Collision of the Classes: By Lauren Pickens

topshop image

During London Fashion Week 2013, the powerhouse high street brand, Topshop held a show in the Tate Modern. The styles were showcased featured the modern and edgy style the brand is known for with touches of grunge mixed in. The grungy vibe of the clothing was matched by the venue as it was held in a temporary space of the Tate called The Tanks, which is comprised of industrial oil tanks that hold a certain eeriness (Ruth Crilly). The Tanks act as a temporary space that will hold a variety of events including dance, fashion, and performance art. Placing a high street fashion show within the confines of a space that is typically reserved for forms of art that are considered high culture allows the two categories of art to mold together in order to form a class that is more accessible. This level of accessibility can be seen in current popular art. Fashion photography has the tendency to straddle the line between simply being advertisements and being art. The work of fashion photographer Juergen Teller is a testament to this conflict. The ICA (Institute for Contemporary Art) is currently running an exhibition by Teller titled Woo! It features images of celebrities, models, and fashion mixed in with photographs depicting landscapes, family portraits, and personal experiences of his life. Teller creates an experience that effectively blending popular art that mirror images that we see in the media with higher forms of photography.  Both instances raise inquiry to whether or not art that is produced for the masses can be as worthwhile and valuable as high art.

Dwight MacDonald’s view of high culture are the ideas and practices which are “chronicled in textbooks” while mass culture is “manufactured for the market. Also that it should instead be called masscult “since it really isn’t culture at all” (MacDonald, 3). He insists that masscult is churned out for the public to consume and devoid of creativity, life, and effort. However, MacDonald doesn’t believe that all high art is necessarily good art, but that high art has the possibility to be good art because it has the potential to be unique. According to his theories the production of mass cult views does not regard the individual and therefore is unable to possess human qualities (MacDonald, 8). Masscult also does not have the ability to stimulate thought or feeling in those who consume it; robbing masscult of the chance to be successful art. Topshop advertisements and shows are made for the masses as they are high street fashion, if we are prescribing to MacDonald’s theories it does not have the potential to be meaningful art. The same could be said for the works of Juergen Teller, as fashion photography is for the consumption of the masses it falls within the realm of masscult.

MacDonald’s theory of masscult also relies on the fact that there must be a class who decides what art deserves to be recorded and regarded as high culture, and the forms of art which are produced purely for distraction and consumption. Marxist writer and philosopher, Antonio Gramsci discusses the idea of hegemony. Hegemony causes, “the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as domination and as intellectual and moral leadership” (Gramsci, 215). In regards to arts, the ruling class informs the lower class on both what they should consume and how they will judge the productions of art that they consume. This class can take the form of media, government, tutors, and even institutions of art.

I would argue that although fashion photography and other forms of art can be produced in order to be aimed at the masses, the individual person has the capacity to interpret the work as he/she chooses. All people interpret works of art differently because we all have different experiences, and could therefore impart meaning on a work of art that was not created with meaning. I do not think that the lines between high culture and masscult are as clear as MacDonald assumes and I do believe that the two classes intersect and intertwine constantly. I think that the same thing can be said for hegemony. Outside factors undoubtedly affect the forms of art that we view as worthwhile and those that are outside of the cannon. However, I also think that individuals pick and choose what they absorb and internalize from the ruling class, instead of blindly and literally absorbing all information that is filtered down from higher classes.

Against the American Grain. Dwight MacDonald. 1962. New York.

Prison Notebooks: Selections. Antonio Gramsci. 1970. New York.

The (Creepy) Tate Modern Tanks. Ruth Crilly. February 20, 2013.


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