Monday, November 19, 2012

Creative Process Journal: The Culture Industry and Enlightment as Mass Deception

"The whole world is passed through the filter of the culture industry".
(Horkheimer and Adorno)

Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno wrote a critique of the culture industry within capitalist society in a chapter called “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” in the book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). In this work, they compare the production of culture through such media as film, radio, and magazines to that of a factory in which consumers are manipulated into a state of  docile passivity.

This densely written treatise reviles the easy pleasures of popular culture that perpetuate desire and create insatiable psychological needs that cycle into the capitalist structures of consumer demand.

Musing on the promise of art, they write: "The moment of the work of art by which it transcends reality cannot, indeed be severed from style; that moment, however, does not consist in achieved harmony, in the questionable unity of form and content, inner and outer, individual and society, but in those traits in which the discrepancy emerges, in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity."

This article is depressing, suggesting the absence of independent thought by producers and consumers of culture. Not everyone is a passive, docile body. In fact, if you've read this far, I would suggest that you could consider yourself anything but a docile body. The profiliteration of blogs offering an unfiltered critique of cultural products such as films, videos and exhibitions provides a contrary example of active participation. Others have criticized the piece as lacking in practical application. Nevertheless,  the essay remains a seminal piece in the discourse on media and communication and is worth diving into.

McQueen Jewelled Shoes at the Met
Photo by Ingrid Mida 2011
The relevance of this article to my project is tangential, relating to the fetishization of objects within a collection or museum. A museum can be considered a product of the culture industry, with its displays designed to present entertaining forms of knowledge and discovery. While museums are not specifically mentioned in their article, Adorno and Horkheimer refer to the Marxist concept of use value and exchange value in their analysis of cultural products. In my selection of objects for retention within the Collection, items with labels have an exchange (monetary) value that exceeded the use (functional) value of the garment. For example, a dress with a Balenciaga label has an exchange value that far exceeds a homemade dress without a label, even though both might be of similar quality fabric and workmanship. Even though I am not focussing on labels when I select items to photograph, when I do find them in gowns from the turn of the century, there is a fetishistic quality to their discovery, as they add considerably to the provenance and value of that garment. I am producing photographs - cultural products - through the filters of the power arising from the curatorial work that I do. I suspect that in Adorno's and Hockheimer's eyes, this would be another form of "deception". (Sigh).

For further reading:
Adorno, Theodor W. and Horkheimer, Max. "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" (1944).

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