Culture & Pedagogy: On the Popular Art of Reviewing Popular Art

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- CULTURAL STUDIES AND 'THE POPULAR'

Today cultural studies is regularly credited (or charged) with having challenged and transformed a once-dominant, unreflective concept of 'mass culture' which sought to depict popular cultural forms as politically dangerous or as morally and aesthetically inferior to 'authentic culture' or art. To be sure, contemporary theorists of popular culture are quick to point out the potentially anti-democratic sentiment expressed by early depictions of so-called 'mass' culture as witless and trivial if not, in fact, responsible for many of modern society's ills. Indeed, it's rare to see the views of a Q.D. Leavis, say, or a Theodor Adorno given much credence anywhere in contemporary cultural studies-or even in literary studies, where greatest resistance to 'the popular' might be most expected. Popular culture would appear to be no longer subject to the kinds of prejudice that once characterised the elitist denunciation of anything short of capital-C 'Culture' (as 'the best that has been thought and said in the world', for example). This development is undoubtedly owing in part to the influence in cultural studies of the sophisticated theories of culture enabled by the 'poststructuralist turn' and to the subsequent emphasis on the indeterminacy of meaning and the multiplicity of uses and interpretations of cultural objects. But it is also enabled by cultural studies' democratic challenge to the conservative politics and to the Marxist social theory that inform Leavis's and Adorno's arguments respectively. According to some contemporary accounts of culture (and of cultural studies), in fact, the old 'high/low' distinction doesnt even apply in today!; 'postmodern' times, when the boundaries separating such realms as Art and Mass Media are fluid and permeable, and when BA program structures are so 'flexible' that students can study Shakespearean drama alongside hip hop culture. On this account, 'the popular' is no longer a question; it's a fact of life! The popular is so bound up with anything we think or do nowadays that it can't possibly be ignored. It circulates in a variety of ways, through a diversity of media, and in a heterogeneity of forms, and it's through a focus on these differences-of media, of interpretive contexts, of textual histories-that the study of popular culture has staked its place as one of the leading commentators on the issues that define our time.

Still, the surety and complacency of this view invite questions about cultural studies' influence on various practices of cultural assessment. Certainly, questions have been raised more than once in the history of cultural studies about its ability to transform prevailing concepts and practices of culture. John Hartley, for instance, has questioned the extent to which cultural studies has popularised its intellectual and critical insights, by noting a 'continuing public allegiance' to 'the ideology of authenticity'.' Ultimately, Hartley attributes the relative impotence, as it were, of cultural studies on this question of cultural authenticity to an intellectual agenda, which has in turn shaped a pedagogical program. The result is 'a kind of critical common sense which has created a demarcation line between Cultural Studies and the aesthetic disciplines (Film and Literary Studies), and further demarcation lines between popular and other media, between reality and art, truth and fiction'.2 Meanwhile, Ian Hunter has argued that cultural studies' historical attachment to a general concept of culture as 'a whole way of life' prevents it from having any impact outside the limited spheres of its own (inter)disciplinary practices.3 Disconnected from the 'actual array of historical institutions' in which human attributes are formed, cultural studies' favoured concept of culture, in Hunter's view, actually inhibits attempts 'to develop practical forms of cultural analysis and assessment', and thus dooms the discipline to political irrelevance. …