Mass culture refers to standardised, formulaic, mass produced cultural products designed to be entertaining and simplistic so that it will be consumed by a mass audience. Mass culture is produced by companies in order to make a profit and is deliberately designed to be simplistic so that it appeals to the lowest common denominator.
Examples of mass culture include any mass produced cultural product such as The Lone Ranger (from the 1950s) and ‘I’m a Celebrity’ (contemporary society).
Marxist inspired theorists such as Dwight Macdonald (1957) were very pessimistic about the harmful effects of mass culture which included:
- the erosion of high culture
- increasing alienation
- Eroding the social fabric and increasing totalitarianism
The rest of this post summarises Dwight Macdonald’s (1957) theory of mass culture, outlines the problems he saw with mass culture and then evaluates his theory.
A Theory of Mass Culture
The Critique of Mass Culture was most fully developed by Dwight Macdonald in the USA in his 1957 book: The Responsibility of Peoples and Other Essays in Political Criticism (1).
Mass culture, folk art and high culture.
Macdonald distinguished between folk art, high culture and mass culture.
Folk art was created by ordinary people, emerging spontaneously within communities in pre-industrial societies. Folk art was common and produced no great artistic works but was created from below and reflected the needs of communities and so was authentic.
High culture was the work of great individuals which was appreciated mainly by an elite minority who had the capacity to appreciate such works. High culture included the works of classical composers such as Beethoven, artists such as Rembrandt and also the art emerging from more modern movements such as avant-gardism.
Mass culture has neither the authenticity of folk art or the intrinsic value of high culture.
Mass culture is mass produced by technicians working for companies whose primary motive is to make a profit. It is standardised, populist kitsch, created to appeal to lowest common denominator.
Mass culture is unchallenging and uncritical. Its purpose is to pacify through cheap entertainment and allow its creators to carry on making profit and maintain their class rule.
Mass culture has no real value; it has nothing to offer people as they don’t participate in it in any meaningful way – people are encouraged to be mere consumers of culture and their choices in relation to it are limited to either buy or not to buy the cultural products.
Macdonald believed that Mass Culture could be potentially harmful to democracies and saw it as playing a role maintaining totalitarian rule in the USSR and in bringing Hitler to power in Nazi Germany.
The Problem with Mass Culture
Macdonald was highly pessimistic about the potential harmful effects of mass culture.
Mass culture erodes high culture
Mass culture may have been created by the technocratic elite, but Macdonald believed that it was so pervasive and overwhelming that it would eventually drive out high culture through its sheer brutal quantity.
He believed that high culture could become vulgarised by mass culture. For example the high culture of the theatre was being undermined by the popular culture of the cinema.
Macdonald noted that some plays were already being put on in order to sell movie rights and attract more people to cinemas, and if ‘high culture’ plays were too complex to be turned into films, they were in danger of being axed from theatres.
Macdonald believed that it was only a matter of time before the traditionally high culture of theatre had been undermined by the pervasive influence of the cinema – eventually we would be left with one homogenised culture in which the only plays being staged were those simple enough to be understood by the mass-audience of the cinemas.
Thus even though it had been created by elites it could eventually hurt even them by destroying the high culture which they themselves value.
Mass culture creates more alienation
The triumph of mass culture would also lead to more alienation for everyone involved in the creation of cultural products.
As mass culture advanced into the the realms of theatre and arts there would be less of a role for individuals to create independently like many of the ‘masters of high culture’ do and an increase in the number of cultural producers working for the ‘mass culture machine’ – like on a production line.
Mass culture infantilises
Mass culture led to adults becoming more infantile. In America in the 1950s Macdonald noted that there was an increase in the number of adults watching children’s programmes such as The Lone Ranger. He argued that this made adults more unable to cope with adult life: mass culture had an infantilising effect.
At the same time children also had easier access to more adult products, which led to them growing up too fast.
Mass culture erodes the social fabric
Most seriously of all mass culture was undermining the fabric of society. Mass culture created atomised individuals who passively consumed media products alone, rather than actively engaging in small community groups.
This meant that isolated individuals were more subjected to the messages coming from media products created by political elites – individuals in a mass culture were easier to manipulate.
Resistance to Mass Culture?
While Dwight Macdonald was very pessimistic about the potential for mass culture to become the ‘dominant form of culture’ he did recognise that small groups of people might still be able to keep the flame of high culture alight, so possibly there may be a way out of Mass Culture in the future.
Evaluation of Macdonald’s Mass Culture Theory
To be fair to Macdonald we have to recognise that his fears about the potentially harmful effects of mass culture were justified in the light of what appeard to be the oppressive effects of cultural propaganda in Nazi Germany and the Totalitarian USSR.
However with hindsight it is obvious that the rise of mass culture has not had anywhere near the amount of negative impact predicted. For example, we now have a thriving mass culture industry in the USA and Europe but we also have a thriving elite culture and many subcultures.
And subcultures may eventually get co-opted by mainstream mass culture industries but more emerge quickly, suggesting that there are a lot of people who are not pacified by mass culture.
Also it is obviously the case that many people can selectively engage with aspects of mass culture and also be critical of that culture, and of society and politics more generally – so even those who engage with it aren’t necessarily pacified by mass culture.
Postmodernists might further criticise Macdonald for judging mass culture as being inferior to folk art and high culture. Just because many people like something doesn’t mean it is worse than those other cultural products.
Signposting and relevance to A-level Sociology
This material has primarily been written for students studying the Culture and Identity option as part of the A-level sociology course, but the material above should also be relevant to media studies students.
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References and sources to find out more
(1) Dwight Macdonald (1957) The Responsibility of Peoples, And Other Essays in Political Criticism
Lone Ranger Image from WikiPedia.