Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Romanticism and popular culture

The German Philosopher Theodor Adorno open his book Aesthetic Theory with the provocative observation: “It goes without saying that nothing about art goes without saying anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.” Although made over forty years ago this clever remark expresses the modern confusion about art that continues to prevail long after Adorno’s demise. I believe that the roots of this confusion extend back to a fundamental change in the function and status of the arts in age of Romanticism, a change to which our psyche has never properly adjusted. The Romantic age was the end of traditional art which functioned largely as process of craft and ushered in the age of art as an individual endeavour. Cut loose from the explicitly religious and public aspects of its functioning, and being slowly separated from the exclusivity of aristocratic sponsorship, art became, I believe, something distinctly different from what it had been. For the Romantics and those who came after them, art was a more personal expression and an investigation into the inner life of the self. Being a process of self-exploration, art immediately began to suffer from a crisis of identity at a social level and artists have, since that time struggled to produce work that serves the individual function of exploration while, at the same time, speaking to an audience in a meaningful way. Thus the more personal and esoteric an artist’s aesthetic investigations are, the more alienated they are from their potential social function, while, on the other hand, the popular culture industry has taken over the functions once fulfilled by many artistic endeavours prior to the Romantic age. Just as no one in the Renaissance would question the legitimacy of, say, the production of Michelangelo, no one today questions whether Steven Spielberg has a meaningful role to play in society. On the other hand, artists who often devote a lifetime to intimate and intricate exploration of the individual and her place in society and history lacks social legitimacy unless she manages to capture a mass audience or is defended by an increasingly smaller group of critics and intellectuals who speak for the importance of the work.

Thus art now lives in a continual state of limbo. Art as an in-depth investigation of the individual’s inner life and of how the individual interacts with society will perhaps always exist in a dubious state. On the other hand, popular culture not only satisfies many people’s needs for entertainment, it also sooths people, diverts their attentions, and, perhaps most importantly, often serves to legitimize prevailing ideology, in a similar, if magnified, way that church sanctioned art in the Renaissance did. Adorno suggested that popular culture functioned to create a process of pseudo-individualization, which I take to mean a false sense of unique individual experience but in fact functions, in large part, as a kind of mass hypnosis. This is not to put forward an elitist theory that claims that there is nothing of interest in popular culture or that no popular work of art can speak to the intimate demands of the human experience. However, there is a clear, if sometime apparently arbitrary, delineation between art that lives in the shadow of the great Romantics and art that serves a more popular and social function.

The problem is that I believe that appreciation of Romantic art and the work that follows its basic motivations, requires a relatively high degree of sensitivity, a fairly solid sense of individual identity, and often times a high degree of [self]education in the humanities. There are great discoveries to be made in the realm of art as a psychic exploration but in an age of pseudo-individualization these discoveries will continue to lay mostly fallow in the soil of the human sole.

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