Monday, November 13, 2017

An Elite Form of Dumbing Down

From Reid's Reader:
Recently, I came across the following quotations from the philosopher and cultural critic Hannah Arendt. They appeared in her essay “The Crisis in Culture”,  first published in 1961 in her collection of essays Between Past and Future. At this point in her essay, Arendt was distinguishing between “culture” (basically great and challenging works which have come to us from the past) and “entertainment” (what is ephemeral, undemanding and basically intended to fill up our spare time).
She wrote: “those who produce for the mass media ransack the entire range of past and present culture in the hope of finding suitable material. This material, moreover, cannot be offered as it is; it must be altered in order to become entertaining; it must be prepared to be easily consumed.”
Of real works of art, she goes on to say: “their nature is affected when these objects themselves are changed – rewritten, condensed, reduced to kitsch in reproduction, or in preparation for the movies. This does not mean that culture is spread to the masses, but that culture is being destroyed in order to yield entertainment. The result of this is not disintegration but decay, and those who promote it are not the Tin Pan Alley composers but a special kind of intellectual, often well read and well informed, whose sole function is to organise, disseminate, and change cultural objects in order to persuade the masses that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and perhaps as educational as well. There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.” [Underlinings added for emphasis.]
Of course, after most of 60 years, there are some things here that now sound a little dated. Perhaps we could substitute something like Mamma Mia! for My Fair Lady and we might say “the music industry” rather than “Tin Pan Alley”, a phrase which means little nowadays. We might remark that it would be television and the internet rather than “the movies” which now do most of this cultural simplification, although the movies are still part of the process. If we read only these quotations, we might also think that Arendt is attacking pop culture and the mass media per se, and in therefore (to use the easy insult word) an “elitist”. In fact she isn’t. The essay as a whole makes it clear that she understands the legitimate functions of the mass media and also the necessity for “entertainment”. Then we might consider how, over the past half century, television and film have been more readily recognised as media capable of rising to the status of real art. (Read more.)

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