Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE ( (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2013. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 17 September 2019

Popular Culture.

The Oxford Companion to United States History

Martha Bayles

Popular Culture. 

“Popular culture” is a problematic term. To use it as an antonym of “high culture” is both illogical and ahistorical: illogical because the antonyms of “popular” and “high” are, respectively, “elite” and “low”; ahistorical because many civilizations have produced art that is both high and popular. Examples from western Europe include the plays of Shakespeare, Beethoven's symphonies, and the paintings of the impressionists. In the United States the novels of Samuel L. Clemens, the silent films of Charlie Chaplin, and the jazz of Louis Armstrong are generally understood to possess both high artistic merit and broad appeal.

Matters of commerce and technology further complicate the task of definition. Concerns about commercialism in culture date to eighteenth-century England, where increasing literacy among the middle classes created a market for the inexpensive novels and periodicals pouring out of the “penny presses” on London's Grub Street. To the educated aristocracy, this flood of cheap reading matter threatened to engulf serious literature—and for a century the novel itself was considered an inferior art form.

Elite and Popular Taste in Colonial and Nineteenth-Century America.

In the American Colonial Era, such aristocratic attitudes were associated with British rule and had little to do with vital developments such as the emergence of a vernacular style of mechanical design now admired for its economy, simplicity, and ease of reproduction. After the Revolutionary War, European disdain for American culture was countered by a new pride in republican ideals and a rejection of Old World models. For example, in early nineteenth-century sheet music, English and French tunes were spurned in favor of homegrown fare: New England shape-note hymns, patriotic ballads, and drinking songs such as Thomas Paine's Adams and Liberty.

But the dream of a new “new Arcadia” did not last. By the late Antebellum Era, the battle lines were redrawn between the educated elite who, despising popular taste and commercialism, urged Americans to emulate their cultural betters in Europe; and the common people who, embracing the frontier egalitarianism of Andrew Jackson, displayed a more aggressive cultural populism. These tensions were evident in the public theaters, where the rich in their “boxes” applauded anything they considered refined and European, while the poor in the “pit” (ground floor) and “gallery” (balcony) hurled missiles at anything they considered pretentious and foreign. Sometimes open conflict ensued. The 1849 Astor Place Riot in New York City, which claimed twenty-two lives, began in a brawl between rival supporters of the American actor Edwin Forrest and the “aristocratic” British actor William Macready.

Nonetheless, the nineteenth century brought distinctively American styles of comedy, drama, music, and dance within such popular entertainments as traveling circuses, built into a national enterprise by the promotional hype of P.T. Barnum; variety theater, which originated in the all-male frontier saloon but was dominated for several years by female impresarios; and blackface minstrelsy, which traded in demeaning racial stereotypes but introduced white audiences to at least a semblance of African-American culture. After the Civil War, minstrelsy was opened to black performers and became a unique training ground for their talents. Similarly, the well-organized and well-financed form of entertainment known as vaudeville, which replaced minstrelsy in the 1880s and thrived until 1930, provided opportunities for countless first- and second-generation immigrants. In their day, none of these entertainments was regarded as high art, usually with good reason. Yet out of this rough-and-tumble milieu exploded the phenomenon of twentieth-century popular culture.

The Popular Culture Debate in the Twentieth Century.

With the advent of the electronic media (film, radio, recorded music, and television), these popular forms gained new outlets and, in the case of jazz and film, began a rapid ascent to the level of genuine art. Soon, old aristocratic concerns about the vulgarizing effects of commerce were joined with new worries about the homogenizing effects of technology. Alarmed by Adolf Hitler's use of the radio and influenced by the work of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, the European émigré intellectuals who presided over the “mass culture debate” of the 1940s and 1950s, notably Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, warned of an American future in which the ruling elite would dominate the populace through a “consciousness industry” based in the mass media.

Were they right? It sometimes appeared so in the twentieth century's closing decades, as huge conglomerates such as the Disney corporation sought to control and profit from every stage of cultural production and distribution; educators deplored the power of movies, television, and popular music to supplant books and the traditional fine arts; and children's advocacy groups warned of the potential social and psychological harm of youthful exposure to increasingly explicit portrayals of sex and violence. And a few survivors from the older generation of cultural theorists continued to dissect the ways in which “commodified” cultural products reinforce the social, economic, and political status quo.

Yet a countervailing trend arose among cultural theorists who came of age during the 1960s. For these analysts, popular culture was not simply a top-down phenomenon but also a bottom-up one. While acknowledging the power of the media to disseminate “hegemonic” beliefs and values, they also paid attention to the ways popular culture had become an arena for symbolic self-assertion on the part of oppressed minorities and socially marginal groups.

Fragmentation and Consolidation.

An important development not predicted by the postwar “mass culture” theorists was the fragmentation of the “mass audience” into several different markets—some overlapping and others quite distinct. The process was initiated by the entertainment industry itself, when it began to divide the audience by categories such as race (in the 1940s, when local radio stations began to program specifically for blacks), age (in the 1950s, when the recording industry discovered teenagers), and gender (in the 1970s, when network television began to “target” young adult women). Soon this splintering of the audience acquired its own momentum, spinning out of the industry's control and unfolding in tandem with technological changes from cable and the videocassette recorder to satellite broadcasting and the Internet.

At the same time, huge audiences continued to coalesce around phenomena such as blockbuster films, hit television shows, major sports events, notorious murder trials, celebrity funerals, terrorist catastrophes, and political scandals. The dangers once thought to inhere in such upwellings of “mass consciousness” came to be mitigated by some observers' perception that certain media events may serve to unite an increasingly diverse population. Another mitigating factor was the mass audience's skepticism, even hostility, toward the media—even as that same audience demonstrated an insatiable appetite for saturation coverage of topics that a few years earlier would have been considered off-limits to public scrutiny.

The Intertwining and Cross-Fertilization of Popular and Elite Culture.

Also unforeseen by the “mass culture” theorists was the complex intertwining of popular with elite culture that accompanied the maturing of the electronic media. Curiously, a majority of both the critics and the champions of popular culture defined this process as a leveling one. The critics, lamenting the “contamination” of high culture by popular culture, sounded the death-knell of taste and excellence. The more vociferous champions of popular culture, celebrating what they saw as a much-needed blow to elitist standards, called for the total elimination of standards in the name of democracy.

Meanwhile, a minority of observers insisted on placing the process in a more positive light—as part of a healthy, ongoing, inevitable cross-fertilization between the culture of the many and the culture of the few. This view was reinforced by history. Many major American artists have been inspired by popular genres: Herman Melville by the explorer's journal, Ralph Ellison by African-American folklore, the architect Robert Venturi (1925– ) by the casinos of Las Vegas. At other times, modes of expression considered mere entertainment have gained acceptance as genuine art: the jazz compositions of Duke Ellington, the Hollywood films of John Ford, the “Pogo” comic strips of Walt Kelly, the detective novels of Dashiell Hammett, the songs of Cole Porter. And on occasion a figure labeled “serious” and a figure labeled “popular” have engaged in fruitful interaction: the American cubist painter Stuart Davis and the jazz pianist Earl Hines, for example.

Yet this straightforward approach to popular culture remains a minority one. Why? The complicating factor here has been the long-standing tendency of those who study “folk” or “vernacular” culture to dismiss anything that bears the taint of commerce. Thus, purist folklorists have endorsed the painstaking collection of orally-transmitted materials (such as tales and songs) while roundly denouncing anyone who adapts those materials for sale in the marketplace. In the purist view, such “commodification” instantly renders its object inauthentic.

Even when all of the above obstacles to definition have been sorted out, a daunting task remains: to evaluate the good or ill wrought by popular culture. If traditional artistic standards do not apply, what shall replace them? Rare indeed is the observer who refrains from making some sort of “value judgment,” whether on aesthetic or ideological grounds. Popular culture is simply not a phenomenon that one contemplates with passionless neutrality. But after all, isn't that a tribute to its amazing vitality?

See also African Americans; Amusement Parks and Theme Parks; Capitalism; Disney, Walt; Folk Art and Crafts; Foreign Relations: The Cultural Dimension; Leisure; Literature, Popular; Mass Marketing; Multinational Enterprises; Music: Popular Music; Musical Theater; Painting; Social Class; Sports; Theater; Urbanization.


Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White, eds., Mass Culture, 1957.Find this resource:

    John A. Kouwenhoven, The Arts in Modern American Civilization, 1967 (originally Made in America, 1948).Find this resource:

      Henry Pleasants, The Great American Popular Singers, 1974.Find this resource:

        Ian M.G. Quimby and Scott T. Swank, eds., Perspectives on American Folk Art, 1980.Find this resource:

          Richard Schickel, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity, 1985.Find this resource:

            Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, 1988.Find this resource:

              Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, 1988.Find this resource:

                Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudsen, eds., Rethinking Popular Culture, 1991.Find this resource:

                  Ralph Ellison, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, 1995.Find this resource:

                    Martha Bayles