Before the postmodern era, there was a high appreciation of works of art as valuable without monetary value being attached to them. From Beethoven to Mozart, art was a way to transcend humanity and reach a higher state. Art was scarce since only people who were in high society could afford to go to operas and commission paintings. Therefore, the scarcity of art was the major factor that led to its appreciation. During the modern and postmodern era, art became common in society as technology improved. The development of radio devices allowed people to access art easily. The television and motion picture production allowed people to view movies while the printing press improved access to books, which exposed many people to literature. Also, more people became literate, thereby they would appreciate works of art like never before in history. The loss of the intrinsic value of work of art began after the Second World War when the capitalist west won the war. The world became highly materialistic. Also, society became increasingly knowledgeable or enlightened. Since then, capitalism has reduced art to mere commodities that seek to appeal to the prevailing consumer sensibilities. In a sense, art has been devalued by the mass consumerism. The idea that today’s society is enlightened continues to persist owing to the technology that proves human ingenuity through reason and science. However, society has forgotten that art is part of reason and cannot be separated from it. Horkheimer and Adorno (2002) argue against the mass consumption of culture and the blurring of the distinction between culture and art. They argue that culture has pervaded every aspect of society. Horkheimer and Adorno (2002) view society as a monopoly of culture in which cultural artifacts such as radio and movies are only dim reflections of culture. Their argument appears anti-capitalistic since he refers to the pre-capitalism age as one in which art meant art. Consequently, the essay argues that Horkheimer and Adorno’s (2002) devaluation of modern mass culture as a commodity is based on an aversion to postmodernism and the accompanying capitalism.
The authors’ history is particularly revealing since he was born in Germany and lived there during a period when Nazi Germany had monopolized and taken over culture and art. He witnessed the state monopolization of culture on a large scale. Nazi Germany was characterized by the burning of undesired books and undesired movies, which is similar to the current state of cultural consumption since the capitalist monopoly has made culture a commodity (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002: 42). Horkheimer and Adorno (2002) do not accept that art can emerge from such a capitalist environment because from their perspective, art should be a beacon of truth similar to philosophy. Based on background research on the researchers, they do not believe that philosophy and art can be separated because they are both different sides of the same coin when it comes to seeking what is true (Tailor and Winquist 2002:3). Additional evidence to the historical influences on Horkheimer and Adorno’s (2002) negative view of culture after the pre-capitalism world comes from his oversimplification of the production of cultural artifacts.
The modern cultural landscape is highly complicated. While in the pre-capitalism age people only had access to fewer avenues for the development of art because of limited technology, few art forms existed. In the capitalism era, there is a possibility to develop multiple art forms using technology. Consequently, there are multiple genres and types of art meant for consumption by different people based on their particular inclinations. In other words, there is significantly more choice for people. Horkheimer and Adorno (2002) suggest that the production of art has been controlled through central institutions that determine the talent that people will witness and the types of mass media they will consume. According to Horkheimer and Adorno (2002), centralized production of mass media creates a manipulative system that can only get stronger with time. The technology used for the development of mass media is the tool that dominant entities use to acquire their power over the masses. Also, the dominant entities have the economic means to monopolize the technology used for mass media, suggesting that the devaluation of culture is economic in nature (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002:39-40). Horkheimer and Adorno’s (2002) simplistic view of mass media production ignores the fact that there are different people who incline towards different art forms produced either by the dominant mass media corporations or by the independent agencies. While Horkheimer and Adorno (2002) acknowledge that there is choice for consumers when they state that there are differentiations in content such as A and B films; they argue that the differentiations are just for capitalist ends and that the mass media labels, organizes, and classifies people into consumer segments to effectively market culture to them (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002:40). However, the researchers ignore the fact that since human experience is similar, the stories, songs, and other mass media will appear to be repeated by the controlling economic forces of the cultural monopoly. As Steven King once said, there are only five stories and the others are just renditions of them using different casts and settings. Consequently, Horkheimer and Adorno’s (2002) argument breaks down. There is no sufficient justification that the culture filters claimed by the authors lead to monopolies of culture. The modern world contains various examples of the co-creation of cultural artifacts between people and companies.
Outdoor Voices is a company that sells athletic wear to communities of women and men who are into living a healthy and athletic life. The company ensures that it engages its consumers in the marketing and the co-creation of culture. It uses technology, which Horkheimer and Adorno (2002) have demonized as a tool of control and manipulation, to encourage user participation. Tolentino (2019:3) points out that if a consumer sends “user-generated content, they might invite that person to become one of OV’s hundred and fifty or so ambassadors.” Allowing consumers to send user-generated content creates cooperation between the company and the individual. Outside Voices does not only sell product but cultural products. It is important to emphasize that the company developed out of a need in the market. The capitalist system is dependent on the need people have and does not impose products or services on people. While marketing plays a role in people’s inclination towards particular products, there are checks and balances to ensure that greed does not get out of hand. Overall, Horkheimer and Adorno (2002) do not offer sufficient justification for their argument against capitalism as lacking in art.
The analysis has demonstrated that an aversion to modernism and postmodernism coupled with negative historical experiences are behind the argument that the culture industry has made art worthless. On the contrary, it has diversified its forms using technology and allowed the consumer to participate as a co-creator of cultural artifacts.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodore W. Adorno. 2002. Dialectic of enlightenment. Stanford:
Stanford University Press.
Taylor, Victor and Charles Winquist. 2002. Encyclopedia of postmodernism. New York:
Tolentino, Jia. 2019. “Outdoor Voices Blurs the Lines Between Working Out and Everything
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