What We Talk About When We Talk About Popular Culture

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I've been reading James Knowlson's big biography of Samuel Beckett, Damned to Fame—an experience that not only transports me back over forty years to the days when I was writing my undergraduate Honors Thesis in English on Beckett, but also sets me to contemplating again the relationship between "high" cultural creation, and "low," or popular, culture. While Beckett's incorporation of such popular cultural materials as vaudeville-style slapstick and Charlie Chaplin's tramp into Waiting for Godot undoubtedly helped to erode the traditional barriers between high and low culture, his own lifelong devotion to the highest of the elite arts (classical music and literature, philosophy, and fine art) also comes through very powerfully in the story of his life.  Though in rapid decline even within his lifetime, the "cultural capital" of high art still stood for something in Beckett's formative years in a way that is almost unimaginable in an era when the Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, and VMA awards (etc.) are effectively our society's supreme expressions of esthetic taste.  And this, paradoxically, is why the semiotic analysis of popular culture is itself an activity of high cultural importance; for if we are to come to an understanding of who and what we are as a society—which is one of the more profound aims of esthetic creation—we have to look at what really matters to us.  And for some time now, what really matters has been pop culture.


In saying this, I am going against the grain of such cultural theorists as Lucien Goldmann, who believed that social knowledge comes through the study of "high" cultural creation.  Perhaps that was once so; it certainly isn't the case today, however, when traditional high culture is on life support.  While there has never been a mass audience for the elite arts, what has changed has been the economic basis of esthetic creation: the centuries-long shift from a system of aristocratic patronage to one of commodity capitalism in a market economy.

Chaucer, that is to say, paid the bills by living in the palace of John of Gaunt, and Michelangelo sought commissions from the Church.  Today, "high" art poets must seek out teaching positions to survive because poems have little commodity value, and painters hope for the kind of awards and critical reviews that will attract wealthy speculators to their work in a kind of fine art stock market. 


An apprehension that the economics of artistic production was changing everything was behind the rise not only of Modernism, but of Romanticism as well, as artists began to feel alienated from their audiences—no longer coteries of patrons and friends, but a mass market of anonymous consumers—and so, in defiance, they turned away from seeking popularity to create generations of avant-garde art that only helped to reduce what audience for high art ever existed in the first place.  The result has the been the creation of what I have called a "museum culture," as high art has retreated to ever more beleaguered bastions of cultural preservation, while popular culture, with its seemingly limitless market potential, has flourished.  (I know, you may have attended the opera recently, or a symphonic performance, and that you may spend your free time rereading War and Peace, rather than The Arkham Asylum, but even so, you cannot have missed the signs that those are unusual choices today.)


Cultural semiotics doesn't complain about this shift in cultural tastes (history, after all is history); and it doesn't attempt to apply the critical standards of high art to works of mass culture.  Rather, taking as its basis the recognition that cultural production in a market environment will produce what the market desires, cultural semiotics analyzes that desire itself, seeking its significance.  For therein lies the consciousness of our society, the revelation, finally, of who and what we are.

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.