Project 2-4: Good Taste?

Read the Dick Hebdige essay ‘The Bottom Line on Planet One’ on pps 99 – 124 of the course reader before answering the following questions:

Does  Hebdige  make  a  clear  distinction  between  ‘high’  and  ‘popular’ culture?

‘The Bottom Line on Planet One’ is an examination of the differences between Ten-8, a serious, academic magazine about photography and The Face, at the time the essay was written (mid 1980s) a cutting edge magazine about, amongst other things, music and fashion. While Hebdige is a clear advocate of Ten-8 (indeed, the article first appeared in the magazine) his thesis is not as simple as stating that Ten-8 represents high culture and The Face popular culture. Indeed, Hebdige does not use the terms ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, rather, he sees Ten-8 and The Face as being so different that they are divided by a chasm which is as absolute and inaccessible as the gulf which separates one element from another. In order to compare and contrast the two he takes the unusual step of imagining that they are represented by completely different worlds within a galaxy.

Ten-8 is world one: here, power and knowledge are ordered and precedence is given to written and spoken language over “mere (idolatrous) imagery”. He imagines that on the first world  there are a priestly caste of scribes who are guardians of knowledge who determine the rules of rhetoric and grammar. A subordinate group of technical operatives serve the priesthood in the engraving of images to illustrate, verify or supplement the text produced by the scribes. Although a progressive faction within the priesthood has granted provisional autonomy to pictures meaning that the scribes now seek to situate them within an explanatory historical and theoretical framework, the same old order of a clearly defined society prevails.

On the second, much larger world represented by The Face, the hierarchical ranking of word and image has been abolished. Truth is first and foremost pictured, “looking takes precedence over seeing.” Language serves to supplement the image and functions to explain its origins, functions and effects. The world’s vertical axis has collapsed and organisation of sense is horizontal – that is it is flat. Rather than scribes, priests or engravers knowledge is dispensed by a “motley gang” of bricoleurs, ironists, designers, publicists, image consultants, hommes et femmes fatales, market researchers, pirates, adventurers, flâneurs and dandies. The place that is occupied by religion and politics in the first world is replaced with “winning the game” in the second. The name of this game is the conversion of the now into the new. Due to the piracy and multiplicity of images there is a plurality of gods – space and time are discontinuous and in a sense do not exist. Because there is no history there is no contradiction and sense resides at the level of the atom. The world turns like a kaleidoscope – each month the cycle is completed in intense, vivid configuration.

Rather than making the distinction between high and popular culture, Hebdige is describing an ideological struggle. Despite being clearly a citizen of the first world and worried about what the future holds for his society due to the second world’s influence on it, he cannot fully condemn The Face. He states that it goes out of its way to confound expectations, the writing, photography and design are good and occasionally excellent which he sees as rare in British pop journalism. Despite describing the first and second worlds as being at war throughout his essay, towards the end he states that, “a text is not the world” and that no one has to live there or even pay a visit. Clearly he is worried that serious, academic work with a political edge is under threat by magazines like The Face that prize style and consumerism above all else. Written in 1985 at the height of Thatcherism, there is a sense he is trying to make sense of how the world is changing through his article but is unable to launch into full polemic by either completely defending the first world or condemning the second. He seems to recognise that he is not part of the culture for which The Face represents their way of life so cannot really break into or understand their world. The staid, elite, highly controlling world of planet one seems much less appealing to me than planet two, despite all of its apparent faults. The extended analysis of planet two is also the major part of the essay with the amount of space dedicated to examining planet one taking up much less time and space. I wonder how well it would fare put under the same extended assault?

Whether he does or not, what are his main arguments against what he calls the ‘People of the Post’?

Hebdige uses the term ‘People of the Post’ to refer to the position adopted by second world critics – post referring to poststructuralist and postmodern thought and theories. Unlike critics of the first world (John Berger is used as an example) who seek to place images within a web of narratives designed to authenticate its substance and allow the image to tell its story. The disciples of the Post (Jean Baudrillard and Roland Barthes are mentioned) work in the opposite direction – instead of trying to restore the image to its authentic context they set out to undermine the distinction between good and bad, legitimate and illegitimate, style and substance. He refers to the ‘project of the Post’ as being to replace the dominant (Platonic) regime of meaning with a radical anti-system which promotes the articulation of difference as an end in itself. The factions of the Post are described as multifaceted and interests include attacking the authority and authorship of the first world discourse which guaranteed truth, hierarchy and the order of things. Second world forces include “anarchists and mystics” who form an impossible class refusing law and demanding subjectivity with guarantees. The referent disappears, then the signified and we are left with a world radically empty signifiers: “no meaning. No classes. No history. Just a ceaseless procession of simulacra.”

Explain what you see as the difference between high and popular culture today.

In the modern world I am not sure that the terms ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture have much use. Previously, high culture would be used to describe literature, fine art, classical music and opera but this list has changed over time. For example, novels were not studied in Universities until the mid-twentieth century because they were deemed too low brow. Cinema was originally seen as a mass, popular medium and while this remains the case arthouse cinema which would be considered high exists alongside blockbuster, mainstream popcorn movies.

Some examples of the blurring between high and low culture:

Classical music – many orchestras now hold concerts of film or popular music while pop and rock bands collaborate with classical orchestras.

Poetry – on the face of it one of the most highbrow of all art forms and yet there is a growing popularity taking poetry back to its origins as a spoken, performance art form with slam poetry events.

Cinema – Christopher Nolan can direct a hugely successful trilogy of Batman films while also producing work like Inception which has been described as arthouse for the multiplex.

Literature – Fifty Shades of Grey becomes a publishing phenomenon despite being savaged by reviewers, driven by word of mouth, yet shares space on supermarket booksellers shelves with prize winning authors like Ian McEwan.

Comic books – have long been tagged as only for children or the uneducated but are now seen as being a cutting edge art form that can tackle adult subjects in complex and challenging ways, as well as being a popular form of storytelling.

It may be useful to explore where the term culture before deciding if the terms ‘high’ and ‘low’ mean anything anymore. Raymond Williams describes culture as one of the most complicated in the English language, among other things, culture refers to a way of life as well as to works and practices of artistic activity. (Williams, 1983) Adam Kruper believes it is best to break culture down in component parts, that is: beliefs, ideas, art and traditions. James Clifford believes culture is a consensus opinion, along with taste being linked to class and upbringing with the privileged being the ones who enjoy high culture and the masses partaking in low – the assumption being that high culture equals quality. There is also the idea that exposure to high culture can be an improving force and that our taste can be developed and improved. (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009)

If being able to distinguish between high and low culture is based on taste, the question this then raises is who are the tastemakers? Taste is not something that is innate but is culturally specific and relates to class, cultural background, education and aspects of identity. In ‘Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste’ (1979) Pierre Bourdieu provided a description of tastes and their origin in patterns of class distinction. Through extensive research he found that taste is used by individuals to enhance their positions within social order and that distinction is the means through which they establish their tastes as different from that of the other, lower classes of people. He found that this did not translate to class position as we traditionally understand it as based on economic status but was linked to the concept of cultural capital:

“Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed.”

He concluded that taste is learned through exposure to social and cultural institutions that promote class based assumptions about “correct taste.” An example would be museums and art galleries which exist not only to educate about the history of art but to instil a broader sense of what art is tasteful and not.

A key criticism of Bourdieu’s ‘Distinction’ is that it only sees taste as trickling down from the educated elite to the lower, less educated classes. This does not take into account how cultural forms that begin as expression of marginalized culture or class can trickle up to more affluent groups. An example could be Jazz music in the 1920s and a more recent rap and hip-hop in the 1980s. Globalisation also means that cultural values are able to travel and influence in a variety of directions with speed and ease, despite large geographical and political distance youth culture can look very similar in their clothing choices in both the USA and central Asia.

The changing attitudes towards kitsch artworks is an interesting aside in this question. Previous to the pop art movement of the 1960s kitsch was a term generally used to describe bad taste or tacky items. This changed however when kitsch aficionados began to recode objects and artworks that had previously been judged to have little or no artistic value as good rather than bad taste and the term began to be used in the affirmative sense when referring to items of nostalgia. Enjoying kitsch however is an ironic statement not least because the ability to appreciate kitsch items requires understanding that they are in opposition to what we traditionally think of as good taste or high culture – that is you need to be able to recognise good aesthetics in the first place to appreciate kitsch. What seems in the first place to be a democratic rather than elitist way of appreciating art is really more exclusive than the traditional forms of high culture.

In the light of developments in the media and other branches of the arts and culture, which is ascendant today, the First or the Second world? Is it flat or round?

I am not sure that the metaphor of the two worlds at war used by Hebdige is either useful or attractive way of thinking about the divisions between high and popular culture. Certainly, if his intention is to show the issues inherent in world two he fails because in spite of the negative aspects he dwells on at length the rigidity of world one simply leaves me cold. The chaos of planet two is worth embracing simply because it offers more freedom and choice than that which is offered in the first world. Hebdige knows this and his essay has an air of lament for what has passed and will never return.

In the 30 years since his article was written the real world has moved on immeasurably. Rather than thinking of the flatness of planet two as unnatural I like to think of it as a way that everything becomes level, hierarchies are broken and artworks lose the distinction between high and low and the connotations of good and bad taste that they contain. Today, there is an unprecedented access to information and culture of all types which is truly democratic. We no longer have to wait for validation and can produce artwork ourselves and put out into the world through the internet – almost everyone has the access and ability to do this.

This is what I think when I am feeling optimistic. When I am feeling less so the weight of choice is so heavy that I find it quite bewildering, when you have access to everything where do you start and how do you know what is good? The choice of any cultural form I consume, be it music, film or art is driven by the finite amount of time I have available. With this in mind I rely heavily on taste makers helping me with my choices. For example music: I grew up listening to independent music in the early 1990s, it was a time when access to this type of music was difficult to gain and the bands I followed were introduced to me by New Musical Express. Records had to be sought out and it was not uncommon for me to purchase music based only on what I had read about it, sometimes never having even heard the band. This process of having to go out of my way to follow bands and musicians made me feel like I was in some sort of ‘in crowd’ – my taste was validated by the amount of work and research I had put into seeking it out.  Now, I am still interested in music and genre is less important as there is an increasing cross pollination between styles. Music is readily and instantly available through the internet and I no longer need to search out what I want to listen to. And yet, my time is more of a premium so I need to make sure that which I do have available is used wisely, I need to rely on arbiters of taste like newspapers and magazines to point me towards something I might enjoy listening to – so have things really changed that much?

Maybe the freedom of choice of that the flat planet two represents is nothing more than an illusion and we still live in the highly stratified planet one, a world that pretends to be flat but is really round.

Find four  or  five  examples  of  contemporary  popular  culture,  the  same of ‘high’ round-world culture and the same of high referencing popular culture. You might like to see if you can find examples of popular culture referencing high culture.

Contemporary popular culture:

Pop music

Reality television

Soaps

Popular novels

Celebrity magazine – Heat, Hello, OK

Tabloid newspapers

Sport

High ’round world’ culture:

Fine art

Theatre

Opera

Ballet

Classical music

Foreign language/art house cinema

Broadsheet newspapers

Literature

Poetry

Art galleries and museums

High referencing popular culture:

Pop art

Street art

Orchestras playing popular music

Plays turned into films

Popular culture referencing high culture:

Advertising

The concept album e.g. The Who’s rock operas

The Simpsons

Fake antique furniture

‘Fine art’ Ikea prints

Bibliography:

Bennett, Tony; Grossberg, Lawrence; Morris Meaghan (Eds.) (2005)  New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Wiley-Blackwell, Revised Edition

Buchanan, I (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press inc.

Evans, J. and Hall, S. (eds.) (1999) Visual Culture: The Reader. London: Sage

Macey, D. (2000) The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory London: Penguin books

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009) Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Williams, R. (1983) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana Press.

Advertisements