption involves accessibility. As the case of the avant-garde indicates in a negative way, accessibility is partly a function of background knowledge. In order for mass art to be accessible in this sense, it must be designed for fast pickup by what I have called untutoredaudiences. That is, mass art has to be comprehensible for untrained audiences, virtually on the first go-around. So the modes of communication and the conventions of mass art have to meet certain design considerations, namely, they have to be such that they can be grasped and understood almost on first contact. They must, as already noted, be very, very user friendly" (Carroll 1998:192).

"Anyone with normal perceptual capacities can recognize the referent of a standard motion-picture image (whether on film, TV, or CDROM) simply by looking, without the intervention of a subtending process of reading or inferring" (Carroll 1998:192).

Note: Marshall McLuhan made much of the fact that West African audiences who were not regular moviegoers looked for different things in a film than the Western anthropologists who showed them movies. However, this argues for Carroll's thesis, that mass art is specific to a particular culture.

"This is not to say that the mass arts don't educate audiences in the way in which to receive them. Often this education proceeds, as critics of mass art have observed (but misunderstood) by repetition and formula. That is, what critics condemn as a failing of mass art — formulaic repetition — is actually a design feature that ensures that people will be able to understand mass art by becoming familiar with its conventions and formulas. Moreover, the formulas towards which mass art gravitates are not ones that must be learned by prior exposure, but ones that almost always can be picked up on first exposure. Further exposure to such formulas and conventions by repetition serves, then, to make the productions of mass art more and more intelligible to audiences" (Carroll 1998:193).

"The narrative structures deployed in the mass market novels of Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark proceed by encouraging audiences to entertain certain questions that the novels in question then go on to answer. This question/answer format — which I call erotetic narration — has a kind of natural logic that is easy to follow, in contrast to the narrative structure of a modernist work likeLast Year at Marienbad, which presents a barrage of questions that are never decisively answered" (Carroll 1998:194).

"The ease with which mass art is consumed is not a flaw, but rather a design element, which is predicated on the function of mass art as an instrument for addressing mass audiences" (Carroll 1998:195).

"Whether this ease of comprehension implies that the consumer of mass art is passive is, as we have seen, another question. Its answer depends upon how one defines 'passive'. Is the reader of a mystery story who is informed about the formulas of fiction passive when she tries to infer the identity of the criminal? That is, it is not exactly clear whether the contrast between easy comprehension versus difficult comprehension maps neatly on to the dichotomy between passive reception versus active reception" (Carroll 1998:195).

"Mass artworks tend toward a certain kind of homogeneity exactly because they aim at engaging what is common among huge populations" (Carroll 1998:196).

"The search for common denominators in mass art (which need not involve a search for the 'lowest' common denominator), at the level of both style and content, is not a failing, but rather a design consideration, given the function of mass art" (Carroll 1998:196),

"Inasmuch as mass art-forms are descended from traditional art-forms, they have a prima-facie claim to art status. That is, inasmuch as many of the genres and forms of mass art are extensions of genres and art-forms that are already regarded as art proper, there seems to be no principled reason to deny that mass art is art" (Carroll 1998:197).

"Furthermore, the creators of mass art are typically engaged in the sorts of activities that artists in traditional artistic practices engage in — not only drawing, writing, and acting, but, more abstractly, representing, expressing, and discovering suitable forms in which to convey content^" (Carroll 1998:197).

"What exactly is a mass delivery system? Walter Benjamin suggests that it is a technology for the mass reproduction of images and stories. But this is not exactly right. It does a nice job for things like certain photographs, but it does not capture the possibility of such things as one-time, live radio dramas broadcast to multiple reception sites. But such broadcasts should count as examples of mass art, even though they may never be 'reproduced' in Benjamin's sense. So, in contrast to Benjamin's notion of mass reproducibility, I propose to define a mass delivery system as a technology with the capacity to deliver the same performance or the same object to more than one reception site simultaneously" (Carroll 1998:199).

"A mass artwork, such as film, differs from a play, which, in certain respects, is also a type, in so far as different tokens of a play — i.e., different productions — are not identical, inasmuch as they will enlist nonidentical casts, sets, and so on. And this, of course, is one reason why plays are not automatically cases of mass art" (Carroll 1998:201).

"With mass artworks, an always useful question to ask concerns what it is about the relevant works that enables them to command the attention of large audiences. That the cutting rates in MTV videos average 19.94 shots per minute helps explain why music videos rivet viewers to the screen, since such a pattern provides little opportunity for attention to flag. Indeed, given the way in which our perceptual system operates, i.e., given the involuntary tendency of our attention to reawaken (for sound adaptive reasons) upon the onset of new stimuli, MTV might be said to be exploiting our hard-wiring in such a way that most viewers find themselves irresistibly drawn to its imagery" (Carroll 1998:203).

"Perhaps what is called channel surfing is a related phenomenon. As our attention sags, we try (often subconsciously) to reactivate it by changing the channel, thereby introducing a burst of new stimulation. What we do to ourselves by way of channel surfing is roughly what MTV editing does for us automatically and at a much faster pace" (Carroll 1998:203).

"Since mass art depends for its success upon being accessible, an instructive research question to ask about particular mass art-forms is what features of the works in question contribute to this effect and why" (Carroll 1998:203).

"Granting that mass art may be moulded to serve special audience interests should not obscure the equally important fact that in terms of basic stylistic choices — of modes of representation and narrative structures — there is not that great a difference between what would be shown on a comedy channel and what would be shown on a science fiction channel.SeinfeldandGreen Acresare not really that different fromBabylon 5andLost in Spacein terms of features like these. They all tell different stories, but their narrative and visual structures are similar. Their point-ofview editing structures are not different, for example. That is, the structures that secure the possibility for mass accessibility are common to mass art comedy and science fiction" (Carroll 1998:206).

"When the avant-garde takes over a technique or a theme from mass art, that technique or theme acquires a new hermetic significance, such as the postmodernist's ironization of mass art iconography. This, of course, turns the mass art item into something that demands deciphering — something that is difficult for the ordinary viewer to understand and interpret without instruction. In contrast, when mass art incorporates avant-garde material, it attempts to render it accessible to the plain viewer, reader, or listener. That is, when avant-garde art appropriates mass art material, it attempts to transform it into an avantgarde challenge, whereas when mass art borrows an avant-garde theme or device it attempts to transform it into mass art by making it accessible" (Carroll 1998:209).

"A mass artwork can be accessible but lack-lustre. Simply being accessible does not guarantee that it is enjoyable, appealing, interesting, or possessed of any other quality that might recommend it to a mass audience, or to any audience for that matter. Being accessible is simply a good-making feature of a mass artwork" (Carroll 1998:210).

"Whereas a film performance is generated from a template, and not an interpretation, a theatrical performance [...] Interlude is generated by an interpretation and not a template" (Carroll 1998:213).

"[As distinct from plays] we do not evaluate shooting scripts independently of the film production, and we do not evaluate film-showings aesthetically at all." (Carroll 1998:214).

"It may not be the case that photography is uniformly a multiple artform from an ontological point of view. There may be, due to their method of production, photographic artworks that are one of a kind, such as Polaroids and daguerreotypes. Such photographs have an ontological status that is characteristic of the status of paintings" (Carroll 1998:215).

"What of one-time broadcasts that are not taped or artistically modified (by things like mixing) at the message source?

Clearly, one-time broadcasts in radio and TV should count as examples of mass art, since they can simultaneously afford a multiplicity of token reception-instances of the same work" (Carroll 1998:215).

"Music played by garage bands, bar bands, and the like is not mass art proper by my construal. It may count as popular art, but it is not mass art because it is not, in the basic case, delivered to multiple reception sites simultaneously" (Carroll 1998:219).

"Mozart's music is not avant-garde. So a Mozart recording may be a work of mass art, depending upon whether it meets my other criteria, notably the third condition, which we may call the accessibility condition. My hunch is that such a performance will not meet the accessibility condition, but I could be wrong here. And if I am wrong, I am nevertheless willing to live with the consequence that part of the contemporary recording industry's production of what is called classical music may belong to mass culture" (Carroll 1998:225).

Note:Amadeusmakes the argument that Mozart deliberate wrote mass art music, and that it is certainly received as such.

"I stipulated that a mass-delivery technology was a technology with the capacity to deliver the same performance or object to more than one reception site simultaneously. And I not only question whether Mozart could write fast enough to do this; I also wonder whether pencil and paper constitutes a mass technology in any natural understanding of that phrase"(Carroll 1998:226).

"According to the accessibility condition, what we refer to as mass art in our culture must be such that it is designed to gravitate in its structural and stylistic choices (and perhaps even in its content) toward articulations that are easily accessible to mass untutored audiences. Mass art must be designed in a way that is accessible to mass audiences. This, in turn, broadly determines or constrains the structures, styles, and even subjects that mass art tends to deploy. Specifically, mass art gravitates to those structural and stylistic choices that best realize its function, namely, to engage mass audiences by means of choices that are easily accessible, virtually on first exposure, to mass untutored audiences" (Carroll 1998:227).

"That degrees of accessibility may change with history does not challenge the claim that mass art gravitates toward what is most accessible" (Carroll 1998:229).

"Where works of traditional esoteric art are wedded to a mass production/distribution technology, we may refer to them as technologically distributed traditional esoteric art" (Carroll 1998:231).

"Traditional esoteric art, whether produced by a historical figure or a contemporary artist, contrasts with avant-garde art, since avant-garde art repudiates traditional art as well as repudiating popular art. Both traditional art and avant-garde art are esoteric, but they are esoteric in different ways. And, of course, both traditional esoteric art and avant-garde art can be produced and distributed by means of a mass technology. Nevertheless, both can be distinguished from mass art along the axis of accessibility" (Carroll 1998:231).

>Middlebrow art

"Middlebrow art, following Dwight MacDonald, is art that imitates the structures of past avant-garde art or traditional esoteric art in the way, say, ofMasterpiece Theatre. Such art is more accessible than contemporary avant-garde art, but less accessible than mass art. Whereas avant-garde art repudiates the approach of traditional esoteric art, and whereas contemporary artists in the arena of traditional esoteric art seek to continue it, changing it perhaps only incrementally, middlebrow art imitatespast esoteric traditions, either of the avant-garde variety or of what I call the traditional esoteric variety. Nevertheless, middlebrow art still belongs on the esoteric side of the ledger when contrasted to mass art, since it requires a specialized background in order to be appreciated, even if it is not the same kind or degree of specialization required by avantgarde art or traditional esoteric art" (Carroll 1998:232).

"If the BBC production is designed to be accessible to mass untutored audiences — layered with explanatory interludes, parsed by a barrage of cinematic techniques, and edited for TV — such a production might be mass art in my view. On the other hand, if the performance is intentionally designed in a way that renders it still inaccessible to a mass audience — as are certain productions of Britain's Channel Four — then I see no problem in treating it on a par with avant-garde art that is produced and delivered by means of a mass technology" (Carroll 1998:234).

Fiske and Resistance

"For [John] Fiske, popular culture is, by definition, a site of resistance. Certain urban aborigines in Australia, for example, may use TV westerns for their own purposes; they cheer at the slaughter of white settlers as their wagon trains are surrounded by Indians. This, of course, is at variance with the intentions of the producers of the westerns in question, who undoubtedly anticipated that audiences would be horrified by the massacre of the white settlers. But the aborigine audience has, so to speak, recoded such scenes as occasions for celebrating set-backs to white imperialism. Fiske calls this type of cultural resistance to the intended point of such westerns producerly (alluding to, while also freely adapting, Roland Barthes' distinction between the readerly and the writerly

74). That is, the aborigines use the relevant commodity in a way in which it was not intended to be used; they produce an alternative 'meaning' for the scene that is important for the aborigine community and its interests"(Carroll 1998:236).

74.See Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976). [...] Fiske has appropriated Barthes' concept for the response to avant-garde art for his own characterization of popular responses to art. Like McLuhan, Fiske is, in effect, attempting to align responses to popular and mass art with the response to avant-garde art by underscoring the active nature of the response to what I refer to as mass art. The people, according to Fiske, are not the docile recipients of mass culture; they respond to it creatively, as do the ideal audiences for avant-garde art according to people like Greenberg. Thus, in a roundabout and perhaps distorted way, Fiske confirms that it is the issue of participation that is at the crux of modern debates in this arena. Even though Fiske might be averse to speaking of art proper, he, perhaps like those urban aborigines, has appropriated a central historical view of art proper — namely, that it should be participatory — for his own purposes".

"People not only resist the commodities of the culture industry by producing alternative significations for said commodities. They may also purportedly use the commodities of the culture industries to evade the disciplinary regimes of the dominant ideology. Fiske cites TV wrestling programmes as an example of the evasion of the dictates of the dominant ideology.

75 For the audience of wrestling programmes supposedly celebrates grotesque body types that are putatively in violation of the norms of the dominant ideology — i.e., André the Giant is no one's idea of the ideal model for Armani tailoring. Likewise, adolescents who loiter in shopping malls, buying nothing, are said to evade, subvert, and ostensibly resist the imperatives of consumer society by eschewing its norms of conduct."

75. Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture, 82-102.

76.Id., Reading the Popular, 14-18.

(Carroll 1998:237).


"Speaking diagnostically, it is evident how Fiske came to this view. Reacting to the Althusserian approach in cultural studies, which seemed to entail that resistance to the ideology communicated by the products of the popular culture industry is impossible, Fiske set out in exactly the opposite theoretical direction. If Althusserians appeared to provide no theoretical accommodation for the fact that people were not always invariably positioned by pop culture (conceived of as what Althusserians called an 'ideological state apparatus') Fiske responds by reconstruing popular culture as nothing but a site of resistance to the dominant ideology"(Carroll 1998:238).

Flaws in Althusser

"As I myself have argued, the Althusserian viewpoint is flawed, in so far as it entails that people are utterly incapable of rejecting the ideology communicated through popular culture. But this flaw is an empirical flaw; it simply doesn't square with the facts. Yet it is not clear that moving, as Fiske does, to a position that is the polar opposite of Althusserianism has much to recommend it, empirically either. Certainly, the empirical point to make against an Althusserian approach to popular culture is that sometimes people resist the ideological address implicit in popular art. But Fiske opposes Althusserianism by maintaining that people are almost always resisting.

"when one looks closely at Fiske's theory of popular culture, it becomes apparent almost immediately that Fiske's theory is not an empirical theory. For him, popular culture is always a site of resistance — of either the producerly or the evasive variety — as a matter of definition, rather than as a matter of fact"(Carroll 1998:238).

"The popular, according to Fiske, is a matter of resistant usages to which commodities are adapted, whereas mass art, in my sense, refers to products with certain properties and structures" (Carroll 1998:239).

"Presumably, we all agree that Anton von Webern's atonal music is not an example of popular culture. Any theory of popular culture that incorporates a piece by Webern into the category of popular culture surely has something wrong with it. But why can't a piece of Webern's atonal music become a piece of popular culture for Fiske, if it is used by the people for purposes of resistance?

"Suppose a rap group plays a recorded selection of Webern at a concert for the purpose of deriding Eurocentric culture. That is, the rap group uses Webern much in the way that the aborigines used the dying settlers in TV westerns.

Thus, a piece by Webern, say his Fünf Satz for string quartet, Op. 5 ( 1909), enters the corpus of popular culture. But certainly any theory of popular culture that, for any reason, counts this piece as an example of popular art or culture is way off the mark. Moreover, if Fiske's definition of popular culture is false, and if his rejection of the existence of mass art depends solely upon this easily contested definition, then Fiske's definition poses no threat to my theory of mass art" (Carroll 1998:239).

Note: cf Laibach.

"Put succinctly: the problem with Fiske's theory is that it is overly and unrealistically obsessed with difference. Fiske's theory identifies culture with responses to the commodities of the culture industry that are at variance with the intended or anticipated or designed responses to things like movies and TV shows, to popular songs and advertisements. It skews empirical research in the direction of always seeking out the differential, putatively resistant, responses of the people to the products of what, if we are not Fiskeans, we would call 'popular culture'. For under Fiske's dispensation, it is just the differential responses that comprise popular culture.

But this is clearly misguided" (Carroll 1998:240).

Mass art and ideology

"One has the feeling that the study of mass art in the humanities nowadays is almost virtually co-extensive with the study of ideology"(Carroll 1998:360).

"Herbert Marcuse [...] claims that 'The power of corporate capitalism has stifled the emergence of . . . [emancipatory] consciousness and its imagination; its mass media have adjusted the rational and emotional faculties to its market and its policies and steered them to a defence of its domination" (Carroll 1998:361).

Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), 2


"The notion of ideology is very confusing. There are many conceptions of ideology abroad and in use. Moreover, many of them are incompatible. Some commentators regard adherence to ideology as irrational, whereas others argue that an ideology can be embraced rationally. Sometimes ideology is referred to as a system of beliefs — for example, Nazi Ideology — whereas we also often speak of isolated beliefs as ideological, even if they are not part of a larger system or world view" (Carroll 1998:364).

"On some accounts, the concept of ideology is very broad. It amounts to / 'the process of production of meanings, signs and values in social life.'10 For example, Clifford Geertz equates ideology with symbolic action.11 Such conceptions of ideology make it virtually co-extensive with what is ordinarily called culture. Similarly, some theorists, emboldened by the promise of semiotics, identify ideology with discursive closure.12 This makes ideology at least as wide as all linguistic culture.

"Still broad, but less broad than the notion of ideology-as-culture, are the conceptions of ideology that define it as a body of ideas expressive or characteristic of a particular social group or class,13 or as action-oriented sets of political beliefs.14 These notions of ideology distinguish ideology from culture as a whole by correlating it to the beliefs of certain groups or classes, on the one hand, and with politics, on the other hand"(Carroll 1998:364-5).

"10. This usage is cited, but not endorsed, by Terry Eagleton inIdeology: An Introduction(London: Verso, 1991), 1."

11. C. Geertz, "Ideology as a Cultural System", inIdeology and Discontent, ed. D. Apter (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1964), 25-49.

12 & 13. Eagleton.

14. Martin Seliger,Ideology and Politics(London: Allen and Unwin, 197.

"Introduced by Destutt de Tracy at the end of the eighteenth century, ideology was supposed to be the study of the origin of ideas — notably ideas derived from sensation. Understood this way, ideology is of the nature of what we would think of as psychology today. It was Napoleon who gave the term political associations — indeed, pejorative ones — when he criticized Destutt de Tracy and Volney for being ideologues, i.e., people concerned with abstractions, rather than real-world politics.16 This sense of ideology is echoed, at least to a certain extent, by Hegel in his Philosophy of Historywhen he contrasts ideologues, construed as persons of principle, to statesmen"(Carroll 1998:366).

See Z. Pelczynski, "The Roots of Ideology in Hegel's Political Philosophy", inIdeology and Politics, ed. M. Cranston and P. Mair (The Hague: Sijthoff and Noordhoff, 1981), 65-7.

"Undoubtedly, the most influential early conception of ideology is that of Marx and Engels, especially as it is employed in their German Ideology. In their view, ideology is thought — often systematic thought (such as philosophy or economics) — that expresses and facilitates the interests of the dominant class, notably the bourgeoisie under capitalism and the aristocracy under feudalism"(Carroll 1998:366).

"This notion underwrites the later marxist notion of false consciousness according to which dominated classes, as a result of ideology, come to mistake their own real interests for those of the ruling class"(Carroll 1998:367).

"Unfortunately, however, the marxist tradition itself does not use the concept of ideology univocally. In What Is To Be Done?, Lenin correlates ideology with the systems of beliefs of the major players in the class struggle. Thus, there is socialist ideology as well as bourgeois ideology. But if Lenin and his followers are willing to speak of socialist ideology, then they cannot be using the term pejoratively in the way that Marx did, since obviously they do not intend to demean socialism"(Carroll 1998:367).

Althusser "alleges 'ideology is [...] an organic part, as such, of every social totality. . . . Human societies secrete ideology as the very element and atmosphere indispensable to their historical respiration and life. . . . Historical materialism cannot conceive that even a communism society could ever do without ideology"(Carroll 1998:368).

Louis Althusser,For Marx(London: New Left Books, 1977), 232.

"It should be noted that Althusser himself does have various ways to recuperate the pejorative dimension of the notion of ideology. For example, in [Theory, Theoretical Practice, and Theoretical Formation. Ideology and Ideological Struggle], Casa de las Americas,34 (1996), a journal published in Havana, Cuba, he offers a distinction between ideology in class-dominated societies versus classless societies. Presumably, the notion of a class-dominated ideology is a pejorative one. However, here I think Althusser is introducing two concepts of ideology where most of us think one would suffice, namely the pejorative notion of ideology. After all, we already have the notion of culture — or even of symbolic culture — in order to characterize the meanings, signs, and values of putatively classless societies."

The use of ideology as a concept "should not be restricted to notions of ruling-class domination. Hitler's Mein Kampfwas, for example, ideological before he assumed political power in 1933 when the Nazis came to constitute the ruling class in Germany. And similarly, the doctrines of the Ku Klux Klan and those of the various unofficial militias that are to be found throughout the USA today are ideological, even if they do not serve the interests of the ruling class" (Carroll 1998:371).

"It seems mistaken to tie the notion of ideology so closely to the interests of the dominant class for two reasons: ideology may not have to do with class relationships at all (for example, homophobia), and even where it has to do with class relationships, ideology need not be in the service of a dominant class (for example, the sexism of various socially marginal religious groups" (Carroll 1998:371).

"My suggestion is to drop talk about dominant or ruling classes and to associate ideology with any form of domination or social oppression, whether it is an expression or implementation of an interest of a ruling class or not.

"That is, I recommend dropping the supposition that ideology must be connected exclusively to class phenomenon"(Carroll 1998:371).

"It may be more advisable to start by speaking of propositions, rather than of systems, as the relevant basic unit of ideological thought"(Carroll 1998:373).

Ideological statements can be true

True statements can be used ideologically. "In Wisconsin, conservatives advanced the cause of what they called welfare 'reform' by citing cases of welfare embezzlers who, though they lived in Chicago, registered in Milwaukee, where the benefits were more generous. Time after time, critics of welfare alluded to well-documented cases of people arriving from Illinois to cheat the Wisconsin system. The cases were true enough. But they were used in a discursive context where it was implied that they were paradigmatic cases, rather than exceptional ones. Needless to say, this use of tendentious paradigms disposed many angry voters against welfare" (Carroll 1998:374).

Note: This argument takes him close to Jacques Lacan's observation that even if a man is being deceived by his wife, his paranoia is still pathological.

Ideology can be frameworks not just propositions

"Restricting the epistemic condition of the concept of ideology to falsity is one way in which the standard conception may be too narrow. Another way is by speaking only of propositions. For ideology may not only be comprised of propositions. It may also be comprised of concepts and categorical frameworks, i.e., ways of carving up phenomena. For example, if a society tends to represent women as either madonna-types or whores, then that grid distorts the way in which someone who employs this optic forms assessments and expectations about the behaviour of women. This framework, moreover, may readily perform a service in continuing social oppression, since women failing to evince the salient characteristics of madonna-hood are more likely than not to be treated like prostitutes, which treatment, of course, in our society, is standardly not particularly respectful or deferential" (Carroll 1998:375).

Ideology and emotion

"In A Treatise on Human Nature, Hume famously separated reason and passion, declaring reason to be the slave of the passions and adding that the passions do not contain 'any representative quality which renders it a copy of any other existence or modification.'35 But, as I have argued previously, the notion that emotions lack any representational content is dubious" (Carroll 1998:380).

35. David Hume,A Treatise on Human Nature, ed. Selby Bigge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960), Bk. II, s. iii. 415.

"In standard conditions, people are not angered by learning the velocity of a meteor landing on Jupiter. But they are typically angered by being told that they are racially inferior. Emotions have propositional content or, although Hume denied it, they have representational content" (Carroll 1998:381).

"The supposition that every formal or structural device found in mass art is ideological seems counterintuitive. One reason for this, among others, is that it seems that mass artworks that are, on balance, progressive, like Gorky novel Mother and Pudovkin's film adaptation of it, employ the same sorts of formal and structural devices that reactionary ones do"(Carroll 1998:390).

"Clearly, through their dramatic construction, mass artworks may present mythologized examples of how the social structure of society works"(Carroll 1998:395).

"It is no accident that [mass art's]super-talented heroes are also super-rich. They are the guardians or stewards of justice because they can afford to be. Wealth carries moral authority, and mass fictions that specialize in deliriously rich secret super-cops brazenly exemplify such transparently ideological notion" (Carroll 1998:396).

"Similarly, wealth is often promoted in our culture as a reward for natural talent. [...] Monetary success is presented simply as a function of real virtue, an empirically exaggerated proposition which nevertheless serves the ideology of the rich, not only by suggesting that their money is their moral birthright, but that the lack of money on the part of the poor is an intrinsic moral failing" (ibid).

The narrative enthymeme: Skipping the gaps

"Along with his discussion of the argumentative example as a rhetorical strategy of persuasion, Aristotle also emphasizes the importance of the enthymeme — the syllogism that leaves something out and that requires the audience to fill in the missing premise.61 Indeed, Aristotle thought that this form of rhetorical argument was the most effective one available. The advantage of this device for the rhetorician is that it engages the audience as participants in the process of argument in such a way that listeners, by what Arthur Danto calls 'an almost inevitable movement of the mind', supply what is needed for the argument to go through.62" (Carroll 1998:397).

61. Aristotle Rhetoric, Bk. II, ss. 22-5.

62. Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, 170.

"Mass-art fictions, then, may be thought of as rhetorical, inasmuch as they are structured to lead the audience to fill in or to complete certain ideas — especially ideas about human conduct — in the process of rendering the story intelligible to themselves" (Carroll 1998:397).

"We may call this operation the narrative enthymeme. Though it is not the only rhetorical structure in mass fiction, it is a crucial one — one whose operation is in evidence throughout the history of mass art" (Carroll 1998:398).

"Where the presuppositions that make the story cohere are ideological, the use of the narrative enthymeme is ideological" (ibid).

"The rhetorician uses what the audience is already likely to believe or to have cognitively available in order to encourage conviction, because it leaves the audience with the impression that what they've heard is what they already believe and that the conclusions the rhetorician reaches are, again, their own conclusions" (Carroll 1998:400).

Note: the suggestion seems to be that any commonplace can be dramatically effective. But is this true? Do we really take the message from Jane Austen that we should consider the wealth of our suitors as much as their personality in deciding whom to marry? Hardly. We do recognize the force of her dramatization but without the suggestion that a moral for everyday life is to be drawn. More that we recognize how often money questions play a part in quite sensible people's marriage choices. But do we take the narrative as more than a fiction? Surely this is the subversive power of the mass artist, to deny that the fiction is anything more than an entertainment, while promoting an ideology that can be deceptive and serve the interests of dominant classes, as Griffith did in Birth of a Nationat the turn of the century. even though the Ku Klux Klan's identical beliefs today do not represent the openly professed ideology of the ruling class.

"By the time the leading commonplace is delivered at the conclusion, the spectator is likely to recognize it as something that she has already thought, for she has already come to it herself, albeit as the result of rhetorical promptings" (Carroll 1998:404).

Or does it simply make acceptable something that is palpably false? That is, it calms the disturbance that earlier events in the narrative have aroused.

What an ideological narrative can do is inform audiences of the framework that is considered acceptable in treating public issues.

"In the original film of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, part of the horror of the collectivist invaders is that they lack individuality. As vegetables, the pod people are alike — as alike as two peas in a pod, to recall a commonplace cliché. That is, a commonplace about vegetables is exploited for horrific as well as ideological effects, though it is never explicitly stated in the film. The effect is ideological, of course, since the metaphor is being applied to communists of some sort (intergalactic ones) in a way that redounds to the favour of American militarism" (Carroll 1998:405).

The observation of the lack of individuality is correct but it is a big leap to suggest the film wants to convince us that communists on Earth lack individuality. The truth seems somewhat in between. The film calls on our prejudice against Communism as making people conformist, but in a way that does not remind us of the way in we too are like peas in a pod.

Carroll cites several works in their "rhetorical organization" (Carroll 1998:404) falsely "instantiate"(Carroll 1998:405) as laudable actions that are themselves tendentious.

In Dirty Harry, for example, "by offering Zodiac as a paradigm of the urban criminal, the film has favourable implications for authoritarian police practice" (Carroll 1998:407).

"That viewers are quite often aware of — and ill-disposed toward — the ideological address of a mass artwork seems to me to be an indisputable fact. That the viewer is always duped, as the subject-positioning model suggests (at least in respect to Cartesian egohood), is just wrong. It is empirically the case that audiences can resist the importunings of ideology" (Carroll 1998:425).

But when the narrative does not make sense unless we accept the ideology, the audience has to go along with the premise (c.f. Hamlet and the ghost), which then makes the other propositions seem natural (Hamlet's duty to discover the truth about his father's death).

"I propose that we think in terms of the rhetorical organization of particular mass fictions — in light of such features as argumentative fables, narrative enthymemes, the manipulation of commonplaces, and tendentious instantiation" (Carroll 1998:409).

Carroll nevertheless points out: "Mass artworks may be rhetorical without being ideological" (Carroll 1998:400). But he seems not to go much further in examining how to judge the difference.


No&emul;l Carroll. 1998. A Philosophy of Mass Art. Oxford:New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0198711298.

Hal Himmelstein. 1994. Television myth and the American mind. 2nd ed. Westport, Conn: Praeger. ISBN: 0275931560.


Usually in the format in which they are cited.

Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", trans. Harry Zorn, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt ( New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 217-5. It is also known as "The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility".

R. G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art( Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969). This book was first published by the Clarendon Press in 1938.

John Fiske, Understanding the Popular (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989); and Reading the Popular (London: Unwin Human, 1989).

Clement Greenberg, "Avant-garde and Kirsch", in Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. i, ed. John O'Brien (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 5-22. This article was originally published in the Partisan Review (Fall 1939).

Dwight MacDonald, "A Theory of Mass Culture", from Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, ed. Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White (New York: Free Press, 1957), 59-73. The article originally appeared in Diogenes, 3 (1953), 1-17.

SPN: Selections from Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1971.