Critically assess the Frankfurt School’s views of popular culture Critically assess the Frankfurt School’s views on popular culture The Frankfurt School originated as a set of ideas from a group of left wing neo-Marxist intellectuals during 1930s Germany. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, together with Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse sought to expand, develop and radically revise much of Marxist thought into what was later to become Critical Theory. Having been exiled to the United States following the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany, the group witnessed first hand a successful capitalist society in the making.
The American economy was booming and popular culture appeared to be at the heart of its success. For the Frankfurt School it was popular culture, or to use their phrase, the “Culture Industry”, seeing culture inextricably linked with the economy, that played a highly manipulative role in society. It served to control the masses thus removing any threat to the dominant capitalist class. The culture industry had an assembly line character, churning out products and lifestyles purely for end profit.
It legitimised and reinforced the nature of the working class as a passive, uncritical mass through a system of production and exchange, whilst all the while exploiting them. Popular culture became the focus of the working class not only in their daily working lives but also in their leisure time. They were seduced into popular culture and encouraged to consume, falsely believing that what they got would provide satisfaction. The working classes had lost their ability to critically assess the exploitation and gone too was their ability to rise and revolt against it as Marx would’ve predicted.
They had become consumed by their own shallow consumption. Popular culture was drip feeding the masses, much like a hypodermic syringe, into believing they needed and could not live without these products. According to Marcuse, capitalism creates “one-dimensional” people, who lack any real culture other than that fed to them by the media. The Frankfurt School saw a growing divide between the culture of the elite ruling classes and the mass culture of the lower classes. The mass cultural products were seen as inauthentic, they were not produced by “the people” but by the growing media industry.
They were manipulative in that their sole purpose was to be sold for profit; they were seen as unsatisfying because the products often lacked any depth as they were quickly and cheaply produced. Theodor Adorno argued that popular music and jazz were stylised and lacking in any originality. They required very little effort or audience participation. Standardised products and entertainment were seen to produce standardised reactions from the masses who dutifully accepted life as it was and never sought to challenge it.
Adorno judged popular music purely by the standards of western classical music. His attitude quite obviously derived from elite intellectual snobbery is more a reflection of social status than any universal value that society holds. Who is to say that the popular culture of the masses is in fact inferior to that of the ruling classes? In their essay “The Culture Industry – Enlightenment as Mass Deception”, Adorno and Horkheimer argued that cultural products are merely commodities produced by the culture industry.
Whilst they claim to be individualist and original they are in fact mass produced, conformist and highly standardised (Barker, 2003: pp 66). Andy Warhol, an American artist associated with pop art, transformed his art in the 1960s by using silkscreen printing to make art of mass-produced items, for example Campbell’s tomato soup, but also to mass produce the art itself. The same image was available to millions who believed they were defining their identity through their freedom of choice.
Adorno et al argued that all they were doing was buying into consumer capitalism and conforming along with everyone else. Thus, according to the Frankfurt School, consumer culture puts the same stamp on everything and the diversity of products is just an illusion by which “something is provided for all so none may escape”, (Horkheimer & Adorno, (1979) cited in Barker, 2003). The Frankfurt School had a somewhat pessimistic view of popular culture and were highly critical of the need for consumption in capitalist societies.
They argued that the only way the lower classes could ever educate or even liberate themselves would be to lock into the high culture products used and appreciated by the very people who exploit them; the ruling class. This again is an elitist attitude and in direct contrast to the Marxian ideals regarding the working classes. Walter Benjamin argued that whilst mass culture can be seen as anti-elitist, high culture can be produced for a mass audience. For example, operas are shown on television, Shakespeare’s well known play, The Taming of the Shrew was transformed for the masses into a film, Ten Things I Hate About You.