Mass culture is a pejorative term developed by both conservative literary critics and Marxist theorists from the 1930s onwards to suggest the inferiority of commodity-based capitalist culture as being inauthentic, manipulative and unsatisfying. This inauthentic mass culture is contrasted to the authenticity claimed for high culture (as well as to an imagined people’s culture). In this context high culture is understood to be the peak of civilization and the concern of an educated minority. Further, both the authentic culture of the people and the minority culture of the educated elite are said to have been lost to the standardization processes of industrialized ‘mass culture’.
For traditional cultural and literary criticism the romantic idea of the ‘artistic object’, produced by the ‘artistic soul’, is allied to a sense of the complexity and authenticity of the work of art. It is argued that the quality work is distinctive in the subtlety, complexity and adequacy of its formal expression of content. This in turn requires the necessary skills and work by readers in order to access a genuine aesthetic experience. By contrast, mass culture is seen as superficial and unsatisfying as a consequence of both its formal inadequacy and its production by capitalist corporations seeking to maximize their profits by selling to the lowest common denominator. Thus, ‘mass culture’ is held to be inauthentic because it is not produced by ‘the people’, manipulative because its primary purpose is to be purchased and unsatisfying because it requires little work to consume and thus fails to enrich its consumers.
These are the views of conservative critics like F.R. Leavis but they are not dissimilar from those of the Marxist-inspired Frankfurt School on this issue. Thus, Adorno and Horkheimer coined the term ‘the culture industry’ to suggest that culture is now a production of capitalist corporations who produce commodities that purport to be democratic, individualistic and diversified, but are in actuality authoritarian, conformist and highly standardized. Thus mass culture is mass deception. This involves not just ‘meanings’ but the structuring of the human psyche into the conformist ways of the ‘authoritarian personality’.
On the whole, cultural studies has argued against seeing culture as ‘mass culture’ and has adopted the more sympathetic concept of ‘popular culture’. This is in part because the judgements of quality on which the idea of mass culture is founded are derived from an institutionalized and class-based hierarchy of cultural taste. Indeed, judgements about aesthetic quality are always open to contestation so that universal evaluations are not sustainable. The concepts of beauty, harmony, form and quality can be applied as much to a machine as to a novel or a painting and are thus culturally relative. Elite cultural critics have commonly by-passed popular cultural forms for social as much as ‘creative’ reasons.
Rather than be in the business of aesthetic judgement, cultural studies has tended to develop arguments that revolve around the social and political consequences of constructing and disseminating specific discursive constructions of the world. Nevertheless, the relativity of ‘value’ within cultural studies leads to a dilemma. On the one hand, there is a desire to legitimize popular and nonWestern culture as valuable in the face of a traditional Western high cultural aesthetic disdain. On the other hand, there is a reluctance to sanction a position in which we are disbarred from making judgements about the products of the culture industries. Of course, cultural studies does make value judgements about cultural products. However, these conclusions tend to be based on political rather than aesthetic criteria.
The critics of mass culture tend to over-emphasize aesthetics and the internal construction of cultural products assuming audience reaction from an analysis of texts. This is a position challenged by cultural studies research into cultural consumption which argues that meanings are produced, altered and managed at the level of use by people who are active producers of meaning. That is, rather than being inherent in the commodity, meaning and value are constructed through actual usage. In general, critics who stress the production of culture talk of ‘mass culture’ while writers who stress consumption prefer to call it ‘popular culture’.