In their Dialectic of Enlightenment Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were giving warnings as far back as the 1940s about the effects of capitalism on culture. As well as reducing labour to a commodity to be bought and sold, capitalism also inevitably applies this same logic to artistic works. Such a change is justified on technological grounds as the only method to deliver this ‘product’ to consumers – consumers who in any case demanded such a ‘product’.
The underlying structure of the culture industry is the usual method of capitalist profit-motive which follows closely the technological instrumental reason of the Enlightenment. It may seem like a cliché of recent times to describe popular music as mass-produced, but this is precisely the point being made by the Frankfurt school 70 years ago. The justification for the narrow forms of culture which are delivered to consumers is simply public demand. What such an excuse fails to take into account is that public demand is generated by the industry itself and is circularly defined by the system – the idea that there is a Public to whose changing and unpredictable tastes the industry must adapt is a myth. The tendency for the music of developing nations to imitate the styles of First World countries is good evidence for this, although it is not an example mentioned by Adorno and Horkheimer specifically. Unless it is the case that Western society has discovered some objectively ‘correct’ trajectory in the development of its popular music, it certainly seems telling that the emergence of a capitalist economy in the Third World is accompanied by at least some standardisation of the popular music scene to Western capitalist norms.
The authors were also concerned that the over-abundance of culture was leading to a ‘satiation’ where no-one would look for real aesthetic enjoyment and instead be content with access to a lesser form of satisfaction, characterised in their eyes by the ‘hook’ of a popular song or the laughter of affirmation at a film. Adorno and Horkheimer were strikingly prescient about the transformative power of the television on society, but matters are perhaps graver than they imagined with the rise of the internet and personal digital music players. On the other hand, in its present state the internet allows access to a wider variety of culture which falls outside the remit of the industry itself and so could be a neutralising influence on the dominance of the culture industry. However, the industry itself seems to be aware of such a threat and the steady locking-down of the internet into a few highly regulated services such as Facebook and YouTube makes it seem more likely that this is a mere aberration, rather than a sign of future developments in culture.
The Dialectic is also prescient in its analysis of the ways that the culture industry attempts to assimilate anything lying outside its remit and to thereby remain dominant. Adorno writes of ‘talent scouts’ and ‘competitions’ which bring independent or autonomous music into its fold. Television programmes such as “Britain’s Got Talent” and “The Voice” show that this observation is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s. The argument that such programmes perform a service by giving an otherwise unavailable opening into the performing arts is itself an admission of the inseparable nature of the works of culture and the social system within which they are produced. In these programmes the industry plays the role of a beneficent gatekeeper, willing to allow admission into some sort of Great City of Culture whilst hiding the fact that it is they who erected the walls to this city in the first place.
A final justification for Adorno and Horkheimer’s work on the culture industry remaining relevant today is their analysis of ‘niche’ tastes. Any variance within the wants of the consumer audience is brought under control by assimilating a prima-facie wide variety of styles into the industry. The market is even capable of fulfilling an individual’s desire to be different by an artificial designation of a work of culture as ‘cult’. For evidence of this one need only examine the ‘genre’ labels of much popular music to find that the terms ‘Alternative’ and ‘Indie’ (ironically short for ‘independent’) occur with remarkable frequency.
These are just a few musings which require individual attention in order to ascertain their validity. Some of the insights here have become old hat but it is worth remembering that they were original at the time. On the other hand some are less commonly accepted but in my view they may well be worth reconsidering.