Theodor Adorno: Culture Industry Reconsidered

Right at the outset of the essay “Culture Industry Reconsidered”, Theodor Adorno corrects his previous work with Max Horkheimer by replacing the word “mass culture” with “cultural industry.” “Mass culture”, he articulates, suggests that the culture is being produced by the masses, which he debates is false.

Adorno’s inclination to argue from a Marxist perspective is clear; he is a harsh critic of commodity fetishism and the fact that the culture industry was serving capitalism. He argues that while cultural artefacts boast of being for the masses (the term mass-media suggests this), the industry that produces them understand the masses not as the subject of the artefact, but as the object. The culture industry assumes that ideologies that exist within the masses cannot be changed, and that the masses will consume what they desire to consume. The idea of commodity fetishism takes the form of art having value in accordance with its monetary worth, and not the art itself due to its intrinsic form. This blatant preference for profit while producing art, the planning and lack of spontaneity in art, are aspects that Adorno is uncomfortable with. For example, in India, the level at which Eros International Media Ltd functions, with operations in many countries and languages while making high revenue, is evidence of this. This argument is clear when he writes,

“Cultural entities typical of the culture industry are no longer also commodities, they are commodities through and through.”

While questioning the intention with which the culture industry manufactures cultural entities, Adorno also outlines how popular art standardizes the way in which masses perceive ideologies. He argues that culture produces encourages “eternal sameness”. His disdain towards industrialisation of art is apparent, especially when he argues that products of the culture industry seek to create illusions only as far as relieving the masses of the real issues that plague the world. Since the manufacturing of culture is so firmly rooted in technology, the correction of art does not lie within artistic boundaries (say, correction in the content), but in the techniques used to produce the art, which results in a lack of “aesthetic autonomy.”

When Adorno writes about popular art with skepticism, he underlines the fact that just because popular art caters to the masses, does not mean that the quality of the art cannot be questioned, especially when questioning makes the critic arrogant. In fact, the monopolistic nature is the reason why the culture industry needs to be questioned. Moreover, the industry cannot be allowed to exist freely without criticism simply because it provides the masses with social orientation during times of distress. Adorno is also inclined to believe that popular culture does have regressive effects on its viewers (“that steady drops hollow the stone”), even while admitting that such research has not been performed yet.

“The color film demolishes the genial old tavern to a greater extent than bombs ever could: the film exterminates its imago. No homeland can survive being processed by the films which celebrate it, and which thereby turn the unique character on which it thrives into an interchangeable sameness.”

Although Adorno’s essay was written in 1963, a lot of symptoms of the culture industry are relevant more so now than ever before. Adorno does leave room for the possibility of individual expression in the culture industry in spite of all the criticisms, but that has also been sandpapered away today. This is especially so because the individual human need to make art is lost, and behind every piece of art (film, music and television), there are contributions from many individuals whose primary purpose is not to make art, but to create an image that can be sold.

What Adorno is writing may be misconstrued as being elitist and uplifting “high culture”, criticising “low culture”, and asserting that only the former can intellectually stimulate people and fulfills all the needs that art can provide. This becomes especially questionable when high culture has generally been consumed by people with higher economic, social and cultural capital. However, in my opinion, Adorno assumes, in fact, that it is the culture industry that is creating the needs of the masses for profit-making interests. Does this mean that the mass audiences are “vulnerable” enough to not know what their true needs are, and that capitalism can misguide them into thinking that what they need are consumable goods? This raises the question of what Adorno considers to be art, and what art does to humans. Why do we have an inherent need to consume and/or produce art? And are new forms of media functionally replacing older media without also replacing all the needs that media and art fulfilled in the first place? The question of whether people today are more isolated than ever due to crumbling social order and transformations is an important one to ask. If the state of means of production in a neoliberal society alienates people from the larger picture of how goods are produced and what their contribution is during production, can the same be said about media and art? If we assume that we consume art as social beings, does the manufacture of art cause us to lose sight of our social needs?

Reference:

  1. Adorno, Theodor W., and Anson G. Rabinbach. “Culture industry reconsidered.” New German Critique 6 (1975): 12-19.