Manufactured Culture vs. Shared Culture

by Paul Klemperer

One of my favorite topics is the idea of cultural renaissance, and one of my favorite rants is the problem of cultural hegemony. Now I know I’m basically a bricolage of beatnik/hippie/counter-cultural attitudes and aspirations, but I always try to see things at least two ways at the same time, if not more. So I can see how one man’s renaissance is another man’s hegemony. Yet I cling to the belief that there are underlying objective cultural realities which distinguish the two, no matter how much we dial back our critical judgment with the buffers of freedom of expression, cultural relativism and just plain old couch potato soporific passivity.

Let’s take music as a for instance. What makes a pop song a national hit, a culturally shared moment? What makes a pop singer a national celebrity, a persona that crosses over from concerts, to recordings, to television, to movies, to product endorsements? A friend of mine summed it up succinctly: MONEY.

But is that the final equation? Corporate hegemonic control over mass culture? It often seems so. Who among us has not turned on the radio and cried, “This talentless cretin has certainly sold their eternal soul to Satan”? How many times has a vacuous pop song become a hit, a doltish movie broke box office records or an irritating Johnny One Note become a celebrity personality? And now all of these examples of celebrity commodification can occur simultaneously through the magic of post-industrial capitalism; coordinated mass marketing has been honed to an exact science in the 21st century.

In fact, what with computer animation, there often doesn’t even need to be an actual celebrity to commodify. You can get your Disneytronic character figurine at Burger King; watch its animated antics on the big screen; rent the video; and buy the soundtrack, comic book and video game all in one afternoon! One could argue that such a cultural milieu qualifies as a renaissance. Certainly for each celebrity/commodity there is a team of talented and hardworking artists behind the scenes: songwriters, musicians, photographers, graphic artists, copy writers, choreographers and possibly every other type of craftsman who has ever surfaced since the Neanderthals started banging rocks together around the campfire.

A period of renaissance connotes not just a rebirth of artistic endeavor but also an interconnection among the arts, a gestalt or zeitgeist, so that one can characterize the period through themes shared by the various arts. We take pride in the zeitgeist of previous periods: the American Revolution, the Harlem Renaissance, the Psychedelic 60’s. But as technology has sped up most aspects of our lives, maybe it has sped up periods of renaissance to months and weeks, rather than years. Can a renaissance actually be built around the marketing of a single commodity? Or is that just a bunch of crap? Maybe we’re just talking about fads and trends and cold-bloodedly calculated massive ad campaigns. That is my left-leaning gut instinct. But maybe post-modern culture is not so easily summed up. It is definitely a gray area in which we live, where the difference between renaissance and hegemony is often not clear. Artistic products may be execrable and mass-produced, but they still may reflect the spirit of our time. Personal taste and aesthetic judgment may be our ultimate measuring sticks, but are these objective enough? Please let me know, and keep those cards and letters coming.

[This essay was originally published in Austin Downtown Arts March, 2002]