By Jeannine Gliddon Owens
‘High culture’ is created and decided upon by those in society’s upper class. It reflects a privileged worldview that typically isn’t shared by those in the working class or in non-dominant communities. ‘Popular culture’ is thought to be more reflective of ordinary people within the masses, but not accepted as valid by those in the upper class. But who creates popular culture? Does it reflect ordinary people? And, who benefits from its production? What is its purpose?
After the industrial revolution, when the modern US ‘culture industry’ — movies, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, etc. — was in its infancy, it moved from one of individual artistic expression, to a mechanized, mass-produced one. Financed by industrial giants, the goals were for mass appeal to feed the capitalistic system, maximize profit, and promote a White, Christian, male ideology. At a time when McCarthyism ran rampant, labor unions strong, and WWII beginning, shaping US ideology was of paramount concern. In this era, ‘the individual is an illusion not merely because of the standardization of the means of production. He is tolerated only so long as his complete identification with the generality is unquestioned’ (Adorno and Horkheimer,
Culture Industry). As a result, society lost individual expression and gained a form of cultural hegemony that brainwashed Americans and left much of its rich culture outside the ‘norm.’
Those in power flattened US culture and provided a version of truth that ignored the many and varied experiences of ‘organic intellectuals’ (Gramscii, Prison Notebooks) — everyday people with knowledge and experience worthy of record. This ideology was promoted repeatedly via the cultural industry in the 40s and 50s and wasn’t challenged until the Civil Rights and Vietnam resistance eras of the 60s and 70s. Words and concepts took on new meanings, societal myths were born and broken, and the meaning of culture evolved. New discourses promoted alternative ‘regimes of truth’ which questioned the establishment: ‘Each society has its regime of truth, its “general politics” of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true” (Foucault, Truth and Power). However, cultural production still resided with the powerful, so artifacts capitalized on these new discourses without deviating from the underlying ideology or benefiting the communities they were extracted from.
The advent of the digital technologies changed many systems, none more profound than within cultural production. The pace of information and communication flows exploded in the late 20th century, spreading thoughts and ideas about economic, political, and social life faster than ever before. Social media platforms and smartphone
technologies increased that flow as well, marking a paradigmatic shift in the way people communicate with each other, social structures, and institutions of power. They have now become the modern public square where discourse and cultural production takes place. Capacity for reach is staggering: Up to 84% of Americans consume social media every day and global usage consists of 4.1 billion users. The personal and political intertwine and content is created and dispersed from the bottom up, rather than just the top down. Participatory parity gives ordinary people a means of individual expression where they share authentic experiences, build community, and build power, becoming cultural producers able to change the hegemonic narrative of American culture.
Social media has limited cultural gatekeeping and opened the floodgates of independent expression. Among social media content, the Internet meme is particularly powerful due to several unique characteristics. Often labeled as the art of the powerless, they inform, persuade, and activate social and political change in many ways. Beyond their capacity for reach, memes are successful at eliciting emotional responses because of their visual and conceptual power. Not only does the human brain process images 60,000 times faster than text, it also processes visual information in the same area where emotion and memory functions are located. Meme-makers synthesize and make comment on society, using cultural signals from movies, ads, games, politics, the news, street art, etc. They make complex issues easy to understand while stimulating critical thinking at the same time.
YouTube gives organic producers a long-form mechanism while TikTok and Instagram a very short-form mechanism. While all still operate within established frameworks of power and capitalism, those topics are up for discussion as well, within this more democratic and liberalized discursive sphere. Ripple effects force mainstream producers diversify as well. For instance, without ongoing Black Lives Matter (BLM) discourse, first born and spread on social media because of the Trayvon Martin murder in 2012, Wakanda Forever may not have ever been made, featuring African American actors and producers previously shut out of the process.
Popular culture is important in challenging an exclusive ideology born of the elite. It promotes counter-hegemonic narratives by organic intellectuals exposing alternative regimes of truth. While some is vapid and unintelligible, the same could be said of ‘high’ culture such as work from Jean-Michel Basquiat. It depends on perspective, but a critical analysis is important in examining both.