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A Philosophy of Mass Art

by Noel Carroll

Buy the book: Noel Carroll. A Philosophy of Mass Art

Release Date: February, 1998

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Noel Carroll. A Philosophy of Mass Art

logical, stimulating brief for mass art (ie popular culture)

Carroll is worth reading just for the refreshing contrast he provides to the postmodernism that is endemic in cultural studies. Carroll applies analytic philosophy (ie, basically logic) to what he calls "mass art," and mainly has the same goal as the majority of cultural studies scholars -- he defends "mass art" as being potentially just as worthy as "elite art," both aesthetically and as the topic of analytical inquiry. However, Carroll is emphatically not part of the cultural studies scene -- his arguments have to do with the way "mass art" is, by design, accessible to ALL people, not just certain favored, oppressed groups. Carroll's political agenda then, if you take the position that we all have one, would seem to be a liberal humanism of the Enlightenment, which is not a category I consign to the Evil Other of a binary category!

I appreciate Carroll's independence, but his definition of "mass art" is idiosyncratic and not likely to take the field by storm. The definition has 3 parts: 1) the art is a multiple instance, 2) produced and distributed by a mass technology, and 3) is designed (with narrative form, symbolism, intended affect and content) to be accessible with minimum effort by the largest number of people. So Carroll wants to define his "mass" category both in contrast to pre-industrial popular art that was not mass produced, and to avant-garde art that is not designed to appeal to the "mass" of people.

This is problematic. While Carroll argues persuasively against MacDonald, Greenberg, Collingwood, Adorno and Horkheimer in his first chapter defending the potential of mass/popular art, he maintains the distinction between high and low art, which he calls instead "avant-garde" and "mass." He attacks what he calls the "Eliminativist" position, which the rest of us know as social constructionism -- boundaries around different cultural fields are socially constructed, and the aesthetic criteria for these boundaries are basically arbitrary other than what has been established by convention. But Carroll's binary distinction here simply will not work in terms of empirical application. The reality of what I think is better considered as a plural, shifting field of "popular culture" (with "popular art" as a subset) is that very few artists/works of art are truly "massively popular." In the mass market, most everything is a niche, from the ska-punk Warped Tour to devotees of Beethoven's string quartets. Robert Christgau, pop music critic for the Village Voice, coined the term "semi-pop" in 1980 to recognize the splintering of the 60s mass market across the 1970s. Perhaps Carroll's thinking is skewed by his expertise in popular films, as mine may be by my greater knowledge of popular music -- there is arguably still a larger, more common audience for Hollywood movies than there is for pop music. But considering popular culture as a whole, I don't find Carroll persuasive.

Carroll calls his definition a "theory." Perhaps, although as a sociologist I define theory as an explanation. Carroll's definition simply creates a classificatory scheme. There is an aspect of his definition of "mass art" that could be developed into a theory, and that is his implication that there is a biological/psychological basis for what art appeals to the broad masses of people. At the same time, he emphasizes people's use of reason in analyzing mass art, so his doesn't follow through on this idea. I doubt that it would work. Here are three examples of why not:

1) Bruce Springsteen's song "Born in the U.S.A.", which is clearly not a patriotic anthem, based on the lyrics, was treated as one by many male fans holding up jabbing "#1" fingers and singing along with the chorus during his 1985 tour.

2) When John Lennon said the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus," Beatles albums were burned in communal bonfires across the U.S. Bible Belt.

3) Techno music substantially replaced rock music as the dominant pop music form in Europe in the 1990s, while in the U.S. techno remains a subculture and rap music has been the form to substantially replace rock.

How can these examples be squared with the idea that "mass art" taps into universal biological responses in people? A second point to draw is that there is diversity within a "mass" audience. By definition, I would be bold enough to say, the bigger the audience for an artist/work of art, the greater the diversity of views of that art among its audience. Back to Christgau's "semi-pop"...

Carroll's book is six chapters long. The first two chapters are excellent, arguing against the "majority tradition" that has condemned mass/popular/low art, and against the "minority tradition" (Benjamin and McLuhan) who have celebrated "mass art." The final three chapters are also excellent, analyzing emotion, morality and ideology in "mass art." The problem lies in Chapter 3, "The Nature of Mass Art" where Carroll presents his definition. Despite the problems with the core of Carroll's presentation, the book is well worth reading. The clarity of Caroll's thinking forces the reader to clarify her own thinking, which is the goal of any good, clear analytic philosophy.

For what I consider to be a more compelling theoretical account, I recommend Peter J. Martin's "Sounds and Society," which presents a social constructionist theory of music (and art more broadly, by extension) which Carroll would appreciate for its clarity of exposition. This is not just a case of sociological loyalty, given that Martin critiques the social-structural theory that the meaning of music/art is the simple product of its social context.

From Amazon.com

A thorough, if somewhat tiresome, account of Mass Art

The work takes a critical and comprehensive approach to the philosophy of mass art. Carroll meticulously examines the subject, giving a detailed account of the position of the major writers on the subject. This thoroughness is the major weakness of the work, since Carroll at times repeats points he has already made, while covering ground which does not seem necessary. As a teaching text, the work offers many possibilities, particularly given the accuracy with which Carroll describes the thoughts of Writers such as McLuhan, Greenberg, and Collingwood. In terms of actual philosophical advancement, Carroll does not seem to be able to sufficiently develop his own thesis that mass art is art, but does make a worthwhile attempt.

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