What is popular culture?

I found this video through Danielle Stern, who linked it from amplifyme (formerly Project Think Different). She argued that it is a good place to start a discussion about popular culture. I agree. Just like the video does, we need to define what we mean when we use terms like culture, popular culture, and popular.

Here are some definitions of culture:

  • Matthew Arnold: “Culture is a study of perfection” (Arnold, 1869, p. 8). and “the great men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the knowledge, the best ideas of their time” (p. 49)
  • Edward Tylor: “Culture, or civilization … is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tylor 1871, p. 1)
  • Dwight Macdonald: culture [better yet high culture] “is chronicled in the textbooks” (1962, p. 3).
  • Wikipedia: Of course they have an entry on it, but it is too long to excerpt. However, among one of the common usages of the word is to equate culture with “excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture.” If you notice, this is exactly how Macdonald uses the term culture

Dwight Macdonald‘s arguments:

  • There are differences between high culture and popular culture (which he calls masscult). (1) Masscult is mass produced, whereas “Culture” is produced by individuals; (2) masscult is commercial, repetitive, and unoriginal, whereas “culture” is unique, creative, and original; (3) masscult appeals to the masses (and they don’t know what’s culture anyway), whereas “culture” appeals to the higher intellects and sensitivities; (4) masscult is devoid of any standards; yet culture has standards; (5) masscult dehumanizes you, and teaches nothing; but culture elevates your spirits, and makes you a better person.

But who makes those decisions about “taste”, “originality”, or “value.” ? Who, in other words, empowered Matthew Arnold, or Dwigth Macdonald as the arbiters of culture? This is not a simple question, and it is not an idle question. Furthermore, as with the definitions of culture, it has multiple answers. For example, Marx and Engels would tell you that these matters are settled by “the ruling class” (because at all points of history, the ideals of the ruling class are the ruling ideals.” Control of the means of production and distribution give the ruling class (whoever they are) dominance. Althusser, much in the same vein, would add that it’s all about the control of the Ideological State Apparatuses (like institutions, schools, religion), through which ideas are disseminated. And Bourdieu, similarly, would point out that there is absolutely nothing natural about taste: it is something we learn, and it is socially-constructed.

Here are some structures in our society that support distinctions between high culture and popular culture:

  • The Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences. They give out the Oscars and some of the nominated films not box office hits. Hence, they’re judged based on standards of quality that separate them from other films.
  • Schools: I’m not very familiar with the American school system, but in Nicaragua we study art, we don’t study pop art. Art is serious business.
  • Art galleries and museums, though the lines are sometimes sketchy. Still, an established community makes the argument that Andy Warhol’s “Campbell Soup Cans” are art.

Who decides what will be popular?

Jacques Barzun doubts the existence of a popular culture because the people are not involved in its production. It’s all mass-produced. Hence, can it really reflect a society’s “life and soul” (2001, p. 3)? In Barzun, we find the concern with authenticity, which is also echoed by those who wonder about the values that are transmitted through popular culture. Does gangsta rap represent an authentic African American experience? Does reggeaton represent the Nuyorican community? Shouldn’t we be saying: enough already? Give us “our” culture (or whatever) back?

Not according to Chuck Klosterman. Here’s a quote from his essay:

If you feel betrayed by culture, it’s not because you’re right and the universe is wrong; it’s only because you’re not like most other people. But this should make you happy, because — in all — likelihood — you hate those other people anyway. You are being betrayed by a culture that has no relationship to who you are or how you live.

Now, this does not really answer the question of who decides what will become popular. According to Macdonald, it’s an evil  cabala of the “Lords of Masscult,” and Barzun states that it is the industries (media industries, that is). Klosterman doesn’t address this question at all, but it’s clear that he doesn’t think it’s you or I.

But more on that later… when we read Malcolm Gladwell, we’ll revisit this point.



  • Arnold. M. (1869). Culture and anarchy: An essay in political and social criticism. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  • Barzun, J. (2002). The tenth muse. In S.J. Gould & R. Atwan (Eds.). Best American Essays. pp. 1-12. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Klosterman, C. (2004, December 31). Culture got you down? Esquire. Retrieved July 20, 2007 from http://www.esquire.com/features/chuck-klostermans-america/ESQ0105-JAN_AMERICA_rev
  • Macdonald, D. (1962). Masscult and Midcult. Against the American grain. New York: Random House.