The culture industry is the commercialised amalgamation of both the traditional high and low spheres of art. Low art is typically of the lower classes and this is what forms the basis of its legitimacy. Once the masses stopped producing their own art and started consuming what the culture industry fed them, low art’s authority was inevitably corrupted. High art was always thoroughly bourgeois and as such access was typically non-existent. However, this open discrimination was at least a perpetual reminder of the inequity of class divisions. Under the amorphous blob that is the culture industry, art assumed a false unity that soon made us forget that class actually still exists in present day society.
The full force of Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s argument is revealed in Jay Bernstein’s guidance. “[H]e is not attempting an objective, sociological analysis… Rather the question of the culture industry is raised from the perspective of its relation to the possibilities for social transformation” (T. W. Adorno & Bernstein, 2001, p. 2). Such possibilities are now, quite despondently, few and far between. The culture industry has colonised our imagination and inhibited our spontaneity such that we’ve stopped believing that any true alternative to modernity actually exists. Fearing the persecution meted out to those who resist, most of us take the easy route and just conform to the status quo. Remarkably, despite penning such a gloomy analysis of society, Adorno and Horkheimer do not believe that we’ve passed the point of no return. Their essay, The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, is written pessimistically precisely so as to arouse resistance and dissent from those who have not yet succumbed to late capitalism’s siren call.
Adorno identifies a division between high and low forms of art that reflects “the division between mental and manual labour in a class society” (T. W. Adorno & Bernstein, 2001, p. 6). The lower classes form the majority and produce what is labelled ‘low art’. While craft is the typical one given, another example of low art is the folk band that Jack and Rose dance to in a third class bar in the movie Titanic. As evidenced by this example, the art of the masses will necessarily be opposed to the seriousness of high art and displays a “rebellious resistance inherent within it” (T. W. Adorno & Rabinbach, 1975, p. 12). This is because low art is produced by those “for whom the hardship and oppression of life make a mockery of seriousness” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 135). Thus while the epithet ‘low’ is often used pejoratively, low art has an immense intrinsic value. “The truth which the latter [high art] necessarily lacked because of its social premise gives the other [low art] the semblance of legitimacy” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 135). Low art may be derided as the art of the masses, but it is precisely this grass roots production that affords low art its own unique value.
It is obvious yet important to recall that if there were no low art, it follows that there would be no high art either; there would just be art. High art is defined in the opposition. This exclusivity reveals high art’s unashamedly bourgeois nature. It is after all an activity that defines itself by the production of art for art’s sake. To someone living payday to payday the practice of spending your time producing purposeless art as a (theoretically) autonomous artist is literally a joke. Counterintuitively however, Adorno argues that high art still serves the lower classes in its own way:
“The purity of bourgeois art, which hypostasized itself as a world of freedom in contrast to what was happening in the material world, was from the beginning bought with the exclusion of the lower classes – with whose cause, the real universality, art keeps faith precisely by its freedom from the ends of the false universality.” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 135)
Adorno’s claim is that the division of art into high and low spheres is a reflection of the class division that still remains in contemporary society; “The truth itself is the division” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 135). Any attempt to reconcile high and low art that doesn’t first involve the dissolution of class society would constitute a false universality. Adorno does not mourn the demise of high art because he is an elitist snob. On the contrary, the amalgamation of high and low art into the culture industry represents a false unity that is akin to handing sheep’s clothing over to the wolves. Class divisions are inevitably highlighted in the openly discriminatory nature of high art but are slyly papered over when high and low art morph into a false unity represented by the culture industry (Jarvis, 1998, p. 73).
Once both spheres of art have been subsumed under the whole of the culture industry, the value of each is destroyed. The contrast between the culture industry’s centralised production (e.g. Hollywood) and its globalised distribution is explained away as a benign requirement of the modern technological world. “It is alleged that because millions participate in it, certain reproduction processes are necessary” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 121). Unfortunately for low art, the concentration of the modes of production into the hands of a few simultaneously represents the moment when its claims to legitimacy – which were premised on the masses being able to represent themselves – are necessarily surrendered. “The customer is not king, as the culture industry would like to have us believe, not its subject but its object.” The centralisation of the culture industry destroyed low art by definition. What had once been produced by the masses, was now instead produced for them.
In the realm of high art, the masses were always excluded from participating in the artistic process. The culture industry continues this trend but breaks with the tradition of high art insofar as only the works of the latter are overdetermined. High art requires critical contemplation as each piece is open to multiple different interpretations. The culture industry however promotes undiscerning amusement and admonishes those who dare question the details; ‘you’re not supposed to think about it so much!’ The idea that art stimulates our cognition has been crucial to aesthetic theory since Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement. “The powers of cognition that are set into play by this representation [high art] are hereby in free play, since no determinate concept restricts them to a particular rule of cognition” (Kant, 2000, p. 102). The culture industry kills cognition through banal clichés and tired old tropes that demand little concentration from the consumer.
The unthinking of the culture industry is a hangover from the industrialisation of society and a result of the false unification of two “irreconcilable elements of culture, art and distraction” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 136). Reduced to the entertainment business, the culture industry pumps out simple amusement. Movies, the archetypal product of the culture industry, are a case in point since “sustained thought is out of the question if the spectator is not to miss the relentless rush of facts (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 127). In order to be as productive as possible, society has already been organised rationally and few of us need to truly think at work. We are reduced to an anonymous cog, doing our part to keep the capitalist machine churning. It is easier to remain a cog, to keep on unthinking after we finish work, than to arouse the mental effort required to enjoy genuinely unscripted leisure time. We consume the amusement offered to us by the culture industry in “a prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanised work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 137). Leisure petrifies into amusement and individual thought is discouraged. All of this is then tapped for profit by capital.
While both high art and the culture industry promote catharsis, the former is “ascetic and unashamed” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 140) whereas the latter “is pornographic and prudish” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 140). The strings of our desire – whether for sexual satisfaction or societal success (i.e. getting rich) – are endlessly tugged but never fulfilled. Ersatz pleasure is all that we are offered by the culture industry. “[T]he real point [of pleasure] will never be reached… the diner must be satisfied with the menu (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 139). The culture industry paints a picture that late capitalism wants you to believe; the fruits of modernity are available to all (if only you work hard enough to achieve them). All the glittering luxuries of our post-industrial society are put on display, but the fact that you will never afford the Ferrari nor ‘win’ the trophy wife is constructed as your own damn problem. Every opportunity was there for the taking. If you fail – as is probable – then the culture industry can only offer you assistance in the form of repression. “In the culture industry, jovial denial takes the place of the pain found in ecstasy and in asceticism” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 141). Private yachts, a life of leisure, these luxuries await perhaps only the top 1%. Thus statistics dictate that 99% of people will always miss out. Someone climbing the class ladder is always closely followed by someone who has just about lost their grip and will soon fall. But hey, try and forget that all of this is somehow your own individual fault. Maybe this mindlessly distracting movie can help….
Contrary to the pornographic nature of the culture industry, high art allows us to deal with the reality of our oppressive world through the “secret of aesthetic sublimation…[and] its representation of fulfilment as a broken promise” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 140). Whereas the culture industry portrays endless temptation and unattainable desires, art provides us a mechanism through which we can deal with the angsts of existence. Art offers us a reality check, the reaffirmation of our humanity in the face of a heartless society. Although sublimation involves a coming to terms with reality, the window is left open for us to dream of something different. Art provides the tools through which we can imagine a better world. The culture industry confiscates our paint brushes and exhorts us “to toe the line, behind which stand the most powerful interests.” (T. W. Adorno & Rabinbach, 1975, p. 17)
The culture industry results in the “stunting of the mass-media consumer’s power of imagination and spontaneity” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 126). Whereas other forms of domination thrived due to the suppression of their violent and oppressive natures, capitalism, through the insidious nature of the culture industry achieves its domination by convincing us that the status quo is all that there is (T. W. Adorno & Bernstein, 2001, pp. 10-11). It doesn’t matter so much whether we see through the cliché of any one film because we can’t see through the myth of late capitalism itself. We have given up on the hope that a better society is possible. Unable to do anything but conform, we find ourselves ruled by a dictatorship of no alternatives.
Unfortunately, most of us do not recognise (or are unable to resist) the siren call of the culture industry and the patriarchal neocolonial neoliberal capitalist narrative that it endlessly reinforces. We come to believe the myth of the meritocracy; that those who work hard enough are rewarded. The problem is that success – which rarely comes – requires conforming to the script and we have all given the same one. Any trace of true individuality must be quashed as the requirement of personality is reduced to “shining white teeth and freedom from body odor and emotions” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 167). Rokni Haerizadeh’s piece Royal Goldfish (2014) encapsulates this concept well. Pseudo individuality is rife but true difference is not tolerated. Women and people of colour are forced to parade as white men. Their own bodies – when included in the script – are usually portrayed as temptation or the villain, but will never be cast in the hero’s role.
The dictatorship of no alternatives arose when the enlightenment went off track and instrumental rationality came to encompasses the entirety of reason. Instrumental rationality is when the intrinsic properties of things and their social and historical particularities are disregarded in the drive to subsume everything under the goal of further rationalisation (T. W. Adorno & Bernstein, 2001, p. 5). Bernstein elaborates, “Without the possibility of judging particulars and rationally considering ends and goals, the reason which was to be the means to satisfying human ends becomes its own end” (T. W. Adorno & Bernstein, 2001, p. 5). Thus, what high art offered as resistance – before it was subsumed by the culture industry and destroyed by the profit motive – was an activity with no immediate purpose.
Adorno claims that “what completely fettered the artist was the pressure (and accompanying drastic threats), always to fit into business life as an aesthetic expert” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 132). High art was by definition by its freedom from external purposes, it was art for art’s sake. High art represented one area, however small, that refused the colonisation of all realms of human life by instrumental reason. While it is true that high art has always been traded to some extent, exchange was always a secondary function undertaken by the bourgeois and artists were typically sheltered from the dictates of the market through patronages and the like. Nowadays “Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just businesses is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 121). When the profit motive infiltrated the art world via the culture industry, artistic products metamorphosed; “no longer also commodities, they are [now] commodities through and through.” (T. W. Adorno & Rabinbach, 1975, p. 13)
A drive to commodify everything is what has become of Europe’s ‘Enlightenment’. Its maxim, “Sapere aude! have the courage to use your own understanding,” (Jarvis, 1998, p. 77) was necessarily surrendered when critical thought capitulated to the authoritarian grip of instrumental reason. It is not just that we are deceived, but that the enlightenment itself has become its own form of mass deception. However, opportunities to break free remain. “Demand has not yet been replaced by simple obedience” (T. Adorno & Horkeimer, 1979, p. 136). Adorno and Horkheimer write pessimistically to exploit this fact. Their essay is written as though we have all been duped, that “Life does not Live” (Adorno’s epigraph from Kürnberger in Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflexionen Aus Dem Beschadigten Leben (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980), 20 as quoted in Jarvis, 1998, p. 76), and as such that no escape is possible. The authors hope that such riling claims will seed dissent amongst those who are still living, but how precisely such resistance is possible must be left for another essay.
The culture industry seeks to beguile us by pretending that class divisions have been arrested. Those aspects of both high and low art that could aide us in the resistance against capitalism have been destroyed by the culture industry. Our imagination has been colonised to such an extent that we now believe instrumental reason encapsulates the only possible form of reason. We have stopped thinking and simply obey the status quo, all of which is surreptitiously reinforced via the culture industry. But hope is not yet lost, pessimistic as the outlook is, the masses could still triumph and the enlightenment could still get back on track. What is needed is a spark of defiant resistance that rekindles a fire in our bellies. This is precisely the effect Adorno and Horkheimer hope their writing will have.
Adorno, T., & Horkeimer, M. (1979). The Dialectic of Enlightenment (J. Cumming, Trans.). London & New York: Verso.
Adorno, T. W. (1980). Minima moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschadigten Leben. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Adorno, T. W., & Bernstein, J. M. (2001). The culture industry: selected essays on mass culture. New York;London;: Routledge.
Adorno, T. W., & Rabinbach, A. G. (1975). Culture Industry Reconsidered. New German Critique(6), 12-19. doi:10.2307/487650
Jarvis, S. (1998). Adorno: a critical introduction. Cambridge: Polity.
Kant, I. (2000). Critique of the power of judgment (P. Guyer Ed.). Cambridge, UK;New York;: Cambridge University Press.