The Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer produced an incisive critique of modern culture through their work The Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which they introduced the term “Culture industry,” to describe mass cultural forms which, in the wake of capitalism, transform the individual from a thinking and discerning subject into an unthinking, passive consumer. The essay The Culture industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception is an unrelenting denunciation of the banalities of manipulative mass culture and a critique of Enlightenment Rationalism, which is seen as complicit with totalitarianism and capitalism.
Culture Industry refers to commercial and state-owned organisations in the arts and media committed to the direct production, sponsorship, display and distribution of cultural goods and services (such as exhibitions, sports events, books, newspapers and films). In Adorno’s essay, forms and effects of mass culture are seen to serve the ends of commodification and to duplicate the social relations of capitalism in the realm of ideology. Adorno points out that Enlightenment had proposed to bring pluralism and demystifification by endorsing rationality, but instead society has suffered a major fall as it has been corrupted by capitalist industry with exploitative motives. The term “culture industry” readily captures the Marxist assumption that cultural forms like paintings, operas and films are no different from other consumer products such as cars or television sets, thus affirming the Marxist belief that culture is not an abstract thing produced by an individual genius but a product of social and economic conditions in society.
Thus art is not a “pure” aesthetic realm but one which is produced and sold like any other consumer good. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, everything is appropriated stereotypically for mechanic and mass reproduction. All cultural products alike, ultimately serve to remind people of the “triumph of invested capital”, and to ensure that the might of industrial society is lodged in “men’s minds.”
The issues raised by Adorno and Horkheimer relate to both the traditional media as well as to information conglomerates and the operations of new technologies such as the Internet. Culture industries are products of transnational and globalised communication networks that operate beyond the borders of national government.