There seems to be a conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is highly illuminating.
– William F. Buckley Jr
Why do we keep giving you garbage? Because you keep eating it, haha.
– Entertainment Industry
The clearest way to understand a culture is to study its tools of communication and its art, through which the zeitgeist of society is expressed. Film, radio, visual art, literature, and music act not only as a barometer that signal society’s prevailing attitudes, but also function as a mirror that people use to adjust everything from their fashion to their personal identities. With the arrival of the Information Age, and the ascendance of consumer technology, entertainment has taken a greater place of centrality in the world, bringing with it a flood of superfluous media that drowns out the pertinent issues of the day in a sea of disposable “content”. It is this export of images, sounds, literature and ideas that has left the world under the influence of the likes of Hollywood, advertising agencies, and PR companies, who work jointly to construct a popular culture that has undone people’s capacities to assess reality for themselves. It is a world where one slowly loses the ability to take seriously what lies outside of the world of appearances, due to an over-reliance on images instead of words. A slave to this milieu of their own making, mankind now throws themselves into their popular culture far too easily, perhaps in order to avoid staring their own existence in the face. But in the absence of contending with this existence, people still yearn for something that endures, and so they fill their minds with entertainment, in the hope of keeping their footing. How well has that worked for us?
For every new medium of communication that develops, mass culture is recreated to accommodate that transition. From hieroglyphs to paintings, the alphabet to television, each medium, like language itself, enables a unique means of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought and expression. Prior to the rise of contemporary mass media in the early 1900s, popular culture was formed primarily by means of direct interaction with people and the environment. With the absence of tele-visual mediums and their potential for mediating social relations through images and audio, life in the 18th and 19th centuries gave priority to the natural world as the forum in which human existence was understood. In contrast to our times, where the world is largely represented by moving pictures whose likeness to reality eventually becomes confused with the reality itself, the popular culture of past centuries was shaped by oral tradition, literature and print. As considerable an influence as books, newspapers, pamphlets and posters were during that time, their impact was not tumultuous enough to displace a paradigm in which social interaction, formal education, family ties, vocational life, reading, religion and art were the principal ways to expand on the notion of human experience. People’s ideals, however misguided or otherwise, were grounded on their tangible experiences with a physical reality – but no longer. Art and media have now coalesced into the monolith known as the Entertainment Industry, which acts as a mirror that reflects people’s identities, aspirations and values back on themselves. The more they come to identify with this complex of images, the less they understand their actual lives and desires. Having been inspired to act on these received images, the individual’s gestures gradually cease to be his own. They increasingly become the gestures of what he sees represented on his screen, as those experiences which were once directly lived regress into an abstraction. It then only becomes natural to interact with the world by way of tele-visual channels, and to subject oneself to the narrow frame of perception created by their contrived content. Social life, which now doubles as a shared virtual reality, becomes an artificial imposition that entraps its subjects, who would rather take the media as an authority on how to orient themselves, instead of operating with the first-hand experience of a tangible reality. The result is a formulaic social world, where people no longer talk to each other as much as they entertain each other, exchanging not so much their own ideas, but images loaded with the ideas of others, as seen on today’s social media platforms. They do not argue with propositions so much as they do with memes, quotes, emojis, good looks, likes, and followers, all of which come filled with premises of their own.
From the latest Netflix stream to inescapable Youtube videos and mobile gaming, the allure of media from behind a screen is that it can be very emotionally expressive, whilst making no clear attempts at a straight-forward communication. Think of George Bush, Michael Jackson or Angelina Jolie, or even Albert Einstein, and what comes to mind is not so much their quotes or speeches, but an image, a picture of their faces. It is no coincidence that as time passes. a limited number of these pictures are put into heavy rotation within pop culture to act as a shorthand for whatever message they’ve been packaged to convey, as exemplified in the widespread printing of Che Guevara and Bob Marley images on every commodity imaginable. This kind of communication points to the difference between thinking in an image-based culture versus a text-based culture, where in the latter you learn how to better negotiate the world of abstractions. Prior to the primacy of images, a salesman or print ad would have to use words to explain the advantage of a product, in an appeal to a customer’s intellect, not just his emotions. While such words take time to convey or read, and require attention to parse their meaning, the impact of an image is immediate, as it can bypass a person’s critical filters and conveys a multiplicity of messages in an instant. But ultimately, the idea of being “intelligent” implies that one can do some degree of mental work without the help of pictures and images, using concepts, abstractions and generalizations. What we see then, is that not only has image-based culture, largely in the form of entertainment and advertising, become a centerpiece of Western pastime, but this entertainment itself has become the natural format for the representation of most experience.
Prior to the advent of radio, print publications served as the mass media, an altogether different format than the audio-visual one of today. Printed media emphasized a definition of intelligence that gave priority to logically ordered, rational content. By its very nature, reading is a serious endeavor, where you approach a text with your intellect alone, unaided by moving images or sound. Your mind is forced to rely on its own resources and powers of contemplation as it follows the line of thought put forth in the text, requiring you to be able to categorize information, make inferences, and use your rationale to detect lies, contradictions, and abuses of logic. For this to be possible, the reader must maintain a certain detachment from the words on the paper, which is, in fact, encouraged by the distant, static text. Not so with tele-visual media. Their way of communicating is antagonistic to typography’s way of communicating, in that the bias of the technology itself promotes narrative inconsistency and triviality. It speaks primarily in one unrelenting voice: the voice of entertainment. After all, we rarely talk about television, but rather about what’s on television. The medium itself is poorly understood, whereas its content is obsessed over, as if the latter were not reliant on the former for its expression. The biases of the technology has, in fact, everything to do with how the device communicates. The metaphorical nature of image-based media has meant that TV, computers, and smartphones, with their very particular logic, have found their way into other areas of cultural life, bringing with them their message that not only is all the world a stage, but that the stage might as well be located in Las Vegas, Nevada, one of the centerpieces of our mile-wide, yet inch-deep, image-based culture.
For all its economic and military power, America’s greatest tool of influence is its visual culture, without which it would never have dominated the globe: kinetic, vibrant, rebellious, happy, sexy and “free”. In other words, Hollywood. With it’s insistence that all achievement should be measured in human happiness, and a movement towards whatever idea of “progress” has been stipulated by the prevailing ideologies, Hollywood has transformed Western culture into a factory-house for the industrialization of enjoyment. It tirelessly works to reconstruct the world into a universe of spectacle and triviality, one full of pseudo-needs and false desires, propagated in no small part through movies, photography and music. This tactic of turning art into advertising and propaganda may be great for Madison Avenue and its PR adjuncts, but has given us little in the way of transcendent media programming. It begs the question: is a world where PR professionals are more productive and influential than artists a more desirable world overall? Are the objectives of public relations companies the objectives of the world in general? Apparently they are. It would seem that society has become so censored so as to not be able to differentiate between what is merely a part of the pop culture dummy-load, and what is actually worth consuming to edify oneself.
During the cultural shifts of the 60s and 70s, as well as the digital revolution of 90s and 2000s, the technologists and counter-culturalists promised the world that life-changing art would accompany our portable consumer electronics. But well into the 21st century, what we’ve mostly been given are widely-panned superhero movies and disposable pop songs, as the world of art suffers from a collapse of critical standards. This loss of quality, which stems from the nature of an industry that shuns portrayals of actualities in favor of circulating ideals, is evident both at the level of creators and consumers, from the art that is being created to the behavior that it encourages among the public. We’re in an age where, in fact, banal mediocrity is prized above all else. The things which are the most adored and hyped are just boring mirror images of what you can see or hear anywhere. And this is despite the fact that the entertainment industry takes itself very seriously as “Cinema”, or “Music” or “Art”, as stories of empowerment, individualism, heroism, and overcoming adversity. Therein, however, lies a problem: entertainment as trivial as it is today is at its most dangerous when its aspirations are so grandiose, when it arrogantly presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations. But ironically, this is the role that the liberal elite, public intellectuals and cultural critics are constantly urging Hollywood to play: create movies, television, music and art that is “necessary” for the times. But the resulting product is less passable as art than as mere content for distribution, which only makes a sham of tackling the complexities of human behavior. What it does do extremely well, however, is to applaud itself for its own immediacy, importance, and moral virtue, even as it underwrites its creative process with money from advertisers and foreign investors. Such parties assume the role of dispassionate shareholders with a greater interest in spreadsheets and quarterly reports than in any creative endeavor. Ergo, to talk of contemporary art as having the same gravitas as classic art of past centuries, like the Mona Lisa or Beethoven’s Symphony No 5, would be sillier than talking about the eternal virtues of British Petroleum or Starbucks; they simply don’t exist.
This article is less about polemicizing people’s pursuit of pleasure, and more about what society has become at the insistence of an industry whose inner workings are poorly understood, even by those who work within it. Escapism has it’s place, and we all build castles in the air when we feel like it; the problems come when we try to live in them. The issue is not that mass media presents us with entertaining subject matter, but rather that all subject matter is presented as entertaining. The thrust of this industry is the universalization of amusement, however vapid, at the expense of contending with sophisticated ideas and pertinent issues. In its deference to such a goal, the West cannot be expected to shut down or restrict any part of its entertainment apparatus, and to suggest that they do so is to make no suggestion at all. But while we sit back and observe how the amusement industry continues to ramp up it’s production of content, there is no shortage of chuckles to be had at its foibles and pretensions, which at least provides us with many occasions for mockery, scorn and satire. At the very least, art and entertainment can be used as effective propaganda, which is not a complete failure of its potential.
Entertainment has colonized our culture, transforming it into one giant arena for show business and marketing. But it appears that in the end, most of us have found this to be quite delightful, and have in fact decided that we like it just fine; never mind that the ideals and behaviors being marketed will ultimately cripple us all. But until then, one can perhaps find solace in the words of one of the leading critics of modern mass media, George Orwell: “At least we still have some time to take advantage of the fact that radio and television stations are not yet guarded by the army.”
Greekspeek for thought
Of course Hollywood can’t make good movies anymore. Just look at the 21st century. It’s because of the audience that they’re accommodating; that’s why the movies are crap.
Why is Hollywood always releasing factually incorrect films? Because if they were forced to show what really happened, then the audience wouldn’t recognize what they were seeing. Imagine if they made a movie about how World War 2 really ended.
Pop culture and real history don’t mix. If you’re into one, you’ll be averse to the other.
The entertainment industry is made up of stupid people making content for other stupid people, ie, the public. If it was about smart people making stuff for stupid people, then at least they would inject some quality into their work for the sensibilities of those who aren’t stupid. But do they? No. So it’s a dog chasing its tail. The smart people don’t even get involved, because they know the whole industry is incorrigible.
After the age of 12, most people have become automatons. That’s why we have an entire subculture called “kids culture” that’s meant to prolong that infantile mindset for as long as possible.
If you don’t think pop culture is structured by PR companies, advertising agencies and marketing firms, then you need to start doing better research.
What the public doesn’t realize is that modern/contemporary art started off as something internal that was being made for it’s own community of artists. Their aesthetic had become desensitized from the pleasant, and in their attempt to regain some measure of sensitivity, they veered off into the perverse. It’s like when you eat so many sweets that they don’t taste the sweetness anymore, and so now you need stronger sweets. So the early artists were doing it for themselves, in order to satisfy their wayward sensibilities within their own culture. But when today’s public sees modern art, they’re afraid to look ignorant, so they pretend that they enjoy it.
It seems to me like today’s art is coming from a hive mind. It has a gradient to it that expresses where it came from, and you can tell that if the artist had tried to express any artistic freedom, they were slapped down and restricted, and the art-work reflects their torment.
The way that Hollywood depicts reality is often the opposite of how it actually is. Just look at their fight scenes. In reality, there are people who walk away from knife fights with some of their fingers missing because they chose to grab the blade and pull the knife away from their opponent, rather than risk getting stabbed in an organ. They knew that grabbing the knife away was the smartest move because the knife holder will react in either surprise and release the knife, or will tactically let it go because the knife is now an extension of themselves. In other words, what’s the difference between grabbing their arm or the knife? None. Sure, it could cost you a finger, but at least you’ll live. Does Hollywood ever show fight scenes with that kind of outcome? Nope. They just zoom in on close-ups and show fancy maneuvers. Here’s another example: when you light a cigar or cigarette, you should hold the flame about 5cm away to avoid burning the tobacco and turning it rancid. But Hollywood invariably shows people putting the flame on the end of the cigar. You’d be laughed at by cigar connoisseurs if you did that in real life. It means you let yourself be educated by the movies.
Sure, anyone can make art; just make bad art.