Is our Culture an Industry?

by Julie Cleaver

Have you ever watched a Hollywood movie and after the first ten minutes been able to foresee the entire plot line? All it took was a good looking guy to make extended eye contact with a beautiful girl and instantly you knew that they would eventually fall in love, have a problem, resolve the problem and then ride off into the sunset living happily ever after. Or have you turned the radio on and listened to a ‘brand new’ pop song which you have already heard a thousand times? The structure a generic arrangement of verses, bridges and the all-important chorus consisting of inspiring lyrics about partying and big booty’s. ‘The Culture Industry’ is a theory that seeks to explain why all mainstream media has become the same standardised and meaningless crap. Though this theory was created in the 1950s its fundamental concepts are still super relevant in today’s society.

Theodore Adorno was a Jewish-German philosopher influential post World War II. With fascism on the rise in Europe, Adorno fled to the US where the great thinker completely expected a communist revolution to occur. It didn’t; instead he witnessed the rise of rapid hyper-capitalism. The Culture Industry is a theory Adorno created to illuminate why capitalism spread so infectiously across America and how this has affected the nature of western culture and living.

Quick history lesson; during the 50s America was reaping the financial rewards of winning war. Under President Eisenhower’s intelligent presidential reign, the country’s economy boomed. The adults of the 50s had lived through the horrors of the Great Depression in the 30s and war in the 40s, so basically, people were ready to spend. Nuclear families flocked to the suburbs and bought motor vehicles, televisions, appliances and other such luxuries.

Once everyone had everything they already needed, companies made newer and better versions of pre-existing products and advertised them like crazy, perpetuating a general need to purchase more. People bought goods, disposed of them when they became out of fashion and then bought more, thus giving birth to the consumer. All of a sudden, though America only constituted 6% of the world’s population, they consumed one third of the goods and services.

In an economy driven solely by money everything became for sale, including culture.

Adorno’s theory argued that art was becoming generic and user friendly in order to sell itself to the masses, and thus it essentially lost all meaning. Original or revolutionary ideas were altered in order to become marketable. An example of this is the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Originally a kickass piece commenting on the passionless ‘pod people’ of suburbanised America, the producers forced director Don Siegl to alter the ending so that it was hopeful and conclusive, diminishing the film of all revolutionary qualities.

Or if any new ideas were successful and resonated with a large audience, they would get standardised (copied and made the same), pseudo-individualized (altered slightly) and sold back to the masses as unoriginal genre products. Adorno argued that pseudo-individualism gave people “the illusion of choice”, when really behind the marginally altered veneer the product’s core was essentially the same as every other thing of its kind. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this in terms of how relevant these points are in today’s cultural climate…

For example, a few years ago Twilight hit the theatres and became a huge box office success, the entire franchise grossing over $3.3 billion. Then overnight mainstream media was swarmed with almost the exact same sort of vampire eternal love shit (such as True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Lesbian Vampire Killers and so on). Not saying that Twilight was innovative or anything, just pointing out how profitable ideas get copied, made into a standardised product and changed ever so slightly so that it can be sold back as ‘something new’.

So although Adorno’s theory was created in the 50s it’s relevance today is undeniable. Popular culture is more generic than ever, sticking to genres and formulas in order to ensure sales. The Culture Industry is corrupting art and storytelling, two of the purest and most fundamental forms of human expression. Art allows people to delve into the depths of their imaginations and express themselves with no limitations or intentions and thus through art the human consciousness is able to expand. Commercialising art gives it an objective and thus totally denies the entire essence of expression. Without the ability to share free unrestrained thought civilisation will not be able to grow as a whole. This is bad; however there is something you can do to escape the consumerist mentality, create! Get together with your mates and make some original music, rub your body in paint and hug a tree, think for yourself and create with no restrictions. If you want to take it further record your stuff and share it up on Flikr, Youtube, Soundcloud etc. By doing this you’re able to escape passive consumerism and become an active ‘prosumer’. Hopefully this sort of mindset will be perpetuated and sixty years from now Adorno’s theory will no longer be relevant.