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Tag Archives: pop culture

Class & Culture

I’ll say it again – I thought that debate was over high culture and popular culture was over. I don’t know why I thought this, maybe it was the way that I was educated steeped in English liberal philosophy that I thought that education and culture to have replaced class. It was Matthew Arnold’s idea that culture can replace class and Arnold was the philosopher who described the various English classes as barbarians (upper), philistines (middle) and populus. Now consider Jean Michael Basquiat’s mother taking him to the public museums and art galleries in New York when he was a child.

Bang bang shooting down the high art cannon has become such a sport of class warfare. To avoid the issue people have been using phrases like ‘highbrow’ or ‘serious culture’? Really? Serious stuff? ‘Serious culture’ as a description is obviously absurd; seriously, are you going to call Dada, Duchamp and Warhol serious? What about R U Sirius? Is he serious? The swap between ‘high’ and ‘serious culture’ is just repackaging ‘creationism’ as ‘intelligent design’.

Consider Juxtapoz – Art & Culture Magazine edited by self-described “lowbrow” artist Robert Williams. The articles range a wide cultural field from skateboard, graffiti and other “lowbrow” art, to Australian aboriginal art, Balinese art, Egon Schiele, and the in between, like John Waters, David Lynch and Pixar animation.

But I’m just raving now, off in a mad tangent.

The first thing to get straight in this discussion is that class is not a culture. There is no ‘working class culture’ as a cultural is the set of all the activities involving the participation of all the people. Currently and historically artists (the cultural producers) often belong to a different class to their patron (the cultural consumers).

Instead of thinking about ways to divide a culture along class lines consider the influence of class on culture. For reasons of court protocol royalty needs art be defined so that the performances are repeatable. Consider the refined and defined actions of the royal drummers of Burundi or classical ballet that developed in the French royal court. Religious courts will also similarly want to define their culture for ritual repetition. Rural folk, although just as inherently conservative as royals, do not require the same degree of repeatability. There is consequently less of a need for the developing the codification necessary for repeatable performances.

Nor should we ignore the street subcultures, the cultural influence from what Marx called “the lumpen proletariat”. Marx despised the lumpen proletariat as parasites but consider how many bohemian and avant-garde artists would fall into that class.

What is called “popular culture” is distinctly different from what is known as “folk culture”. Popular culture is more ephemeral than folk culture because changes in fashion make money.  Popular culture is a recent development and at its most popular classless; it transcends class for it is after all it is after a commercial venture. And old popular culture can end up in the literary, musical or artistic cannon of today; Shakespeare, Mozart and John Everett Millet were all popular artists marketing their art to a mass audience.

But back to the topic at hand – why I thought this high art and pop art thing is so last century? Do I have to remind the reader of breakdown of class and racial divides are a major part of the history of the last two centuries. And that this was increasing expressed in avant-garde art in the 19th and 20th centuries with the breakdown between high art and popular art materials, techniques and themes. And that by the late 20th Century the previously excluded or marginalized ‘others’ were increasingly being recognized in participating in the creation of avant-garde art. And we are back to Jean Michael Basquiat.

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D.I.Y. culture

In trying to explain street art it is not enough simply to provide a history of graffiti. Graffiti and ‘street art’ are part of contemporary D.I.Y. (do it yourself) culture that includes zines, music bands, fashion, raves and art parties. A D.I.Y. culture is a culture that is not inherited by tradition, it is not imported and is not purchased off the shelf. It is a culture requires some assembly (often cut and paste culture) or modification and interactive participation. It is hardly really a culture, but a proto-culture, a mutant culture, a dynamic evolving culture.

D.I.Y. culture is in direct competition with traditional culture, with mass produced consumer culture. It is engaged in a political-cultural battle with the powers that support traditional culture. For this reason it is frequently demonized, criminalized and otherwise suppressed because of the threat that it represents to traditional culture.

In the past great art followed the great empires; art followed the money and served as a symbol of power. It was the Dadaists who made a break from creating culture to serve homicidal empires and creating a D.I.Y. culture complete with zines, collages, fashion and haircuts. The Nazi’s and World War II cut short Europe’s early D.I.Y. culture; Hitler’s identification of the Dadaists as a danger to German culture is the first of many concerted attempts to eliminate D.I.Y. culture. The post-war baby boomers rediscovered the Dadaists and D.I.Y. culture flourished again.

D.I.Y. culture is a democratic culture, in that it is from the people and by the people. D.I.Y. culture is not, necessarily popular, it may even be an unpopular and minority taste but that doesn’t make it undemocratic. The distinction is that D.I.Y. culture is democratic rather than popularist; it is individual freedom of expression and opportunity rather than the rule of majority to praise or censor.

Democracy may appear difficult to reconcile with art and good taste, as much popular taste is definitively bad. Contemporary fashion is a good example of the democratization without a loss of style or taste. For example, the distinction between the classes in fashion is not as apparent it was a century ago. Society is no longer so concerned with suits and ties.

In most countries that call themselves democratic freedom of speech is effectively silenced by media ownership. The Chinese ‘democracy wall’ is an experiment that has not been repeated until blogging. In this respect some graffiti is a rebellion, an attempt to covertly exercise free speech. Graffiti groups, like Buga-up’s anti-tobacco advertising vandalism in the 1970s were a direct attack against the power of corporate advertising.

D.I.Y. culture should be distinguished from pop culture, in that pop culture is manufactured and popularist. But there are many points of confusion as D.I.Y. culture references pop culture, for example in stencil art, in lyrics and collage material. And D.I.Y. culture may become pop culture, for example, hip-hop or punk.


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