Literature, Popular Culture, and Society

By Leo Lowenthal | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
The Debate over Art and Popular
Culture: A Synopsis

The purpose of this chapter is to single out some of the significant elements of the historical discussions which have centered around the problem of art versus entertainment, as a first step toward providing a broader base for the study of contemporary mass media, particularly television. To present a systematic inventory of this material, which extends over several centuries, would require the long-range and cooperative efforts of historians, philologists, and social scientists.1 But since our purpose is not to trace the history of the great cultural change marking the modern era, we shall begin at a point where the controversy was formulated in terms that have stayed with us. (This may be an appropriate point, too, to remind the reader that we are, in this chapter, concerned with the discussions which surrounded the problems of art versus popular media rather than with an historical review and analysis of the products themselves.)

Of the many individuals who have made notable contributions to the discussion of popular culture, an effort has been made to select those who were not limited to a narrow area of intellectual activities. For the first period, as we have already indicated in our Introduction, Montaigne and Pascal were the outstanding figures: the former an essayist, lawyer, politician, and a civil servant in addition to being a philosopher; the latter a mathematician, theologist, and spiritual leader of a religious movement. For the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, German authors have seemed most representative as well as most eloquent: Goethe--poet, statesman, theater manager, and natural scientist; Schiller--philosopher, aesthetician, professor of history as well as great creative writer; Lessing-- dramatist, historian, theologician, and theater critic all in one. For the latter part of the nineteenth century, we have paid particular attention to the poet, critic, and school administrator, Matthew Arnold, and to Walter

Parts of this chapter appeared in "International Social Science Journal", Vol. XII, No. 4, 1960, pp. 532-542.

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An ideal framework would be very broad indeed, encompassing not only relations of art and entertainment but all elements of popular culture such as manners, customs, fads, games, jokes, and sports, on which even greater masses of material exist.

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