Lost in the Miasma (of a Nebulously Conceived Postindustrial Economy)

Characters from Mad Men

The Sunday Times magazine’s lead article, What Was, Is and Will Be Popular, by the Times’ culture editor Adam Sternbergh, makes the case that it isn’t as easy to track popularity as it once was. Raised during a time when there was a simple one dimensional Top 40 list, I am fascinated by the nuances that have emerged in charting just how deeply something has successfully penetrated human culture.

This is a good example:

We’ve seen the rise of mass culture, pop culture, camp culture and trash culture; the cross-pollination of highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow and nobrow; and, with the advent of the Internet, the introduction of a battalion of shiny new metrics with which we can measure something’s popularity to the second, the penny, the click. We are now better equipped than at any time in history to judge, say, the most popular pop song of a given moment, yet we’re more confounded by what all this popularity actually means…

Now the concept of cultural popularity has been flayed, hung by its heels and drained of all meaning. For example: “NCIS,” the naval-police procedural, is the highest-rated non-football program on television, routinely drawing 17 million viewers a week. By a straightforward accounting, that makes it the most popular show on TV. Yet by a different definition — the extent to which, say, a show saturates the cultural conversation — you could make a case for “Mad Men” as TV’s most popular show, even though it draws only 2.5 million viewers. Or “Girls,” which draws a paltry 615,000 viewers a week but sometimes feels as if it has generated at least as many essays. By one measure, no one watches “Girls.” By another, it’s fantastically popular…

Where does this leave the concept of popularity? Paradoxically, popularity is now both infinitely quantifiable and infinitely elusive.

In looking through the lists of “winners” in the article, I was admittedly shocked at how few of the entries in this cultural artifacts battle I could have guessed would show up or, in some cases, even be able to identify. I am not alone in feeling out of the loop. Sternbergh admitted he had never seen or heard many of the top scoring shows and songs, and he’s the New York Times culture editor. His description of our lives now is an apt one: “We don’t live in echo chambers so much as isolation booths.”

Popular culture and its vagaries has a strange similarity to the paradoxes identified in a book that is much more in my visual arts wheelhouse: 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, by Ben Davis. Looking at the world of art through a primarily Marxist lens, Davis has written a book that explores the contradictions and challenges that are specific to art making, art selling and the art “lifestyle.” There is also a suggestion of the mystery of what has traction and penetration in the visual arts, and what is just ephemeral and faddish. These concepts are not one dimensional but more in line with the complexity exposed in the timelessly insightful Lipstick Traces, by Greil Marcus.

This is rich and complex stuff, and I don’t want to flatten the depth of Davis’ thinking with a few breezy extracts. If you are compelled by questions about how creative labor fits into economic models, this would be a book for you.

Here is a sampling meant to whet the appetite, not satiate it:

For Adorno, repulsion toward popular culture was the flip side of an anguished passion for the more difficult efflorescences of modern art, which he argued—drawing on the the rhetoric of Marxist dialectics—held out hope for some kind of experience that wasn’t subordinated to the instrumentalized logic of capitalism.

The struggles of visual artists are collapsed together with the experiences of a whole motley range of other types of intellectual and service workers—scientists, financial analysts, nurses, and Walmart greeters are mentioned in the same breath—and accorded more or less equal political potential. Any sense of what makes the specific form of labor performed by contemporary artists unique is lost in the miasma of a nebulously conceived postindustrial economy based on “immaterial labor.”

As artists their collective labor doesn’t really add up to anything larger and is not related to any larger institution that they could take control of collectively. Artists merely form a collection of individualities, of individual franchises jostling to distinguish themselves from one another…

As Carl Andre, once an advocate of identifying radical art with blue-collar labor, said in 1979 when asked to join in a global “artist strike” against the system, “From whom would artists be withholding their art if they did go on strike? Alas, from no one but themselves.”

For people not embedded in contemporary art, who have only the outside picture of auctions and galas, it is difficult to explain how deep-rooted is the belief in artmaking’s inherent righteousness and radicalism among the the cognoscenti.

Many of these extracts speak powerfully to me, and they are worth more exploration in future posts.

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