Thursday, March 29, 2018

L3 Notes on the classroom test, part two.

Notes on your classroom test, part two.

As I explained, the classroom test does not count for very much in your general semester mark, but it is very important in that my notes will allow you better to understand how to answer this kind of question, and how to deal some of the complex issues thrown up in the study of popular culture.

“The power of products of popular culture is that they give the people what they want.”
Discuss this quotation, examining what different thinkers have said concerning the demand for popular culture, and looking in particular at how visual artists have found a wide audience for their work.

« Discuss this quotation ». This means you must say how far it appears to be true or false, but also what other similar questions are relevant concerning popular culture.

There are many ways to answer the question, while showing the knowledge you have acquired about British culture specifically. Here are some initial notes, which I will add to as I mark your work.

1)   You should note that this is a controversial quotation and you should be able to show that some might tend to agree and some to disagree.
2)   Some of the terms need dismantling. a) who are « the people » (note the importance of the definite article: « le peuple » not « les gens »). Is there a homogeneous « people » in modern society, or are we divided into « generations » or social classes or « affective alliances »? b) Is it possible to know « what the people want »? This is not a simple idea. Why do people want what they want? Etc.
3)   Which thinkers can you write about in connection with the quotation? Adorno is obviously one. Several students summarized quite accurately the introduction to Adorno’s ideas which I presented in class, but the exercise is not to write a summary. His ideas must be compared with the quotation. Adorno was generally opposed to products of popular culture. Far from believing that people (or the people) were being given what they wanted, he maintained that people were being told what they should want, were being almost obliged to want what the market wanted to sell to them. What is more, he believed that people were being given experiences which were bad for them, which made them into children again and stopped them from becoming fully human.
4)   Several other thinkers could be mentioned, but one obvious one is Hebdige and his work on the meaning of style. He looked at what was provided for young people by rock and roll, punk or reggae subcultures. He does not exactly say that they give people what they want, but that they are useful in people’s lives, because they help to structure (sometimes imaginary) resistance to official capitalist, elitist views of the world. Jyst to tale one example, the lover of reggae, living in a world where white bourgeois or nationalistic thought is taught and valued can with others create a small community where black language and music, peace loving ideas and back to Africa dreams can be put at the centre of life.
You might also want to mention Grossberg, and his idea that people use popular culture to build affective alliances, imagined communities which allow them to deal with the world. This approach again emphasizes mass participation in popular culture, and does not present popular culture as simply something produced for passive consumers by a market hoping to make a profit.

For the second part on visual art we are still looking at the same question: are people receiving « what they want », but there is an added complication : visual art is not necessarily popular culture. Artists are often trained at elite institutions, for example. This is not always the case: one might term street art as popular culture: anyone can do it, and people can become well known without the intervention of established museums and galleries (often with a little help from the internet), in the way that pop stars might. Banksy is the obvious example, producing accessible, thought provoking work available to everyone, even those who do not feel art galleries are for them. Other artists such as L. S. Lowry have become tremendously popular ( he even has a pop song about him). Photographers such as Martin Parr also seem to be trying to make their work accessible, and land artists such as Goldsworthy take their work out of the galleries and out of the towns. [each time you mention, an artist, it is good to give one example of their work, which I am not doing here]. Public sculpture projects such as the fourth plinth are also placed in contexts which make them open to everyone.
On the other hand, a lot of visual art remains reserved to the initiated. Recent winners of the prestigious Turner prize cannot be said to be producing art for everyone.
The question of publicly funded art galleries is linked to the idea of giving people what they want. The fact that galleries are free in the UK, are no longer concentrated only in London, and receive millions of visitors, are vectors of popularity, yet the dynamic is mostly top-down, and the galleries do not correspond to most criteria of popular culture.

Because popular culture is ever changing and extremely heterogeneous, it is very difficult to make strong affirmative statements about it. This means you need to know how to hedge, and this more difficult in a foreign language.
For example, it is better not to say “popular culture is just to entertain people and have fun”. You should say one of the following:

Many commentators feel that popular culture is only concerned with entertainment and fun.
Popular culture may be seen as mainly a question of entertainment and fun.
And then you can give some counter example which adds nuance. For example, if pop music is very much concerned with fun, it seems clear that it can sometimes be aiming at making people think, expressing political demands or denouncing injustice. (See this link for a talk in French on British anti racist songs).

No comments: