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On the Arts: What the market will allow: high culture and the bottom line

Sunday, September 10, 2000

By Tim Vincent

To say that the cultural market actually tends to narrow choice might seem to run counter to one's sense of the great variety of cultural products available to audiences today. After all, market logic tells us that one can attend live opera and ballet, take in a symphony orchestra, visit jazz clubs and so on. It isn't all Top 40 and the cineplex. And now, with cable networks and the Internet, the market appears to be in a better position than ever to provide specific cultural experiences to specific audiences.

    On the Arts

Tim Vincent is chairman of the Senior School English Department at Shady Side Academy.


However, a closer look at this cultural cornucopia reveals a less rosy picture than simple supply and demand. While it's true, for instance, that such nonmainstream cultural pursuits as the opera, ballet and symphony are available, a glance at most performance calendars suggests a strong preference for the tried-and-true, the sure bet, the crowd-pleaser, even if the crowd in question prefers Mozart to Madonna.

Perhaps this is as it should be if we adopt the view that the market's job is to give people what they want. If people tend to line up for "La Boheme" and "Madama Butterfly" and shy away from more contemporary operas, no matter how "critically acclaimed" they might be, then it only makes sense from a marketing standpoint to provide plenty of Puccini each season. Likewise, if "Friends" seems to enjoy a wide audience at the moment, then a two- or three-year run on "Friends"-like shows seems called for until that particular well runs dry.

But at the same time the market gives people what they want, it reinforces the status quo by its tendency to default to more conservative program choices. The result is that people wind up with lots of what they want, but, almost without their realizing it, the range of what they want has been reduced.

T.W. Adorno alluded to this trend in a 1957 essay titled "Television and the Patterns of Mass Culture." He viewed market-driven culture as the triumph of corporate capitalism and the business ruler-managers who control it. In his view, a cycle is created in which successful products and marketing campaigns are reproduced, and before long the relationship between what people want and what gets produced over and over for them begins to resemble a perfect symbiosis.

Cultural products, as their producers know quite well, tend to fare better with a public whose expectations are fulfilled, not challenged. Defamiliarization does not sell, at least with the short-term profitability toward which commercialized culture gravitates.

Faced, then, with a public that craves variety while it is governed by the familiar, the choice of what cultural products and symbols to produce and reproduce -- and what cultural meanings to represent -- becomes increasingly a marketing decision of how many ticket sales, book sales, symphony subscriptions, etc., will be generated. In this corporatized, profit-motivated environment, all culture is mass culture, since mass consumption of the highest levels possible is the ultimate goal. Judgments of quality and taste are replaced by a marketing distinction between mainstream and nonmainstream, based primarily on sales figures, what's hot and what's not, and who's "into" it.

Cultural analyst John Seabrook recently described this new mainstream/nonmainstream binary as "no-brow," a buzz that increases in volume as a cultural product, event, personality or trend makes its move from what Seabrook calls the "small grid" to the "big grid" of mass consumption. In this no-brow culture market, "good" becomes virtually indistinguishable from "popular."

More to the point, cultural worth is determined by where one places oneself in relation to the mainstream or big grid. If you see yourself, for instance, as a young bicycling slacker who loves opera, you might feel safely grounded in a nice small-grid niche: plenty of individual identity and a fair amount of "cultural capital," as social theorist Pierre Bourdieu might call it, to draw from.

But then the film "Diva" comes along and receives widespread big-grid popularity. Now you are confronted with a cultural dilemma of sorts. Do you maintain your integrity as a bicycling slacker who loves opera at the risk of losing authenticity, because everyone has now seen the movie? Or do you try to hang onto authenticity by shifting your interests to another small grid at the risk of appearing shallow and image-conscious?

Either way, your choices are largely determined by your cultural relationship with the market, which continually seeks to move everything to the big grid and keep it there until every nickel can be shaken out of it.

Perhaps with greater awareness of the relationship between culture and the market, some new and fascinating expressions of human imagination and propensity for freedom are on the horizon. Humanities courses and cultural discussions of all kinds will need to create a framework flexible enough to allow for the increasingly important task of broadening the field of available cultural representations and symbolic activity.

This emphasis on a social definition of culture depends on a broader approach, one that is more inclusive of various representations that contribute distinctive points of view, emotional realities and political influence. Such a rich and complex culture must favor diversity over self- or societally-appointed high priests who attempt to dictate a "core" tradition or create more refined distinctions between "high" and "popular" culture.

If all that sounds alarmingly materialistic, it certainly is. But gone are the days when unquestioned assumptions of universal artistic worth nurtured the confidence behind ideas about culture. If we can create a cultural marketplace that is truly diverse, we might find something much better.

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