PRINT May 1975


Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste

Herbert Gans, Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste (New York, Basic Books, 1975), 179 pages.

SOCIAL SCIENTISTS, SINCE THEY CAN’T handle all the variables of the real world, often employ all-encompassing theories of the world. To test out their theories they send out intelligence agents with their sampling techniques and questionnaires which contain the answers in the questions, and readjust their theories . . . minimally. On the one hand, cultural sociologists question the artist to find out how he or she does it; on the other hand they question the consumers of art/culture to find out what their tastes and satisfactions are. But since the social scientists depend on funding mechanisms, it is ultimately the provider of funds who sets the tone of the inquiry, poses the problems . . . and most sociologists work for industry, advertising, intelligence agencies, the Department of Defense, and so forth. We have two streams of social theory, the one represented by Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, and Freud, the other the product of corporate heads. Both their visions have fused into one outlook. But, if, like novelists, their view of the world is fictional, it is a fiction they can impose on the world through social engineering. In short, social science is itself a culture-altering subculture.

All of which is a long way of getting to Herbert Gans’s Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste, a book interesting for what it doesn’t say, will not say, for the sake of its coded distortions. Criticism, analysis, reconstruction, the fitting of phenomena into categories through reinterpretation, alter the meaning of culturefacts. This book is a recommendation for media reorganization which parallels larger conditions of breakdown/crisis and reconstruction. It suggests a cultural structuring on lines similar to the economic and political breakdown/crisis conceived by the transnational corporation. What should have followed in the book’s subtitle is . . . Policy Recommendations. To whom? The general public? Surely the passive recipients of popular culture are unlikely to read it because their education has not made them privy to its code.

Ordinarily my inclination would have been to throw the book aside after rst five pages of dense, nonemotive language, but the issues raised in the book were recapitulated in a debate in the entertainment section (it should have been under economics) of the Sunday Times which pitted Ernst Van Den Haag (who served behind one of those symbolic masks standing for a complex of things: Western Civilization, Elite Culture, Standards, Conservatism) against Gans who stood for a democratic, pluralist “let-one-hundred-flowers-bloom” position. Van Den Haag, of course, is an easy target. He sounds like an old fogey, associated with the Right, an intellectual Cold War warrior, bemoaning the decline of Western Civilization overwhelmed by the Mass Man. Shades of the 1950s, Ortega y Gasset, de Tocqueville and the communist menace. As if the mass man or woman is self-activated. The debate between these two polarized ideologies is a false debate between two false terms. Is this mere intellectual weariness or is something more insidious intended? Given the condition of the present times which I believe to be a period of world transformation, political, economic and cultural,both the book and the attention given to it require serious consideration. New wodd-connecting communications technology attempts to change culture for those in its networks. From this book, I believe, emerges a kind of cultural “party” line for the new renaissance.

Nowhere does Gans really try to come to grips with what culture is. His referent points are unclear. Culture seems to mean for him entertainment, play, some variant of esthetic expression and consumption. That Culture might be some species of gravitational or electromagnetic field that surrounds all activity and is not reducible to basic logic or rational action, and that the field itself not only emanates from, but distorts such activity, might be too broad for Gans. In the most primitive survival atmospheres, even food gathering is attended by what can be considered nonefficient and nonlogical action. Even the way in which crooks rob and people fuck is not reducible to the barest of actions but is distorted by style, ritual, and, in the greater world, institutionalization of some sort. That should make intellectuals, as producers of culture, feel absolutely necessary.

What does Gans have to say? He begins by announcing he is a defender of much maligned popular culture, that “popular culture reflects and expresses the aesthetic and other wants of many people (thus making it culture and not commercial menace).” Wrong! And “all people have a right to the culture they prefer. . . .” The operative and emphasized words here are “wants” and “prefer” as if wants and preferences are autonomous, expressing individual psyches floating in an ideal ether. “Popular culture is not studied much these days . . .” Gans says. If this is true it is only because it was much studied first in the ’20s, ’30s, thereafter in the ’40s (as a part of psychological warfare and by the Office of War Information), and the ’50s by advertising, industrial social scientists whose findings were then used constantly to break down and reshape not only the various domestic cultural and semiautonomous enclaves, but also foreign enclaves.

After all, if people had to he trained to be religious, or change religions, they must be trained to consume religiously, to have feelings toward consumption culturefacts; it doesn’t come naturally. Certainly even casual readings in Elder’s The Information Machine (a study of the USIA), Schiller’s The American Communications Empire, and Stuart Ewen’s Captains of Consciousness, will dispel thoughts of cultural preference and autonomy. Readings in Advertising Age and various journals of psychology show Gans to be stupid, or wrong, or devious. In claiming, as the jacket copy does, “that popular culture is in no way a pathological byproduct of American capitalism and democracy” (al. though these two should not be linked) Gans has misled us. His whole position of cultural pluralism rests on the notion of the autonomy of personal taste. If this is wrong, the debate collapses and Gans is seen to be doing something other than opting for democracy of taste and taste cultures.

Of the billions of dollars spent on the manipulation of taste, of propaganda, both by business and by various government agencies, of the billions spent on industrial and social psychologists, of the billions spent on developing theories of, and practical programs for cultural warfare aimed at target populations abroad and athome, nothing is said. And, of the dependence for the success of such programs on the vast and historic accumulation of symbols and icons out of the past, nothing is said. The cultural manipulator’s vision of the target audience is that its psychology falls under the Lockian (tabula rasa, association of ideas and emotions), Pavlovian, Skinnerian rubric. And it would appear that they are right . . . depending on the degree and intensity of outside “persuasions,” self-awareness, and the class condition (determined by position and access to education) of the audience’s internal collected—not collective—unconscious.

Not only should a pluralism of taste cultures exist side by side, according to Gans, but even commercially unviable taste minorities should be funded and allowed to exist. As for where that funding will come from, there is no serious analysis at all; merely a dying fall. Gans ends in a welter of indecision as to how the economics of the hundred flowers will be made to fertilize cultural pluralism.

He continues with a distorted summary critique of high culture’s ’50s attack against mass culture, but giving only the crudest account of the high culture positions, lumping all high cultures together. Some of the fears of the high culturists that the effect of a mass culture is manipulative and mind-damaging and has a political, totalitarian-tending aspect of its own, Gans dismisses, implying that there is something totalitarian in that position, and if not totalitarian, then snobbish, elite, petulant. It’s interesting that Gans spends so much time demolishing the high culture position, but nowhere begins to give equal weight to the theoreticians of mass culture against the high culturists. Certainly the popular culture/conservative world has assailed the nihilistic, amoral, irreverent, indulgent, nonstructured, lascivious, mocking nonrepresentational forms of art as damaging to the social structures that shore up democracy, freedom, America, the family, and so forth, all of which was seen as part of a vast liberal-communist conspiracy to undermine America through an attack on its cultural values. In this, the proponents of popular culture shared a theory of culture with the Stalinists, or Plato. The undisciplined artist or writer, in short, represents a threat to social order.

On revolutionary positions about culture, Marxist and otherwise, there is little. Perhaps they are contained under the rubric of high culture and thus suspect. He cites only their crudest attacks on mass and elite culture. Additionally he completely distorts Marcuse’s position, which he distills into the simple formula that anything that leads to a Marxist socialist revolution is good and any culture that supports a counterrevolutionary world is bad. Of the enormous variety of Marxist debates on culture, nothing is given. As for the counter culture it is compressed simplistically into the voices of Chades Reich and Theodore Roszak.

True, Gans makes an attempt to elaborate on his fundamental dichotomy, perhaps to show that he’s really more sophisticated than this manicheanism allows for; that he’s really a sociologist able to spin off categories, subdividing high into upper middle and high cultures, popular into lower middle and low. This is complicated by the notion of “taste publics.” There are five major taste publics as well as others which are not exactly in the mainstream of things. Gans considers how these cultural categories interpenetrate, how they borrow from one another, and how their taste contents change from time to time. High culture is barely differentiated at all, except to appear gloomy and difficult to concentrate on. Gans’s choice of language, if not the depth of his analysis, is designed to protect the appearance of objectivity, as he debates a particular social stratum familiar with jargonized terminology. If his language is available to too many, after all, he will he accused of Vance Packardism.

The notion that any dominant political-economic entity quite consciously works to shape the atmosphere in which it can thrive and triumph eludes Gans. Most cultural theoreticians attempt to define taste and culture in an a-historical vacuum, isolating eternal formal and contentual properties which endure through the ages and can be applied as a comparative standard to any culture, and to which all critics, if not the artists and writers themselves, can refer. Others begin by taking for granted the great cultural artifacts, embed them in anthologies, museums, histories of art and literature, histories of ideas, and arrange them in a sort of evolutional, developmental scheme. That high as well as low art may have not only shared esthetic properties but propaganda, that esthetics, play, style, fashion, and monetary considerations must be considered as a totality in the production of culture, is not considered too carefully by Gans.

For once I would like to see a real sociology of culture-art that deals with the creator’s reality, which integrates not only esthetics, but ambition, frustration, accident, humiliation, artistic attempts to retain purity in the face of market domination, cynicism melded with the art theories of dealers setting trends, mystification of the banal, whoring for rich backers, posturing, wheeling, dealing, competition, advancement through sex, all linked to constantly constricting options, depending on the historical period. Was it not Flaubert who said that every stupified businessman was a poet in his youth? And what was every housewife in her youth? What I want is a probing report, a compilation of individual, highly personalized but similar experiences, a similarity imposed by a purgatorial market for weeding out failures, failures which may have nothing to do with talent but only with a low degree of rapaciousness.

I prefer to begin by isolating on a particular slice of time, look at the generation of a particular subculture, and from that extrapolate the reality of art and culture production and consumption. Perhaps the most stunning insight into the relationship of a culture, high culture, to any ongoing political situation emerged in 1967 when we learned that the CIA found it useful, if not necessary, to fund high cultural organizations during the Cold War . . . a time which includes the high/mass culture debates which so intrigue Gans. Gans says nothing at all of this funding. The idea that high culture is also some useful form of propaganda must be considered in the context of the great anti-Russian crusade of the time. It is a crusade whose thrust is different these days when the control ambiances of the USA/USSR begin more and more to coincide, when the high culture of the USSR is resistance culture, when the high culture of the USA supports norms acceptable to the state, or is frozen into what are already the“classics.”

Of those days, one expected that money would flow into the maintenance of a proper supportive atmosphere on the mass level, and indeed it did. But we had it drummed into our heads that the high culture artist was first and foremost a rebel, a romantic, a loner, far above the considerations of the mundane and political. It is amusing to think that that message was promulgated by many taking CIA money. It is useful to remember that it was a time when intellectuals, who had been anathema in America, were courted in foundation supported conferences as they met, time and again, to remake the world, to create, as it were, postindustrial society: artists, social scientists, physicists, biologists, political scientists, physiologists, cyberneticians all sat down to help remake the world. . . . That world would include an elite space for themselves, a space of infinite freedom and infinite energy, and a manipulated space for the others, a space of shrinking freedom (which Gans per ceives as autonomous). It would be quite easy to list the conferences of these intellectuals, their topics, their places of meeting, their Cold War sponsors.

From that time on, from 1967, it became impossible for me to regard culture as something neutral, autonomous, authentic, above the considerations of humans, or rather, shared by all humans by the virtue of the fact that they were human and had the same physiology and the same psychology. That is simply not true. I began to look into the past to attempt to determine whether or not this was only a development of the Cold War or whether this could be extrapolated for all ages. Well, we know that Rubens was a businessman, a politician, an ambassador and political agent: did this affect his art? We know. that Marlowe worked for Queen Elizabeth’s secret service: were his plays a series of coded political messages? Byron, certainly during the Greek Revolution of 1821 was a British agent: did his poetry reflect this? T.S. Eliot, whose world triumph was assured by getting on the reading lists of all the colleges, whose very lines filtered down into the daily usage of newspapers, did propaganda work for the Anglican Church and stated some of the positions of the Cold War intellectuals. What, then, was his poetry and criticism? Which artists knew their political function and disguised it, worked it into their art? Which “neutral” artists were subtly politicized, or depoliticized by the critics? Who tied their fortunes to an expansive, world-conquering, world-civilizing entity, the Free West?

And these considerations raise the question of cultural warfare in which entities war overtly and covertly against one another, using culture to weaken the cultural support systems of enemy enclaves. Psychological and cultural warfare aims indirectly to disrupt the symbol systems of living cultures and to infect them with conqueror’s values. This is to attack the other’s collected unconscious as well as that unconscious residing in the individual: to disrupt the patterned way of doing things. In America, standardized education was introduced to create a homogenized “melting pot” effect which worked to weaken and destroy all local customs, customs which might be resistant to the penetration of capital and the culture of capitalism. Now, more and more, the producers of TV serials, situation comedies, industrial theater, high and popular culture, rock and country music, and so forth, have had the same general education but take on a different series of masks. And what did it mean? What was the effect oftaking tribal leaders from all over the world and sending them to be educated in the elite universities of Europe and America? (Michael Klare in War Without End gives an account of this kind of warfare.)

The great debate of the ’50s, between high and popular culture, evoked by Gans, seen in this light, indicates new complexities and also reveals that to bifurcate culture into high and popular is misleading. Does Gans want to mislead us? If that was a debate for a time of expansion and covert warfare on multiple levels, a time of “renaissance” and transformation, is Gans telling some part of his readership that ours is also such a time?

Now let’s pose this problem: if the high culturists were being supported by factions of the governing state bodies and if the proponents and producers of popular culture were also being hired and supported by business and government, was that fight, that Kulturkampf, mere illusionist theater? Illusionist for whom? And if that fight is now resumed again, or if we still hear its echo, what is its meaning? And what’s the meaning of Gans’s book, seen in this light? What world did the high culturists want to bring into being and what world were the popular culturists bringing into existence?

The Soviet Union espoused a centrally controlled, completely manipulated popular culture. The American Communist Party espoused popular and folk cultures, but not a bourgeois disseminated popular culture. This segment of the Left attacked the high culture enclaves of the West, accusing them of being decadent and formalistic, expressing the rottenness at the core of bourgeois society. But both socialist realism and bourgeois realism shared one thing; they were essentially sentimental. Thus, the high culturists, in attacking a middle class “mass” culture, were attacking the culture that moved populations to hate high culture. At the same time, the high culturists attacked the socialist Realism of the Left and the populism of the far Right.

But the high culturists (and Gans masks this distinction), can be broken down into various competing and overlapping segments. There were the conservatives who looked backward to the established canon of great art, visual and literary. In this context there was no room for the new creators, the contending group, to thrive and flourish; they had to make new space for their new art and they had to abandon, many of them, their socially conscious art of the past, since Left-dissenting work was stigmatized.

Why, after all, were the avant high culturists allowed not only to survive, but to be funded and found politically useful? In what way is Abstract Expressionism, avant-garde music, the anti realist literature of modernism useful to the cold warriors of the CIA, the USIA? The liberals-social-democrats-experimentalists were celebrators of a fractured and nonstructured universe, nonobjective, seemingly highly individualistic, appearing to play infinite games of arrangement with pure space, pure form, detached objects, nonobjects, pure language, symbols, characters detached from geography, attaching the emotions of other cultures to their works, not bound by the requirements of time and history, celebrating a too dreadful, almost amoral freedom in the existential hero, ignoring the fact that the abundant and sucked-out energies of a real world supported their free floatingness in infinite gamesplay, never realizing that they were the experimenters in isolation, fragmentation, fulfilling a sphere of social development of capitalism which would, in time, no longer have need for their services when they became retrograde and conservative. They shaped a universal world, a monoculture appropriate for the coming age. Infusions of money and energy for these games not only liberated them artistically but bound them economically to the class that supported them, for they were not competitive in the marketplace. 95 flowers were allowed to bloom (but no leftist flowers). Many of these had been Marxists or fellow travelers in the ’30s, committed to social justice if not outright revolution. Their illusions about the new world in the Soviet Union had been shattered. They denounced their past, as Lionel Trilling did in The Middle of the Journey, and tied their fortunes to, sold their art to, that class, that elite which would support them in a world in which every mass grouping seemed to be turned against them.

This segment of high culturists perhaps abhorred the hand that fed it, but took the bribes anyway, fought the mass culturists, tried, in some cases successfully, to introject the attitudes of lonely existential romanticism into the general culture and to some extent succeeded. The attitudes of romantic, semicri mi nal, rebellious, joking libertarianism was one of the strains, and a major strain at that, of the revolutionary explosion of the ’60s . . . much to the horror of its fathers who had now safely made it into the realms of immortality on the reading lists and in the art slides of the university (for perhaps immortality is, after all, a department in a school).

We read Gans, then, in the context of our times when a conservatizing trend aims at stabilizing the status quo. Experiment becomes harder. Funding dries up. There is a turn to the “classics.” High culture becomes more and more associated with the new communications technology. There is a clearer understanding of the relationship of culture to politics in the broadest sense, and economics in the most cosmic sense. But, due to economic hard times and cultural restructuring, the refuges of experimentation, the foundation grant and the university, are being wiped out.

The producer of high culture becomes more and more, after a few hundred years, the court artist of the corporations. That at least is the practical consequence of Gans’s recommendations. The populations that are formed by the mass media are trained to be against the proponents of high culture in all of their forms. Play and irreverence seem to have no place in a world that has been pushed to the brink of starvation, but rebelliousness definitely does. Clearly then, are we to accept Gans’s policy recommendations (which are obviously not made in a vacuum) and retire to the old age homes for tamed jesters? And are we not, after all, to recognize that between those who rule and expropriate and turn into commodities everything in the world, and those who create, there is no common ground? After all, really critical intellectuals have always been those in the forefront of change and revolution.

More and more, the critical mind functions in relationship to the American mass society as Russian intellectuals do to the passive Russian population.

One must beware, after all, of capitalists bearing gifts of funding; they conceal castrating knives and are happiest in a world of drones and eunuchs.