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The notion of culture is both difficult and complex to define due to the history of its usage (Williams, 1981, p. 10). Many meanings have been affixed to the term 'culture' as a result of its usage both in academia and everyday life. 'Culture' originally alludes to the agricultural cultivation of crops, branched out later to describe a person - "cultured person" (Barker, 2008, p. 40). In this context, 'culture' is synonymous with education, refinement and enlightenment. The term has then been used to refer to "a whole and distinctive way of life" at a later period (Williams, 1981, p. 11). This includes the daily routine and habits of a community, from the way they dress to the economic activities they engage in. Based on these meanings affixed to 'culture', Williams categorised them into two positions: the idealist and the materialist concepts of culture (p. 12). This essay aims to compare and contrast how these two concepts of culture are understood and applied in the theorisation of culture and society.
The idealist concept of culture sees culture as the "informing spirit" (Williams, 1981, p. 11). Culture is said to be like a 'spirit' that enlightens the mind and drives one to be a better person, hence the term a 'cultured' person. Arnold (as cited in Barker, 2008) described culture as "the best that has been thought and said in the world" (p. 40). From this statement, we can deduce that the idealist view of culture is selective and tends to make a distinction between 'high' and 'low' culture. This distinction is made based on the quality of the cultural product, which should meet the demands of a universal set of aesthetic criteria or 'truths' (Barker, 2008, p. 46). This view of culture is quite similar to the view of religion: transcendental, timeless and independent of society. According to Arnold, what constitutes as high culture would be activities that improves the mind (Barker, 2008, p. 40), such as reading Milton or Shakespeare. On the other hand, the materialist concept of culture views culture as "a whole social order" (Williams, 1981, p. 11). This view is concerned with the structure, practices and institutions of a society. It sees the "material conditions of life" as the determinants of culture (Marx, 1973, p. 67). This means that culture is largely shaped by the political, social and economic forces that are present in society. It is a very empirical take on culture as it focuses on experiences of real life situations rather than intangible and abstract ideas. The materialist concept also stresses on a holistic view of these material conditions in the study of culture. Both Classical Marxism and the Frankfurt School share the materialist concept of culture. However, the former is more economic determinist, as seen in Marx's (1973) writing; whereas the latter focuses more on the role of media, as seen in Adorno and Horkheimer's (1977) writing.
Both the idealist and materialist concepts of culture share similar views with regards to mass society theory. Mass society emerged when there was mass production, made possible by industrialisation and technological advancement. This phenomenon is viewed by the idealists with disdain. Leavis (as cited by Swingewood, 1977) observed that culture was being threatened by industrialisation, which was responsible for the gradual eradication of tradition, custom and the "organic community" (p. 8). This organic community is one that exists during the pre-industrial period, when relations between humans are more personal instead of contractual; when traditions and shared values are upheld. Back then, people found work "meaningful" and could actually enjoy working (Swingewood, 1977, p. 8). In the mass society, workers are like mere machines and automatons. Mass culture which comes from mass society is seen as the antithesis of high culture. It is said to "weaken" and "impoverish" our minds (Swingewood, 1977, p. 8). Mass culture is responsible for dumbing down members of the community, which brings about a sense of cultural decline. This is pointed out by Conrad (1982), accusing the television for wrecking familial relations and pacifying its viewers (p. 3 & 6). Family members spend more time watching the programmes aired on television, which are nothing more than spectacles, than conversing with each other.
Marx (1973) believes that human economic activity is the foundation of culture and society, which comprises of the material forces of production and the relations of production (p. 67). In other words, the base is made up of the interaction between elements like technology and class relations. Above the base is the superstructure, in which institutions such as the law and religion are located (Marx, 1973, p. 67). Culture is also situated in the superstructure, which is believed to be directly affected by changes in the base. Marx points out that a stage will be reached when the interaction between the two components in the base will be damaging to culture and society (p. 79). Marx is referring to the rise of capitalism and industrialisation, from which mass society emerged. The working class is exploited and inequality occurs. However, this is disguised through the propagation of ideological messages in mass society, which benefits the ruling class (Barker, 2008, p. 56). The Frankfurt School is more concerned with the threats of the media, the 'culture industry', which is seen as the commodification of culture. Adorno and Horkheimer (1977) observe that although mass production of cultural commodities unifies the social system, it does this through manipulative means and views audience as statistics (p. 351). In other words, the audience is viewed as a market, a group of objects that are nothing more than numbers. The television, a product and channel of mass culture, is reproducing passive and susceptible individuals (Adorno, 1964, p. 479). This is done through the dissemination of the original and hidden messages in television programming. In simple terms, mass culture is seen as a degradation of culture by both the idealist and materialist.
The idealist and materialist concepts have different takes on what constitutes the root of problems in mass society. Leavis (as cited in Swingewood, 1977) attributes it to the decrease of "an informed and cultivated public" (p. 9). Most members of society are incapable of appreciating and discerning high culture from low culture. They are deemed 'uneducated', unrefined, and even immoral. Marx and the Frankfurt School, on the other hand, point the finger at the capitalist system (Barker, 2008, p. 49 & p. 56). Ideas of the ruling class are propagated in the form of ideologies through cultural commodities, seeking to 'naturalise' these ideas in the minds of the public. Thus, creating what Marx terms as "false consciousness" (Barker, 2008, p. 62): meaning we are living believing in a falsehood. By subscribing to these ideologies, we are oblivious to being exploited because we accept it as a 'natural' thing. In the context of the Frankfurt School, we are fooled into thinking that the cultural industry is catering to our wants when in actuality we are actually 'tricked' into thinking that we enjoy a form of customer sovereignty.
A solution is needed to curb the threats and abasement brought by mass society. Here, we see a divergence between the idealist and Classical Marxist view. A solution proposed by both Arnold and Leavis is the need to have a cultured minority (Barker, 2008, p. 40). The duty of this minority is to evaluate, safeguard and preserve the best of culture (Schiach, 1989, p. 179). This minority is entrusted with a saviour-like responsibility to 'rescue' society from cultural decline. Thompson (as cited by Schiach, 1989) equates the wellbeing of a society to bodily health (p. 179). It is suggested that as long as we follow the set of cultural values 'prescribed' to us by the 'doctors' - the cultured minority - society will be 'healthy' again. The Frankfurt School, albeit belonging to the materialist school, adopts an idealist stance on the matter. Adorno and Horkheimer (1977) argue that "serious art", the antithesis of "light art", is equivalent to "autonomous art" (p. 360). Good art, which can also be referred to as high culture, are cultural products which are original and born of an individual's creativity. For Marx (1973), the solution for social problems is for there to be a revolution (p. 80). A revolution is needed to abolish the inequality between the social classes as well as do away with the class system. A classless society is one that has no prejudice and exploitation. While the solution proposed by the idealist is to preserve the best arts, the materialist seeks to tackle the problem through socialist approaches.
Both concepts have their strengths and flaws when applied in the theorisation of culture and society. For example, the Arnoldian and Leavisite view of culture did not explicitly state the criteria on what constitutes high or low culture (Barker, 2008, p. 46). It is assumed that this standard of quality is inherent in the intellects of the cultured minority and thus should not be questioned. At the same time, the Frankfurt School has been criticised for assuming that members of society are passive consumers of media texts (p. 50). Audience are thought to consume messages present in media texts, whether manifest or latent, blindly. Furthermore, it assumes all audience to make sense of the texts they are exposed to in the exact same way. In conclusion, to reiterate Williams' observation, culture is not a term that can be defined easily. Its meaning will vary according to the way we use it and theorise it.