• Sam Jennings

The Trouble with Popular Art in a Neoliberal World

The bigger, the more popular something is, the less ought to be written about it. This directly contradicts the spirit of our age, a time in which every giant blockbuster film or pop star’s next project must inevitably exist within a critical space that has overwhelmingly given over to the Op-Ed and woke-industrial complexes. Not even tweets or interviews are to be left undiscussed. Everything that reaches large amounts of people must be evaluated according to ever-changing metrics of how woke-or-not-woke it is, what it “says,” how inclusive it is or is not, how well it engages with the political moment. And though these are factors most open-minded people find worth considering, the result is, again and again, entertainments which bend and are bent in that direction. Entertainments whose entire raisons d’etre are, simply, to feed the cycle.

For instance: a Black Panther, or a Captain Marvel, or a new Star Wars movie, is pitched as an answer to critiques of a studio’s past output (too white, too male, too woke, too feminist), and is then processed through a media system which argues its artistic success or failure according to its ability to answer the critique. This in turn sets up the next steps the property or franchise needs to take to satisfy the further requirements of this media audience. The same with pop stars old and new—an album comes out and the takes role in: is it feminist? Is it not? Does it represent the “future” of pop music? This future usually being a vague prophecy that is somehow both sexless and oversexed—a version of the ideal post-racial, post-gender world many people accept we are slowly evolving towards.

The ultimate result: entertainment cannot be taken as it is, as entertainment, but instead as necessary, important, vital. Critical vocabulary imported from the space which once belonged to literature, art films, or the Avant Garde. The Pretentious. Today, our mass entertainment has to embody the old role of the Totem, the Zeitgeist. Above all it must represent the ideal values of a certain class of liberal-minded and media-saturated people. And all the shadowy urges and unconscious fears, desires, and fantasies which sustained the grit and glamor of popular art in the 20th century must be expunged, whenever possible. Unless it represents a didactic lesson in morals, the smut and smell of real human beings cannot be shown. And fantasies, of course, are always suspect, and we must be careful to make sure the wrong ones don’t get shown to the wrong people.

The ongoing reality of this particular kind of branding-as-art comes to suggest several things: the impossibility of an Avant Garde, the gradual replacement of galvanizing art and literature by reactionary entertainment, and eventually the total transformation of the role of culture in our society. As political institutions have been revealed to be less and less effective, mass culture has been raised as its hopeful replacement. This is culture under the neoliberal paradigm.

The Last Laugh, F.W. Murnau (1924)

Remember the response to Joker? Never mind that the film clearly believed it was much more important than it was (which is, in fact, the real definition of pretension)—remember the early scrabble to declare it either A) a terrifyingly reactionary incitement to violence or B) a hymn to class struggle and modern alienation. The overwhelming rush of the big branches of the media to convince us of the former only ended up leading to its absolutely staggering success and the apparent validation of the latter. Few discussed its artistic merit. Those that did seemed to agree that it was merely alright: the result of expert technicians and one of the most respected actors in the world being placed in service of a shallow, albeit sympathetic, picture of our society. What was so truly terrifying about the situation was not that millions of people might have thought the film was great art (some do). What was terrifying was the reaction of the bourgeoise liberal and Big-Media classes, the way they instantly rushed in to do what they always do: manage. Manage opinions, manage fears. Manage the flow of people’s money. The neoliberal world is one which is built, always, to manage every tiniest thing. And once again, the patronizing consensus arose: people cannot be trusted to make up their own minds about things, above all about art. They must be told what is and isn’t okay. Working class people and people on either edge of the poverty line are especially ignorant, and susceptible to bad influence. It is the duty of progressive, liberal-minded people to explain why something is bad. And since it is wealth which keeps the theaters open, wealth which funds the art galleries, wealth which ensures the biggest stars get the most streams, it is the dictums of the wealthy which usually make it possible for artists to work at all.

If you’ve paid attention in the last few decades, then you have seen, felt—even if you can’t directly articulate it—what has happened. What we’ve witnessed, instead of any deeper societal change, is a large-scale redirection of potential political and radical energies towards a completely virtual project of progress in which all the signifiers exist on paper, on screen, or between lines of a pop song, but aren’t meaningfully manifested in the real world. Bourgeoise involvement in art is often no more than a continual process of rude awakenings, followed by deeper and deeper illusions of progress. Paradoxically, committing to a cultural project of “challenging” institutions requires the use of institutions which are directly designed to deflect any and all real challenge to their authority. A popular exhibit which promises to “confront” colonialism, or a franchise film which consciously eschews genre stereotypes, may give us the feeling that we have witnessed progress. Meanwhile, nothing has really changed for anyone, beyond the exchange of money and the further enrichment of wealthy patrons, producers, studios, and advertisers.

We have discovered that anything—any narrative or academic term, any social justice mantra, all forms of nostalgia and future utopianism, no matter how outré, can be commodified and incorporated. Incorporated into brand campaigns, music, tentpole movies. Whether any of it is good or aesthetically accomplished is almost beside the point. And regardless, these are terms which most people scoff at, even as they hand over their ticket to a $200,000,000 advertisement for Coke or the U.S. military. What matters is the narrative around the experience, the stage of social progress which it claims to represent. The business model: package enlightened liberal values and sentiments and sell them back to the people who already believe in them, in a seemingly endless ritual of quasi-religious absolution.

The First Night of Sound, Warners' Theatre (1926)

Where does all this lead except to more of what it already is? Can we be called naïve for looking for a way out? There are always ideas in competition with one another. In his classic documentary for the BBC, “Hypernormalisation,” eternal pessimist Adam Curtis made the case that as the West shifted control of its systems from governmental bodies to financial institutions, it created a world in which ideas of political change dissipated completely. The builders were replaced by managers. Combine that with the plundering of the Middle East, the Internet, and the individualist mantra to consume, consume until you die, and you get a population headed for a schism with reality. It seems we can all agree that 2016 was probably the first time enough people experienced it on a mass scale. There is a version of this story which continues on and on into a more hopeless future, with people devolving into different camps of differing degrees of a kind of psychosis.

But there is a more hopeful story, too. If life under COVID has made anything clear, it is that this view of culture stops mattering as the system stops working. Observe how CNN and MSNBC have fully abandoned #MeToo in the face of their presidential hopeful’s probable assault of a woman. See how the lynching of a young black man in Georgia reveals once again how little our ostensibly liberal society takes civil rights seriously. Watch as trust in corporate media operations which profit from misery 24-hours-a-day plummets.

The duty of artists now can’t be to pretend that tragedy is magically surmountable. We have been saying for a long time that art is not enough. The terrifying truth is that it always has been. All horrors human beings have been through, they have been through because they had real, spiritual dimensions to their lives to shelter from the horror, and it was always art which gave them this. This is not a political pronouncement. Far as I see, if you don’t recognize the need for radical politics, you and I will disagree over many things.

But if we continue to let art slip away from us, from our everyday, from our lives, we will not have the strength to change a thing. What is required now of artists is the courage to do what they do, without appeal to authority, without the need for the validation of power or institution. We do not need to call for powerful groups of people to adjudicate for us what is good. That is our right to discover for ourselves. We need the flexibility and strength to believe that each person has the right to their mind, to their feelings, to their beliefs. That the power of art lies somewhere in its ability to make us feel alive, not its ability to chide us, belittle us, or exploit us. And it is necessary for of all of us to be able to hold two ideas in our heads at once: to see in other people this alive-ness, the reason for art itself; and yet also to see, in all forms of authority over us, a subject far worthier of the suspicion we reserve for each other.

What is required is the human being—full, messy, beautiful, awful, and strange—making art in service of our fellow human beings—full, messy, beautiful, awful, and strange. As a start.

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