on an added value beyond its mere material worth. This change in the way art was valued paralleled the emergence of markets and international trade, when commodities were bought and sold not merely for their exchange value, but with cost ‘added according to the availability or scarceness of the products.

EVERYDAY CULTURE

FINDING AND MAKING MEANING

IN A CHANGING WORLD

DAVID TREND

Paradigm Publishers

Boulder • London

 

 

.i

– CHAPTER Two

ASKING

QUESTION/NG CULTURE AND CONSUMPTION

Asking is no simple matter. The answers we get are determined by

the questions we ask. So asking questions is not an innocent process.

What are the mental processes (ideas, languages, historical under­

standings, ideologies, habits of mind, belief systems) and material

circumstances (tools, belongings, physical structures, institutions,

governments) that identify and locate us in our world? Asking such

questions in this section, we will approach culture broadly, as the

various structuring and meaning-producing circumstances imply.

Some of the answers to these questions come from the per­

spective of “cultural studies,” an approach to knowledge that

interrogates the practices, schools of thought, and institutions

that give ideas legitimacy. A relatively new field of study, cultural

studies is one of the few areas within colleges and universities that

talces everyday culture seriously.

As described by Raymond Williams, one of cultural studies’

early theorists, the discipline looks at the broad array of “works”

( artworks, material culture, media, popular entertainment) and

“group behaviors”( school, work, leisure activities, religious obser­

vances ). 1 Within Williams’s definition of cultural studies, culture is

12

AsKING 13

not something “out there” in a museum. It’s something that we

know and experience all the time. Cultural studies also critiques

concepts of “high” and “low” culture, and these are defined in

the following section, “Everyday Culture.” Such distinctions often

serve to divide culture along lines of education, social class, age,

and ethnicity,

Much of the discussion in this section will address ongoing

debates over everyday culture between proponents of elitism and

egalitarianism. While this might seem like a debate long settled

in modern democratic societies, the issue of elitism and its pre­

sumed benefit continues to fester in the background of everyday

culture–oft:en in coded discussions about education, affirmative

action, immigration, and tax legislation, which allow deep-seated

prejudices and beliefs to be masked in bureaucratic debate. Lacking

even a hint of irony, this platform for elitism was assembled in a

book by former Time magazine cultural critic William Henry III.

Entitled In Defense of Elitism ) the volume begins with the assertion

that in all the major public policy debates of the last half-century

between elites and egalitarians, the latter have been winning far too

oft:en.2 This arises from a few beliefs that Henry asserts have become

widespread: that all people are basically the same; that the common

man is unerring and needs no intermediaries; that self-expression

and self-esteem are more important than objective achievement;

and that a good and just society ought to spend more of its time

and energy propping up the “losers” than in encouraging the “win­

ners.” To Henry and his fellow reactionaries, the modest advances

made in recent decades by equal rights and affirmative action have

so threatened the centuries-old bastions of wealth and privilege that

they demand immediate assault. Henry’s rants might be dismissed

immediately if they weren’t so popular. Unfortunately, such reac­

tionary thinking is amplified through the likes of Sean Hannity,

Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, and other media personalities.

 

 

14 CHAPTER Two

“Asking: Questioning Culture and Consumption” opens with

an essay entitled “Everyday Culture,” which provides background

for the sections to follow and examines different definitions and

ty pes of culture. The section also includes an introductory discus­

sion of cultural studies. The next essay, “But Is it Art?” looks at

fine art as a special case of culture with its own history and set of

analytical problems. Conventional stereotypes about art are con­

trasted with a variety of common and uncommon uses to which

fine art has been applied. The section concludes with the article

“What Everybody Wants,” outlining a range of approaches to the

understanding of consumer culture.

Everyday Culture

The term “high culture” often refers to forms of culture that

a society categorizes as significant: valuable works of art, great

books, specialized aesthetic knowledge. By its very definition, the

production of high culture is deemed beyond the creative capabili­

ties of ordinary people. It is made by specialists or experts-and

appreciated by people with education or elevated status. As such,

what constitutes high culture generally gets determined by those

who hold authority in a society. As sociologist Howard Becker

explains,

High culture consists of work recognized as belonging to an

honored category of cultural understandings by people who

have the power to make that determination and to have it ac­

cepted by others. We may be able to devise systematic criteria

that will identify work of superior quality, but it is unlikely that

the work we can distinguish in that way will be the same as work

AsKING 15

legitimated as high culture by the institutions that make that

decision for any society.3

The idiosyncratic system that identifies and validates high culture is

hardly harmless or innocent. It supports dominant ethnic and racial

groups in a nation and excludes the culture brought by immigrants

or newcomers. Within this system, everyday culture often is regard­

ed as something “left over.” Anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote

that high culture is frequently regarded as something that engages

the mind and serves nonutilitarian interest.4 As Bourdieu wrote in

Distinction >

his study of the way class shapes cultural preferences

or taste, “There is nothing automatic or natural about the ability

to ‘appreciate’ a Rembrandt or a Picasso. You must be raised to

feel comfortable in museums” and have what Bourdieu saw as the

“educated bourgeois orientation” associated with leisure, money,

and unselfconscious social privilege. 5 By contrast, Bourdieu wrote

that “low” or popular culture appeals to the unschooled interests

of the body. Regardless of background or schooling, anyone can

enjoy raucous humor, rock and roll, or a slice of pizza.

Some proponents of high culture assert that its values should be

universally adopted in the interest of social cohesion. In represent­

ing the “best” instances of thought and artistic expression, works of

high culture set examples for everyone to recognize and emulate.

The more a society embraces a common set of high cultural values

and standards, the more unified and strong it becomes. 6 Societies

that allow people to consume a hodge-podge of different cultural

influences and subscribe to varied standards of what is “good” and

“bad” culture risk falling into chaos and instability. This argument

can be summarized in terms of what some writers have termed

“cultural relativism”-the belief that cultural differences (like those

that come from varied nationalities and ethnicities) are not neutral

in value.7 Differences dilute the virtue and coherence that hold a

 

 

16 CHAPTER Two

society together, resulting in what some have termed a “Babel” effect of cultural incoherence.8

Of course, in a nation such as the United States, which itself is made up of people from many different places and backgrounds, the stratification of culture into high and low registers is a tricky logical maneuver. Like most dichotomies that attempt to divide the world into either/or categories, the high/low divide is at best an abstraction. In practice, neither category is neat or distinct; many items fall into either or both sides-or simply resist classification al­ together. In this way, the high/low divide is a cultural construction that really represents other hierarchies, imbalances, and prejudices. The United States is itself a hybrid of cultures. Proponents of high culture in this country often see themselves on a quest for a purely “American” culture defined by standards set by the majority. This desire for cultural conformity was exactly the sort of thinking that troubled Alexis de Tocqueville when he wrote his 1835 critique ofU .S. politics, Democracy in America. While acknowledging that one social power may inevitably dominate others, de Tocqueville was concerned about an apparatus that permitted what he termed “the tyranny of the majority.” Such a system generates “a power which is physical and moral at the same time; it acts upon the will as well as upon the actions of men, and it represents not only all contest, but all controversy. I know of no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America. “9

The result, de Tocqueville noted, is a privileging of English­ speaking culture over all others. Beyond its obvious deleterious effects on excluded groups, the trouble with this narrow view is that even its proponents cannot agree about the best of what has been thought or said. Even the staid pages of the New York Times reported that “the idea of a literature as a fixed and immutable canon-the Great Books, five-foot shelf-is a historical illusion. ” 10

AsKING 17

In the 1990s, academics of all disciplines and ideologies began challenging the primacy of the Euro-American standard, just as they now are disputing traditional definitions of what constitutes literature in the first place. As the late Roland Barthes wrote, the challenge begins in pointing out what falls outside traditional for­ mulations. “Education should be directed toward exploring the literary text as much as possible. The pedagogical problem would be to shake up the notion of the literary text and to make adolesce�ts understand that there is text everywhere,” Barthes said.11

Received Culture and Identity

Most cultural understandings come to us from learned experi­ ences. The sources of these experiences are diverse, including those occurring at home, in school, with friends, or at the work­ place. To a large extent, we gain our identities from these “real” experiences and from simulations of experiences received from books, magazines, television, movies, and the Internet. Male and female identity, for example, originate in the context of family life and social interaction-later to be reinforced in images. Much has been written about the way gender is portrayed in the me­ dia. In Ways of Seeing, a book based on a BBC television series, John Berger wrote that “according to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome-men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. “12 Berger asserted that in European art beginning with the seventh century, women were depicted as being aware of being seen by a male spectator. Paint­ ings of female nudes reflected the woman’s submission to “the owner of both woman and painting.” 13 He noted that almost all European sexual imagery since the Renaissance is frontal-either

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18 CHAPTER Two

literally or metaphorically-because the viewer is the spectator­ owner doing the looking.

During the 1970s and 1980s, feminist media critics similarly observed that much photography, television, and film reflects a male point of view. This gendered perspective is not only a factor of historical habit, but also a reflection of the predominance of men in the media industries. Some observers have gone as far as to say that when women look at clothing and cosmetic ads, they are actually seeing themselves as a man might see a woman. Laura Mulvey, writing in her classic essay,”Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” asserted that traditional films present men as active, controlling subjects and treat women as passive objects of desire for men in both the story and in the audience, and do not allow women to be desiring subjects in their own right.14 Such films ob­ jectify women in relation to “the controlling male gaze, presenting woman as image and man as bearer of the look. ” 15

National identity is another form of received culture. One is reminded of being a resident in the United States by the federal institutions that deliver our mail, collect taxes, enforce the nation’s borders, and provide military protection. As with gender, percep­ tions of national identity also come from the media. In his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,. Benedict Anderson argued that the invention of the printing press first permitted national borders to be drawn that were not defined by geographical boundaries like oceans or mountain ranges.16 As Anderson put it, “an American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his fel­ low Americans. He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity. “17 The circulation of printed material within countries enabled citizens to be continually reminded of their iden­ tities as citizens. Homi K. Bhabha has gone as far as to say that the

AsKING 19

continuing renewal of national identity-the will to nationhood

that is reaffirmed each day-requires an erasure of past origins,

ethnicities, and places. The obligation to forget in the name of

unity is a form of “violence involved in establishing the national

writ.” 18 Movies and television deliver this message. The power of

media to influence national identity became a topic of international

interest in the twentieth century as the United States emerged as

an exporter of television and film around the globe. The ability to

broadcast across national boundaries, even in the face of govern­

ment resistance, motivated the electronic warfare waged by the

U.S. Information Agency in nations around the world.

Of course, media imperialism isn’t always so belligerent. On the

contrary, the mass marketing of U.S. productions throughout the

world is customarily viewed as a positive function of the “free mar­

ket.” Due to the scale and technical sophistication of the American

media industry, Hollywood films and television programs constitute

the nation’s second0 largest source of foreign income, just behind

aerospace technology.19 Moreover, the mass dissemination of U.S.

movies and TV abroad helped provide an important context for the

foreign consumption of American products-from McDonald’s in

Russia to Marlboros in Thailand to Euro-Disney in France. Although

this ability to profit in the media trade helps the nation’s sagging

economy, the massive influx of American media into other nations is

not always viewed as a positive phenomenon. Familiar figures such

as Britney Spears, glowing on television screens throughout Europe,

· Africa, and Asia, have triggered mass resentment about the transmis­

sion ofYankee culture throughout the globe. Consequently, govern­

ment-sponsored media education programs in nations that import

significant amounts of film and television are far more advanced than

in the United States. Foreign nations perceive the need to protect

themselves from the boundless expansion of American ·capitalism.

As a result, Canada, China, and France, to name a few countries,

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20 CHAPTER Two

put national quotas on the amount of American media that can be broadcast to their people. In recent decades, the so-called imperial­ ism of American media has become less absolute. With the growth and diffusion of film and television from other industrialized nations, media culture has begun to move in a more reciprocal manner. This phenomenon has been helped along by patterns of migration that have created more diverse audiences around the world. Technology has played a role as well in the expansion of videotape, disc, and In­ ternet media formats.

Almost since the inception of television, a diverse assortment of educators, parents, and religious groups has warned of the corrupt­ ing influence of commercial media. Like critics of media dissemina­ tion overseas, domestic opponents believe it exerts an irresistible control over its consumers. Conservative groups sec media as the conveyor of moral depravity. On the liberal side, media is believed to transmit oppressive ideologies. Both views are unified by their belief that media must be resi�ted at all costs.20 All of these argu­ ments against the media share several common flaws: they assign a range of social problems to the media that originate elsewhere, and they malce the incorrect assumption that representations invariably correspond to outcomes and that viewers exert no license in the viewing process.

Most importantly in the context of everyday culture, both con­ servative and liberal critiques of media emerge from a normative standpoint. In other words, both ends of the ideological spectrum share the belief that a single, correct perspective exists and that contemporary media diverts attention from it. This is not to sug­ gest that there is any moral failing in preferring Lost over Desperate Housmvives–or vice versa. But democracy begins to suffer when the rhetoric of preference reaches the point of suggesting that selected options should be discontinued, defunded, or censored. Crude as it sounds, this is exactly what groups such as Accuracy in Media,

AsKING 21

the American Family Association, and the Center for Media and

Values often suggest. In part, these antidemocratic sentiments stem from a lack of

understanding about how media are received and interpreted.

Hasty conclusions get drawn about the effects of media messages,

with little consideration of the technical, institutional, and social

contexts in which the communication transaction occurs. Instead,

intellectuals, parents, and clergy make judgments about the media

practices of the less powerful. This results in a condescending series

of assumptions about the capabilities of viewers to evaluate what

they see. Two common threads run through all of these claims

against media: that viewers lack a capacity for subjective agency,

and that media are inherently negative. The solutions to this per­

ceived tyranny lie in turning off the tube or girding oneself to resist

its mendacity. This has been the premise of media education, the

rationale for the development of public broadcasting, and even the

motivation for several United Nations resolutions. Obviously such

beliefs don’t give viewers very much credit . This perspective refuses

to recognize that meaning develops in the relationship between

text and reader, with readers actively comparing narratives to their

own experiences. This position fails to consider the many ways that meaning is altered in the mechanics of information delivery.

It also neglects to acknowledge viewers’ abilities to accept portions

of a text while discarding the rest. In short, this negative view of

media insists that audiences are incapable of telling the difference

between images and life itself.

Improvised Culture

Culture isn’t something that people simply receive. And it doesn’t

exert an uncontrollable influence. There simply are too many

 

 

22 CHAPTER Two

different kinds of information buzzing around and competing for our attention. People have the option of choosing what they want to see and believe . They have the critical capabilities of rejecting what they don’t like or what doesn’t seem to have relevance. Different people bring different comprehensions, tastes, desires, and needs to every cultural encounter. Individuals emerge from different backgrounds with different kinds and amounts of education, and they have different aspirations and goals for the future.

Most importantly, received culture can’t account for new situ­ ations that people encounter. A friend illustrated this t� me with a story about the San Francisco Municiple Railway (Muni), the above- and below-ground rail system that covers much of the city. One warm summer day on the ride home, the train stopped. At first, people in the crowded car did what they normally do. They ignored each other. Minutes passed, and the air began to warm up. But the passengers’ cultural understandings of what to do on the train kept them from talking or looking at each other. A., more time passed, people began to fidget and to venture quiet complaints to each other. Eventually, the silence was broken with discussion about what to do, and a couple of people ventured to the front of the train to talk to the conductor. In breaking with convention, then talking, and finally acting upon the situation, the Muni rid­ ers created a new cultural moment. They improvised, formed a group, and took action. This is what makes culture interesting. The past is not always a guide for the future. The existing relation­ ships among the Muni riders only went so far in telling them what to do. Then they had to malce up something. At that moment, they demonstrated an important kind of freedom from tradition and past experience. This kind of improvisation presents itself to each of us every day. It invites us to make our own decisions and break free of the past. It’s part of what gives everyday culture its dynamism and vitality.

AsKING 23

But as culture becomes less fixed and overdetermined, it also becomes less stable. Despite the freedom and unpredictability that emerges from our everyday encounters with culture, there is noth­ ing to guarantee that the experiences will be positive or beneficial. As Michel de Certeau observed, people’s natural instincts or inher­ ent tools for engaging with things like movies or TV programs don’t necessarily cause them to do anything progressive with the mean­ ings they derive or the conclusions they draw. Insight is required to help people become truly critical viewers and consumers-an insight that emerges from asking the right questions.

Introducing Cultural Studies

Cultural studies is one source of these questions. As an emerging field of study, cultural studies investigates the lack of consider­ ation of everyday culture in existing academic disciplines and the negative ways the everyday is viewed in other schools of thought. The discipline especially takes issue ,vith the way Marxism views consumerism. Historically, in Western societies the study of ev­ eryday culture was limited to what anthropologists did when they examined distant peoples in faraway lands. Little value was seen in studying the everyday consumer practices and aesthetic prefer­ ences of ordinary people, except in Marxist circles where mass culture was considered a manifestation of capitalist exploitation. In this pessimistic view, culture was perceived as little more than an advertisement for materialistic values and thus directly reflected the manipulative interests of the market. Franlcfurt School scholars Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, among others, described a system i� which the masses were systematically duped into lives of servitude and consumption.21 ,Within such apocalyptic logic, cultural objects functioned as propaganda, and the citizenry was

 

 

24 CHAPTER Two

incapable of resisting the seduction of the dominant “culture industry.” Although useful in the broad mapping of ideological reproduction, such generalizations refused to grant consumers or audiences any autonomy whatsoever. Unabashedly elitist in its views of “the masses,” the resulting “reflection theory” readings of culture invariably produced predictable evidence of existing class inequities.

Alternatives to reflection theory date to the 1940s, although until recently many were not widely discussed. Some of these al­ ternative views emphasized the independent character of cultural works, apart from the presumed meanings they were thought to convey. Others focused on audiences. Louis Althusser’s work, in particular, sought to undo myths of a direct correspondence be­ tween messages and their effects. In Althusser’s essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes Toward an Investigation),” he argued that meanings occur in gaps between senders and receivers ofinformation. Oppressive institutions create imaginary narratives about the “real” circumstances of peoples’ lives. But these fictions often can be recognized as such.

1n this way, Althusser proposed a revision of reflection theory that assigned a quasi-autonomy to audiences. No longer the helpless receivers of ideological messages, people were seen to operate in a complex dialectic with culture. In other words, a space was ac­ knowledged between oppressive institutions and the consciousness ofindividuals. Within this space, resistances could form that were capable of destabilizing ruling power structures. These sentiments were echoed in the writings of Herbert Marcuse, who likewise ar­ gued against the classical Marxist doctrine that propaganda alone was responsible for producing consciousness. Emphasizing the role of human agency, Marcuse said that “radical change in conscious­ ness is the beginning, the first step in changing social existence: emergence of the new Subject. “22

AsKING 25

A similar refinement of Marxist cultural theory came in 1970 when Hans Magnus Enzenberger proposed in his “Constituents of a Theory of Media” that communications experts had been misguided in their understandings of how culture operates. He sug­ gested that instead of tricking the masses into a web of false want,;, media actually found ways of satisfying real (but often unconscious) desires. This position was later elaborated upon by poststructuralist Marxists like Frederic Jameson and Roland Barthes, who further considered the negotiable possibilities of signification.23 If cultural signs could be interpreted variously, their meanings assumed a “floating” character �s individuals assigned them different read­ ings. From these understandings of the contingency of meaning has evolved a complex discourse on a wide variety of factors that come into play as people interpret messages. The act of interpreta­ tion can be enhanced with study or critical intention.

Partly related to this Marxist history, cultural studies developed in Great Britain among intellectuals who wanted to study the Brit­ ish working class in the 1950s and who were concerned about the influx of post-war American culture into Britain. Early works in this regard were Raymond Williams’s The Long Revolution ( 1961 ), which explored the relationships between culture and social habits, and Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1958 ), that looked at working-class interests in sports, pubs, and similar sites of social interaction.24 These inquiries became institutionalized in 1964 with the founding of the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham, Great Britain. The center’s research orien­ tation toward working-class culture defined its interests in terms of topics largely excluded from traditional academic di,;ciplines. Rather than focusing on established literary canons of acknowledged mas­ terworks or the histories of great moments of the nation’s past, cultural studies examined such “contemporary” topics as popular music, dubs, clothing, consumer habits, life at work or collecting

 

 

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26 CHAPTER Two

welfare, and the dating practices of young adults. These research interests formed the bases for courses on the same topics of everyday culture, which proved of greater interest and relevance to students. Cultural studies courses, especially, appealed to students attending the British “polytechnic” colleges that, like community colleges in the United States, often served older and nontraditional students or simply those whose economic circumstances required them to hold jobs while attending school.

Students found the instruction useful because the courses ad­ dressed issues in their daily experience, like how they might become critical consumers, how they might become more effective in their jobs, more aw�re of the role media plays in their lives, or more cognizant of sexism, racism, or economic class relations in their everyday encounters. In this way, instruction at the CCCS had more than an abstract academic appeal. It provided tools for living and succeeding in the world. As stated by Stuart Hall, one of the early directors at Birmingham, a central goal was to “enable people to understand what was going on, and especially to provide ways of thinking, strategies for survival, and resources for resistance. “25

Interdisciplinarity was the centerpiece of cultural studies theory. This interdisciplinarity emerged from the conviction that the tra­ ditional disciplines of English, mathematics, history, and science had once been important in dividing knowledge into coherent cat­ egories, but over time those categories had become mired in their own traditions and unresponsive to the changing world around them. Traditional literature nearly always talked about writings by men-just as art, music, and theater primarily excluded works by women. History placed Western civilization at its center, as did most accounts of scie�ce, mathematics, politics, and economics. Little attention was afforded in photography, publishing, film, and television, which traditionally had brought people the most infor0 mation about themselves and the rest of the world. Writing and

AsKING 27 other forms of communication were important to cultural studies due to the function of language in maintaining cultural norms. As Trinh T. Minh-Ha states, “Where does language start, where does it end? In a way, no political reflection can dispense with a reflection oflanguage. “26 In addressing the huge volume of ideas unaddressed by conventional disciplines, cultural studies was soon flanked by related new fields in women’s’ studies, ethnic studies, media studies, lesbian/ gay studies, and other “area” studies. The impetus for these new academic fields emerged as many disenfran­ chised groups were similarly reacting against exclusionary practices in employment, government, and institutions of all kinds.

This had profound implications both inside and outside colleges and universities. For one thing, it challenged established hierarchies of”experts” and “specialists” who had for so long held a monopoly on what was considered important and what counted as “official” knowledge. It also called into question all forms of established authority and power. But the proponents of cultural studies wanted to be careful that their efforts didn’t simply topple old institutions, only to be replaced by new ones. Hall and others wrote that cultural studies must always keep questioning its own premises and always keep changing in response to new circumstances. “Cultural studies is not one thing,” Hall wrote, “it has never been one thing.”27 It should remain a dynamic affair, encompassing a variety of traditions and practices. As stated by Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paul Treichler,

Cultural studies remains a diverse and contentious enterprise, encompassing different positions and trajectories in specific contexts, addressing many questions, drawing nourishment from multiple roots, and shaping itself within different institu­ tions and locations. The passage of tirne, encounters with new historical events, and the very extensions of cultural studies into

 

 

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28 CHAPTER Two

new disciplines and national contexts will inevitably change its

meaning and uses. Cultural studies needs to remain open to

unexpected, unimagined, and even uninvited possibilities. No

one can hope to control these developments.28

Seen in its fullest terms, cultural studies has been described as in­

corporating “the history of cultural studies, gender and sexuality,

nationhood and national identity, colonialism and postcolonial­

ism, race and ethnicity, popular culture and its audiences, science

and ecology, identity politics, pedagogy, the politics of aesthetics,

cultural institutions, the politics of disciplinarity, discourse and

textuality, history, global culture in.a postmodern age.”29

But Is It Art?

Art has a peculiar history in Western society, which has produced

narrow and mystified perceptions in the minds of many people

about what art is. People often see art as something rare and spe­

cial, which is only produced by professional artists or people with

extraordinary natural skill. This view of art excludes artwork by

hobbyists, amateurs, children, or anyone else not deemed capable

of malcing fine art. But this exclusionary view does little to explain

what fine art does or why it is so special. Instead, the aesthetic

and social aspects are obscured and mystified. This leaves many

average citizens with the suspicion that art-especially modern

and conceptual art-is little more than a hoax or some kind of

money-malcing scheme. Of course, art doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

It is created by a variety of people in different vocations and sup­

ported by numerous kinds of institutions. Art schools and colleges

are part of a system that trains, evaluates, and accredits artists as

AsKING 29

professionals. Occasionally, art institutions will exhibit work by

folk artists or so-called primitives who exhibit an unusual style or

manifest a particular cultural or historical uniqueness. But often the

difference between art made by artists and nonartists is difficult for

viewers to discern. This is especially the case with certain kinds of

twentieth-century art intentionally produced by artists to confuse

or call into question the conventions by which value is conferred

on artworks by institutions. One famous instance of this occurred

when Frenchman Marcel Duchamp brought industrially fabricated

objects like plumbing fixtures into the art gallery and proclaimed

they were are art because they were labeled as such when put on

display.

All of this can leave the average person quite confused, as is

manifest in surveys conducted about public perceptions of art.

When asked about the general value of art to society, eighty-nine

percent of people in the United States say that art is “important to

the growth and development of their communities. “30 This is even

more the case with parents, ninety-six percent of whom believe that

art education should be a part every child’s school curriculumY

But things change dramatically when people are asked about their

own relationship with art. 32 Only six percent report that they ever

engaged in art rnalcing. 33 Four percent report that they volunteer

at art museums. 34 According to the National Endowment for the

Arts, more than three-quarters of the population fails to enter a

museum even once per year.35 Although people strongly support

high culture and fine art as abstract ideas, these things appear to

have little role in people’s daily lives.

In large part, this alienation from fine art comes from the way

art is presented to people by most art institutions and in many

educational settings. Art is presented as something guarded dur­

ing the day, locked up at night, available in particular places, and

not produced by ordinary people. Artists, art galleries, museums,

 

 

30 CHAPTER Two

schools, critics, and publications all work together within an eco­ nomic system throughout the Western world to maintain art as a scarce and valuable commodity. The community an artist addresses is fundamentally a clientele that uses ( or purchases) professional expertise. Edward Said has pointed out that as this role is accepted by artists, what they do can become neutralized and nonpolitical. This creates an ethic of specialization that encourages practitioners to minimize the content of their work and increase the “compos­ ite wall of guild consciousness, social authority, and exclusionary discipline around themselves. Opponents are therefore not people in disagreement with the constituency but people to be kept out, non-experts and non-specialists, for the most part. “36 This exclusion extends to amateurs, students, eccentric practitioners, and anyone without some form of institutional validation.

The entire enterprise hinges on art defined by strict character­ istics and representing selected philosophical ideals. Some social critics point out that the Western notion of art is a relatively recent phenomenon, evolving in the past two hundred years, following a prior more utilitarian and practical view of art in the West in the pre-Renaissance period. 37 In Europe during the Middle Ages ( 500 A.D. through the fourteenth century), art was viewed as a commod­ ity made by craftspeople. Visual art was produced by people hired to decorate public places and the dwellings of sponsors. Perform­ ing artists likewise produced street theater or entertainment on commission. Art was viewed as an entertaining substance that was accessible to the aristocrat and common person alike.

Both perception and the support of art changed in the Re­ naissance period (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries). With the development of what was termed ide”alist philosophy came beliefs that certain ideas existed beyond the realm of ordinary people and were matters for gifted individuals. Art carried with it an aura or specialness that only “genius” could provide. As such, art also took

AsKING 31

on an added value beyond its mere material worth. This change in the way art was valued paralleled the emergence of markets and international trade, when commodities were bought and sold not merely for their exchange value, but with cost ‘added according to the availability or scarceness of the products.

With the industrial era ( eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), the idealization of art became more powerful. Artists were seen as quasi-magical people, alienated from society and empowered with special gifts of talent. Art became valued more for its scarcity than its intrinsic worth. During this period, the nature of skilled work was altered by the emergence of the machine, the factory, and the assembly line. For example, the artful aspect of making a shoe by hand was replaced by the mechanical manufacturing of shoes. Creative satisfaction was no longer derived from work, but became something one might encounter at the end of the day or on a special occasion.

The twentieth century brought the full-blown institutionaliza­ tion of art-with the rise of art museums and commercial art gal­ leries. In the United States, changes in federal tax codes allowed a new class of wealthy industrialists to gain tax benefits through phi­ lanthropy and the establishment of private foundations. 38 Frederick H. Goff created the first community foundation in Cleveland, Ohio. Community foundations were not designed to help people directly, but were seen as instruments of reform, which could address the root causes of poverty, hunger, and disease. In the early 1900s, civic and business leaders Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and Margaret Olivia Sage used the foundation model to organize phil­ anthropic endeavors, like the business corporations they had built so successfully. This business-oriented structure permitted more flexibility than charitable trusts, which had been the traditional mode of giving featured in English law. Corporate foundations came later, after the concept of direct giving by businesses was

 

 

32 CHAPTER Two

resolved under United States law in 1935. Corporate foundations

grew at a rapid rate during the 1940s, an era of high profits and

high tax levels. This created a climate for the growth of an entire

sector of nonprofit organizations.

Meanwhile, popular perceptions of art and artists continued to

change. W ith the emergence of avant-garde movements in Europe

and the United States, public attitudes placed artists even further

from the social mainstream. Artists were regarded as visionaries or

eccentrics, motivated by muses, ideological extremism, or driven by

insanity. As mechanical reproduction and the development of photog­

raphy made it possible for anyone to own a copy of a famous artwork,

the scarcity of original artworks became the rationale for valuation.

If an artist’s work was deemed exceptional by experts or curators,

and the availability of the artist’s work was in short supply, then the

monetary value of the artwork would rise. Thus, the prices of work

by dead artists quickly began to exceed that of living producers who

might continue to create works for the market. The twentieth cen­

tury also witnessed the increased use of art by governments to boast

their nation’s superiority. Following World War II, the United States

emerged as a world superpower and proclaimed American abstract

expressionism the leading art movement of its day.

The hyperbolic growth of the art marketplace and the view of

fine art as a commodity haven’t done much to clarify popular un­

derstandings of what art is. A qnick look at the way terms like “art”

and “artwork” are defined in leading dictionaries is instructive. The

Oxford English Dictionary defines art as “the expression of creative

skill through a visual medium such as painting or sculpture” and a

work of art as “a creative product with strong imaginative or aesthetic

appeal.”39 The Merriam-Webster1s Dictionary defines a Jvork of art as

either “the product of one of the arts; especially: a painting or sculp­

ture of high aesthetic quality” or “something giving high aesthetic satisfaction to the viewer or listener. “40 These notions of art as either

AsKING 33

skillful aptitude or aesthetic creativity do little to demystify the actual

functions of art in society. In his book Definitions of Ar; Stephen

Davies talces a considerably broader and more socially inclusive view

in asserting that three general theories describe art:

Functionalism: Art is defined by purpose( s) that make art useful or

valuable. A function commonly assigned to art is to provide a

satisfying aesthetic experience. Art can also stimulate innova­

tion, tell stories, teach moral lessons, bear witness to history,

convey humor or lust, evoke social concern or political activism,

or simply comment on art itself.

Proceduralism: Art achieves its status through specific processes

and social contexts. Some of these include academic certifica­

tion by historians and museum curators, economic valuation

by art galleries and collectors, peer acknowledgment by other

artists, acclaim from critics and the media, educational endorse­

ment by schools and teachers. The acceptance and belief of

the viewing public in the importance of art also is a form of

proceduralism.

Historicism: The concept of art is itself evolving, and art status

requires appropriate connections to previous art and art move­

ments. So what is art at one time will not be art at another

time. Contemporary art frequently is evaluated according to

the extent that it either extends or breaks with historical tradi­

tion. Art history organizes the study of art from the past and

often conveys value on art in doing so.41

While the categories put fo rward by Davies provide more

specificity to the definition of art, they still operate largely in the

idealist tradition of art separated from contemporary everyday

 

 

34 CHAPTER Two

culture. Such nonutilitarian forms of expression are sometimes identified with “fine art” to distinguish them from creative trades of the mass-produced culture of “applied art.” These correspond to the categories of high and low culture discussed earlier.

One can break through the obfuscation of the fine/applied art divide by examining art in vocational terms. Doing so reveals a complexity in the role of art in contemporary society that belies the idealist ethos that so dominates most discussions of art and that confounds public understanding of the role of art in everyday life. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (ELS) divides artists into four categories: ”Art directors formulate design concepts and presentation approaches for visual communications media. Craft artists create or reproduce handmade objects for sale or exhibition. Multimedia artists and animators create special effects, animation, or other visual images on film, on video, or with computers or other electronic media. Fine artists

) including

painters, sculptors, and illustrators create original artwork, using a variety of media and techniques.”42 This is how the ELS describes these vocational categories:

Art directors develop design concepts and review material that is to appear in periodicals, newspapers, and other printed or digital media. They decide how best to present the information visually, so that it is eye-catching, appealing, and organized. Art directors decide which photographs or artwork to use and oversee the layout design and production of the printed material. They may direct workers engaged in artwork, layout design, and copywriting.

Craft artists hand make a wide variety of objects that are sold ei-. ther in their own studios, in retail outlets, or at arts and crafts shows. Some craft artists may display their works in galleries

AsKING 35

and museums. Craft artists work with many different materi­

als–cerarnics, glass, textiles, wood, metal, and paper-to cre­

ate unique pieces of art, such as pottery, stained glass, quilts,

tapestries, lace, candles, and clothing. Many craft artists also

use fine art techniques-for ex?-mple, painting, sketching, and

printing-to add finishing touches to their art.

Multimedia artists and animators work primarily in motion picture

and video industries, advertising, and computer systems design

services. They draw by hand and use computers to create the

large series of pictures that form the animated images or spe­

cial effects seen in movies, television programs, and computer

games. Some draw storyboards for television commercials,

movies, and animated features. Storyboards present television

commercials in a series of scenes similar to a comic strip and

allow an advertising agency to evaluate commercials proposed

by the company doing the advertising. Storyboards also serve

as guides to placing actors and cameras on the television or

motion picture set and to other details that need to be taken

care of during the production of commercials.

Fine artists typically display their wo;k in museums, commercial

art galleries, corporate collections, and private homes. Some

of their artwork may be commissioned ( done on request from

clients), but most is sold by the artist or through private art

galleries or dealers. The gallery and the artist predetermine how

much each will earn from the sale. Only the most successful

fine artists are able to support themselves solely through the

sale of their works. Most fine artists have at least one other job

to support their art careers. Some work in museums or art gal­

leries as fine arts directors or as curators, planning and setting

up art exhibits. A few artists work as art critics for newspapers

 

 

36 CHAPTER Two

or magazines or as consultants to foundations or institutional collectors. Other artists teach art classes or conduct workshops

in schools or in their own studios. Some artists also hold full­ time or part-time jobs unrelated to the art field and pursue fine art as a hobby or second career.43

In an effort to sort out the complexities, overlapping categories, and combined forms of practice, the BLS defines fine artists as producers of”original works.” Although the BLS categories hardly exhaust the variety of art practitioners and practices, they begin

to demonstrate that art can have many definitions and serve many functions beyond the constrained view of art that has evolved in

the popular mind of the West over the past five hundred years. Work by artists infuses nearly every aspect of contemporary life.

Art institutions create jobs, entertainment, tourism, and an art market. In 2006-2007, more than seventeen thousand museums existed in the United States alone, accounting for billions of dollars

in collections holdings and serving huge international audiences. Television, film, interactive media, and the performing arts inform

and move billions of people worldwide, making up important industries and export/import markets. Artists help connect form with function in fashioning everything from homes and automo­

biles to consumer goods and expendable commodities. Effective graphic design and use of visual language are essential in effective communication of content to readers, viewers, and audiences in general. Art is significant in certain forms of psychological treat­ ment and in occupational therapy, as well as a diagnostic tool for psychiatrists and other mental health professions.

Many people credit art with contributing to a healthy working

or living environment. Art is an important element in advertising, public relations, packaging, and product design. Artistic qualities can influence how consumers respond to products, what they buy,

AsKJNG 37

and how they use items ranging from clothing to home appliances.

Art is a tool used by educators to- teach language, history, religion,

social science, and many other subjects. It conveys content for some

subjects and alternative pedagogies for others. For many people, art

conveys transcendent philosophical ideals or is used to dramatize

theological lessons and values. Art has been credited with inspiring

love, compassion, empathy, ethnic and national pride, ethnic toler­

ance, as well as prejudice and hatred. In many communities, art

activities such as clubs, classes, after-school programs, and exhibi­

tions contribute to civic health and to people’s sense of belonging.

Artists can serve as role models and can involve young people and

others in art activities. Art can be a way of communicating demo­

cratic ideas. The display of art in public institutions can be a way

of informing a community, encouraging a population to participate

in collective activities or stimulating engagement. As this listing of

art’s functions is meant to suggest, the meaning of the term “art”

is largely determined by use and context. Art is a dynamic idea,

which is limited and misunderstood when narrowly categorized as

is often done in fine art or high cultural contexts. 44

What Everybody Wants

Just as art can be found in nearly every aspect of contemporary

culture, many of the things that ordinary people do can be con­

sidered artistic. People make creative decisions every day from

the minute they get up in the morning and decide what to wear.

Unacknowledged aesthetic decisions inform such everyday activities

as preparing food, shopping at the mall, decorating one’s room,

tending a garden, or choosing a 1V program. These artistic deci­

sions in everyday life derive from the artist that lives inside each

 

 

I

I

48 CHAPTER Two

Notes

1. Raymond Williams, “Culture and Society,” ( 1958) in Resources

of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism {New York and London: Verso,

1989), 10.

2. William Henry III, In Defense of Elitism (New York: Anchor,

1995).

3. Howard Becker, Doing Things Together(Chicago: Northwestern

University Press, 1986), 24.

4. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment

of Taste (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984).

5. Ibid.

6. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835; reprint,

New York: Schock.en Books, 1961).

7. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York:

Simon and Schuster, 1987); and E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy: What

Every American Needs to Know (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

8. Bloom, 2.

9. de Tocqueville, Dnnocracy in America, 309-310.

10. James Atlas, “The Battle of the Books,” New York Times Maga­

zine, June 5, 1988, 26.

11. “Santorum Marriage Plan Built on Strong Foundation of Gay

Loathing,” Wonkett, May 23, 2005. http://wwni.wonkette.com/politics/cul­

ture-war/santorum-marriage-bitilt-on-strong:fo1Jndation-of-gay-loathing-

104616.php Internet reference. Accessed May 3, 2006.

12. John Berger, Ways ofSeeing(NewYork: Pelican, 1977) p. 52.

13. Ibid.

14. Laura Mulvey, “V isual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen

16, no. 3 (1975): 6-28.

15. Ibid., 27.

16. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the

Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edition (London and New York:

Verso, 1991).

17. Ibid., p. 22.

AsKJNG 49

18. Homi K. Bhabha, “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modem Nation,” in Homi K. Bhabha, Nation and Nar­ n,1,tion {London and New York: Routledge, 1990), 2.

19. David Morley and Kevin Robins, “Spaces of Identity: Com­ munications Technologies and the Refiguration of Europe,” Screen 30, no. 4 (Autumn 1989): 12.

20. David Buckingham, “Teaching About the Media,” in The Media Studies Book, ed. David Lusted (New York: Routledge, 1991 ), 12.

21. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlight­ emnent, trans. John Cumming (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972).

22. Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 21.

23. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981 ); Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972).

24. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolittion (New York: C’,0lumbia University Press, 1961 ); Richard Hoggan, The Uses of Literacy(New York: Penguin, 1958).

25. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, “Cul­ tural Studies: An Introduction,” in Cultural Studies, eds. Lawrence Gross­ berg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992), 2.

26. Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Framer Framed (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 252

27. Ibid., 3.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., 1.

30. Regional Art & Culture Council/Riley Research Associ­ ates, “The Value of Arts & Culture: A Public Opinion Survey,” Spring 2005. http://11nvw.racc.org/resotirces/research/publicopinions1trvey. php#e:,cectJtiveoverJJiew. Accessed June 20, 2006.

31. Cultural Policy and tl1e Arts National Data Archive (CPANDA), “Quick Facts About the Arts-Arts Education,” 2002. http://1P1vmcpanda. org/arts-culture:facts/arts-ed.html. Accessed June 20, 2006.

 

 

50 CHAPTER Two

32. “Where People Get their News,” Pew Center for People

and the Press, May 7, 2005. http://people-press.org/reports/display. php3?PageID=834. Accessed June 20, 2005.

3 3. Bobbie Nichols, Demographic Characteristics of Arts Attendance, 2002 (Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts).

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. Edward Said, “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies and Com­ munity,” in The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend, Wash.: Bay Press), 152.

37. Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art (New York: New York University Press, 1993).

38. Council on Foundations, An Abbreviated History of the Philan­

thropic Tradition in the United States. http://ww1v.cofo,:g/Action/content.

cfin?ItemNumber=730. Accessed June 21, 2006.

39. “AskOxford.com,” Oxford Dictionaries, http://nnvmasko.eford. com/ Accessed Feb. 20, 2007.

40. “Merriam-Webster Online,” Merriam-Webster Dictionaries. http://www.m-w.com/ Accessed Feb. 20, 2007.

41. Stephen Davies, Definitions of Art (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

42. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “Artists and Related Work­

ers,” Occupational Outlook Handbook (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, 2006). http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos092.htm. Accessed Sept. 4, 2006.

43. Ibid. W ithin the designation of “fine artists,” the BLS identi­

fied the following supplementary-and somewhat idiosyncratic-list of

vocations. “Illustrators typieally create pictures for books, magazines, and

other publications and for commercial products such as textiles, wrapping paper, stationery, greeting cards, and calendars. Increasingly, illustrators

are working in digital format, preparing work directly on a computer. Medical and scientific ilhtstrators combine drawing skills with knowledge of

biology or ?ther sciences. Medical illustrators draw illustrations of human anatomy and surgical procedures. Scientific illustrators draw illustrations

AsKING 51

of animal and plant life, atomic and molecular structures, and geologic and planetary formations. The illustrations are used in medical and scien­ tific publications and in audiovisual presentations for teaching purposes.

Medical illustrators also work for lawyers, producing exhibits for court cases. Cartoonists draw political, advertising, social, and sports cartoons. Some cartoonists work with others who create the idea or story and write the captions. Most cartoonists have comic, critical, or dramatic talents in addition to drawing skills. Sketch artists create likenesses of subjects with pencil, charcoal, or pastels. Sketches are used by law enforcement agencies to assist in identifying suspects, by the news media to depict courtroom

scenes, and by individual patrons for their own enjoyment. Sculptors design three-dimensional artworks, either by molding and joining materials such as clay, glass, wire, plastic, fabric, or metal or by cutting and carving forms from a block of plaster, wood, or stone. Some sculptors combine various

materials to create mixed-media installations. Some incorporate light, sound, and motion into their works. Printmakers create printed images

from designs cut or etched into wood, stone, or metal. After creating the

design, the artist inks the surface of the woodblock, stone, or plate and

uses a printing press to roll the image onto paper or fabric. Some make prints by pressing the inked surface onto paper by hand or by graphically encoding and processing data, using a computer. The digitized images

are then printed on paper with the use of a computer printer. Painting restorers preserve and restore damaged and faded paintings. They apply

solvents and cleaning agents to clean the surfaces of the paintings, they reconstruct or retouch damaged areas, and they apply preser vatives to

protect the paintings. Restoration is highly detailed work and usually is reserved for experts in the field.”

44. A further broadened listing of artistic functions and forms would include the following: Art gives people a voice, a way to express something

with words or through symbolic explication. Art allows individuals to con­ vey the intimacy of personal experience or to speak on behalf of groups,

populations, or cultures. Art often offers new or unusual perspectives. Art

asks questions and challenges traditional assumptions and beliefs. Corpora­ tions increasingly include artists in product development teams and seek

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