Living in an Entertainment Culture

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In our book Signs of Life in the USA, Sonia Maasik and I take what may appear to some of your students as a rather daring position: namely, that in recent years the traditional dichotomy between “high culture” and “low culture,” or art and entertainment, has eroded to the point that America is entering an era wherein everything is expected to be entertaining. We have become an “entertainment culture.” In an entertainment culture not only do we find such cultural hybrids as Pop Art and Performance Art, Heavy Metal string quartets and the music of Phillip Glass, but also a deconstruction of the line between work and play, the sacred and the secular, politics and vaudeville, the Academy and Madison Avenue, the serious and the nonserious, and so on. Signs of this melding of cultures under a common imperative to entertain include the pressure put on opera stars like Deborah Voight to alter her appearance (via bariatric surgery) so as to look more like a pop singer, Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, televangelism, the branding of universities via advertising campaigns, the packaging of politics and politicians, the emergence of infotainment, Rush Limbaugh .  .  .  these signs are everywhere. But if you or your students want a fresh indication of the deconstruction of the traditional line between high and low culture in America, simply consider what is coming to be America’s hottest new platform for political entertainment: the Lincoln Memorial. Revered as the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Marion Anderson’s operatic protest performance when the Daughters of the American Revolution barred her from Constitution Hall, the Lincoln Memorial has now become a stage for such political entertainers as Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart. What is striking is not so much that these television personalities are choosing to perform at the Lincoln Memorial but that their performances are actually serious politics. It’s a far cry from Will Rogers delivering comic political monologues while twirling a rope or Mark Russell singing satirical political tunes. Nor is it Mort Sahl or Tom Lehrer or even Tina Fey; no, Beck and Stewart are quite seriously staking out their own political positions and establishing themselves as political leaders in their own right. My point is not to critique the political motivations of either man but to point out what a striking departure this is, and what it signifies. This is a rather different thing than a celebrity choosing to run for political office. Plenty of entertainers have left the stage or screen to assume real political office, but the spectacle of entertainers in their role as entertainers rather than as conventional candidates for political office, inaugurating mass movements (or attempting to do so) on their own, takes things to a new level. Unlike an entertainer donating time to a political rally a la Jackson Browne, this time the political center of the event is the entertainer, making it rather unclear what the exact purpose of such an event really is. Yet another signifier of the politics of an entertainment culture popped up when Stephen Colbert testified before Congress on the immigration question. What was especially striking was not simply the fact that Colbert briefly turned the Congressional floor into his own personal performance studio, but that he himself directly alluded to the ambiguity of just who exactly was testifying: Stephen Colbert the concerned citizen, or Stephen Colbert the mock antagonist of Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. Like Sacha Baron Cohen, who almost always appears in public in a role rather than as himself, Colbert deconstructed his own identity before a Congressional committee in such a way that it was impossible to determine for certain what was and was not serious in his sworn testimony—that is, what was politics and what was performance. Colbert’s plans to lead a mock "anti-rally" against Jon Stewart’s October performance on the Mall only extends the ambiguity. The rise of Glenn Beck, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert as entertainer-leaders in America is particularly remarkable in the wake of the recent decline in President Barack Obama’s political popularity. A lawyer, social activist, and politician by vocation, Obama made much use of popular culture as he successfully “rocked the vote” in 2008, so it is significant that as his popularity falls, entertainers appear to be filling the void. When politicians cease to be entertaining, Americans will turn to entertainers: This is what it means to live in an entertainment culture. If this is not enough evidence that we live in an entertainment culture, there’s always Sarah Palin, former beauty queen, state basketball champion, and wannabe cheerleader in chief.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.