Unpopular Culture

Warning: may cause reader to think.

We all know, or at least, think that we know what is ‘popular culture’. Popular culture as distinct from high culture; does that the definition of popular culture implies that high culture is unpopular? Is there such a thing as ‘unpopular culture’?  If you took the warning labels seriously you would think that almost all culture is unpopular.

For example, almost all of the arts documentaries shown on the ABC and SBS about the visual arts, music or literature come with warning notices: nudity, drug references, and offensive language. Some of exhibitions that I attend come with warning labels about nudity or just things that might disturb some people.

In February of 2008 officials from the London Underground banned a poster with a 16th image of Venus by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The image was advertising an exhibition at the Royal Academy. Officials had originally said the poster breached their guidelines, which bars ads that “depict men, women or children in a sexual manner, or display nude or semi-nude figures in an overtly sexual context.” The London Underground changed their minds after MPs and other people started calling them idiots.

The Age (March 6, 2008) reports a parent’s complaint, supported by the Shadow education minister Martin Dixon, about a single word in Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. The novel is set reading for Year 7 at Melbourne’s Girl College. If teachers are not responsible enough to determine suitable reading for children then what qualifies other people to make that judgement?

Some of the CDs that I listen to have warning labels about “strong impact coarse language and/or themes”; we have Tipper Gore, Al Gore’s wife, to thank for these. Are these warning labels evidence of ‘unpopular culture’? I have a Fatboy Slim CD with a “warning: this recording contains explicit language”. The people who put the warning label there should have looked up a dictionary to find out what ‘explicit’ means but these self-righteous zombies are too self-righteous to be corrected by a dictionary. I think that they were trying to say was “this recording contains common language”.

These cultural warning labels exist because organizations have guidelines about cultural sensitivity and guidelines about suitability for juveniles. Protection from litigation is sometimes postulated, but this is dubious, as I have never heard of someone suing because they were shocked by a nude, course language or drug references. These guidelines are not based on expert opinion, such as teachers or academics, but are based on prejudices.

I don’t condone censorship in any form, including these euphemistic ‘guideless’. I don’t know of any evidence that these warnings are doing any good. But they do subtle harm, as I have shown in this entry, by prejudicial censoring, by implying danger through ‘warnings’ and by the institutional misuse of language. These institutions do not pander to my cultural sensitivity to censorship, nor to atheists desire not to be exposed their young children to images of Christian sadomasochism; the cultural sensitivities that the institutions do largely pander to are Puritanical wowser politics. The same political-religious forces that supported censorship have their opinions supported by these ‘guidelines’.


About Mark Holsworth

Writer and artist Mark Holsworth is the author of two books, The Picasso Ransom and Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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