Art in the Age of Mass Media

Art in the Age of Mass Media

Art in the Age of Mass Media

Art in the Age of Mass Media


An exploration of how socialist artists respond to the imagery of the mass media, and what social role remains for art.


For many centuries, up until the mid nineteenth century, architecture, painting and sculpture were the three principal visual arts of Europe. These arts flourished because they received substantial patronage from the most powerful and wealthy individuals, groups and institutions within European society, that is, kings, princes, aristocrats, the Church, merchants, national governments, city councils and guilds. Today the situation is very different: our culture is not dominated by the fine arts but by the mass media. Changes brought about by the industrial revolution, by the development of a capitalist economic system, and by the emergence of an urban, consumer society, have irrevocably altered the social context in which fine arts operate. Architecture, it should be acknowledged, has been far less affected by these changes than painting and sculpture.

Machines of various kinds have played a crucial role in this social and technological transformation. Until the advent of colour photography and printing, for example, painters enjoyed a virtual monopoly over the production of coloured images. Now millions of high-quality colour images, and millions of copies of those images, can be simply and rapidly generated by the use of the camera and the printing machine. The art of painting has not died out as a result but, arguably, there has been a decline in its status and power, its social functions have also altered.

This book examines certain aspects of the condition of the fine arts in the age of the mass media; it identifies the differences between these two relatively autonomous realms, but it also discusses the ways in which they interact. (The fact that a line can be drawn between two realms does not prevent two-way traffic across the line from taking place: frontiers exist between countries, but people, goods and information cross them every day.)

Key questions to be considered are: what has been the response of free artists to the existence of the mass media? How have the mass media made use of the visual arts? Is there any vital social role left for fine art? If so, what is it?

Just because the fate of the visual arts in the age of mass media is the primary concern of this book, readers should not assume that it takes the view that all virtue is on the side of the former and all vice on the side of the latter. In both realms one can find new and creative ideas, old and reactionary ideas, well and badly made artefacts, the aesthetically good and bad.

During the 1970s and 1980s art historians employed in British colleges of art and design were asked to broaden their expertise. Lectures and courses on the history of industrial design, advertising, photography, film, television, video, computer graphics, fashion and youth sub-cultures were required in addition to those already given on painting, sculpture and architecture. This was because they were teaching trainee designers . . .

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