Theory with a Capital T: Cultural Studies’ Assault on Popular Art

James Seaton

Those whose knowledge of the study of popular culture is based on what has come out of the American academy in recent decades may be pardoned for assuming that any intellectually respectable consideration of a work of popular culture must have a single-minded focus on its political impact and a corresponding refusal to consider its artistic quality. The error may be pardonable, but the assumption is still wrong. Before and despite the contemporary institutionalization of popular culture studies in the university, usually under the aegis of “culture studies,” many writers and critics, including some now classified as irremediably elitist, have believed that popular art at its best could both “delight and teach,” in Horace’s famous phrase. Insisting on looking at popular art first as art rather than as sociological data, they have found that works of popular culture at their best made their impact by the same sort of “selection and concentration,” to use T.S. Eliot’s words praising the music hall performer Marie Lloyd, that is a hallmark of fine art.1

It was because Marie Lloyd’s act was “all a matter of selection and concentration” that Eliot paid tribute to her as “the greatest music-hall artist of her time in England.” Unlike lesser performers she did not need to depend on “the grotesque” or “exaggeration” for humor.2 Eliot’s essay on Marie Lloyd was no mere fluke; it reflected his enduring belief that a meaningful culture must involve much more than high art. The notion of culture as a way of life, an idea that many seem to believe is a theoretical innovation of cultural studies,3 was eloquently affirmed by Eliot long before the cultural studies movement. In Notes towards the Definition of Culture, he argued that culture

includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.4

One can discover many thoughtful considerations of works of popular culture for aesthetic as well as sociological aspects once one ventures beyond the canon established by contemporary cultural studies. George Orwell wrote eloquently about the ribald postcards of Donald McGill, which gave “expression to the Sancho Panza view of life,” and thus to “something enduring in our civilization.”5 McGill’s postcards give expression to a viewpoint that “can never be suppressed altogether and needs a hearing occasionally.”6 In providing that hearing, McGill was a true artist, and his postcards a kind of art.

More recently, Philip Furia studied the lyrics of the masters of American popular song with the kind of close attention the New Critics devoted to John Donne. Furia was not afraid to distinguish between the better and the worse. Cole Porter, he demonstrated, wrote songs “with witty images and allusions that keep ‘topping’ each other in verve and brilliance,” but also “some of the worst lyrics—melodramatic, histrionic, banal—of the age.”7 Furia’s praise of “Let’s Do It” captures Porter’s poetic achievement: “In ‘Let’s Do It’ his listing of various creatures and their modes of copulation mirrors the very erotic universe it describes—image propagating image with an imaginative fecundity that rivals nature’s own fertility.”8

In Hole in Our Soul, Martha Bayles was similarly able to appreciate the best in popular music without losing the capacity to make relevant distinctions, as in this comparison between the music of the Rolling Stones and their predecessors:

Despite the boastful tone of such Chicago hits as Muddy Waters’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You’” or Howlin’ Wolf’s “Little Red Rooster,” both renditions reserve, by means of finely tuned vocal and instrumental techniques, that “mixtery” of sound and emotion that suggests a playful disinterestedness toward the boastful impulses in man. In the Stones’ hyped-up covers of these same songs, there is nothing but boastfulness, in a vocal so harshly weak that it forces our attention back to the guitar, which is being played louder and faster than the original, but certainly no better.9

Of course there have always been those ready to condemn all popular art. A number of the “Twelve Southerners” who contributed to I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930) thought the Southern way of life was threatened almost as much by popular culture as by capitalism and technology. Andrew Nelson Lytle argued that “to maintain farming life in an industrial imperialism,” the farmer must not only become economically self-sufficient by growing his own food and even making his own clothes but also “throw out the radio” and “forsake the movies.”10Another contributor, Donald Davidson, was similarly unwilling to distinguish between better and worse in popular culture—between the lyrics of Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, and Johnny Mercer, for example, and the now-forgotten works of their many competitors—and condemned in a later essay “the steady descent into vulgarization, sentimentality, and finally outright laundry [sic] and obscenity that mark popular song in our own century.”11

The comments of Lytle and Davidson can be at least partially justified as exaggerations made in the course of a last-ditch defense of folk and traditional culture. The same cannot be said, however, for the denunciations of popular culture in general and jazz in particular issued by Theodor Adorno, a leading figure of the Frankfurt School whose revision of Marxism as “critical theory” was later a major source of what came to be known as cultural studies. The leading theorists of the Frankfurt School—Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Adorno—all believed that Marxism was essentially true, even though it was difficult to find any empirical evidence to support Marx’s theories about the revolutionary potential of the proletariat and the imminent collapse of capitalism. Accordingly, their revision of Marxism made little or no reference to economics and instead focused on culture, deploying “alienation,” “reification,” and other concepts for which empirical verification was impossible and irrelevant.

Adorno’s disquisitions on jazz, however, stand out even among the writings of the Frankfurt School for their union of theoretical arrogance, ignorance of subject matter, and contempt for the “masses,” on whose behalf the Frankfurt School claimed to be working. In “Perennial Fashion—Jazz” he did not discuss any specific song, composition, or performance by any particular singer, composer, or musician, nor did he entertain the possibility that those who appreciated Duke Ellington, Count Basie, or Billie Holiday might have had good reasons for doing so. Adorno knew that “jazz fans identify with the society they dread for having made them what they are.”12

Adorno was certain that they had no real appreciation or understanding of the music. Instead, they were simply “intoxicated by the fame of mass culture….What is important to them is the sense of belonging as such, identification” (128). If they seemed to be enthusiastic about a singer or a band, it was only because “to be carried away by anything at all, to have something of their own, compensates for their impoverished and barren existence” (128). Adorno provided a more technical if equally baseless explanation by calling on psychoanalysis:

The aim of jazz is the mechanical reproduction of a regressive moment, a castration symbolism. “Give up your masculinity, let yourself be castrated,” the eunuchlike sound of the jazz band both mocks and proclaims, “and you will be rewarded, accepted into a fraternity which shares the mystery of impotence with you, a mystery revealed at the moment of the initiation rite.” (129)

Adorno’s willingness to pontificate despite ignorance of the subject matter may be ascribed to his certainty that the “critical theory” of the Frankfurt School, with its combination of Marxism and psychoanalysis, was not only valid but provided such powerful comprehensive insight that the knowledge of particulars was unnecessary. “Critical theory” is the ancestor of today’s “Theory.” However much the proponents of contemporary cultural studies may disagree with the Frankfurt School about popular culture, they have embraced this heritage in one important way: they share a similar confidence in the explanatory power of the putatively mutually confirming theories they embrace—Marxism and psychoanalysis, but also postmodernism, queer theory, feminist theory, etc.—so much so that it seems appropriate to refer to the theoretical framework of cultural studies as Theory with a capital T.13

Many of the early proponents of academic popular culture studies in the United States neither had any particular ideological animus nor made any overarching theoretical claims. Even if they hinted or asserted that the classics did not deserve the respect they were accorded, they did not argue that all judgments of artistic quality were illegitimate. In practice they frequently retained traditional standards of artistic judgment even as they insisted on the need for academics to take account of popular music, radio and television programs, and bestsellers as well as the classics. Russel Nye’s The Unembarassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America (1970) defined the “popular arts” as “those artistic productions which express the taste and understanding of the majority and which are free of control, in content and execution, from minority [i.e. elite or high art] standards of correctness.”14 Throughout his encyclopedic history, however, Nye repeatedly judged works of popular culture by exactly the same standards traditionally applied to works of high culture, in other words, those same “minority standards of correctness.” He praised the comic strip Pogo as “a richly imaginative strip whose humor derives from the human comedy itself” (235). Nye commended the novels of Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler but condemned those of Mickey Spillane on the grounds that “Hammett’s recognition of ambiguity and chance, and Chandler’s feel for human involvement, have been reduced by Spillane to nothing but killing” (263). He singled out the radio serial “One Man’s Family” as “by far the most literate, the most adult in conception…done with restraint, realism, and superb characterization” (400).

In Against Academia, his history of the Popular Culture Association (PCA) and the popular culture movement, PCA founder Ray B. Browne asserted that the movement should be considered “a kind of class-action suit against conventional points of view and fields of study in the Humanities,” since the entrance of popular culture studies “represents a dramatic shift in Academia’s way of looking at the whole approach to the canon and the curriculum in such fields as literature, sociology, history, humanities, ethnic studies, women’s studies, comparative literature, music, philosophy, environmental studies, and many others.”15 But when Browne himself got down to specifics, he judged detective fiction, for example, straightforwardly on grounds employed to evaluate all sorts of works since Horace: their ability to “teach and delight.”

Browne argued that the strengths of the best popular fiction were no different than the strengths of the recognized classics. Praising the Australian detective novelist Arthur Upfield, Browne claimed that “Upfield at his strongest reminds us of Herman Melville at his most powerful” and “peoples his stories with characters and humor reminiscent of a mixture of Melville and Dickens.16 E.V. Cunningham’s style, Browne declared, was “direct, vernacular and hard, though not crisp and electric” (61) and his “message” was “of the utmost importance: we all belong to the same human race and elitists and everyday people should remember this” (62). Detective writer Jonathan Valin had a style that was “enlivened by metaphor” and thus effectively communicated his belief that “the trouble with society is that the family has broken down” (79). John Ball offered a message of “dignity and respect, the dignity of the human race, and respect for himself as a member of that race and respect through himself for all members of the race, American and foreign, black and white, pure blood and mixed-blood” (95) while writing “with a kind of firmness and strength that is gratifying” (103).

Many of the panels held in the first decades of the PCA were organized by professors who wanted to share their enthusiasm for westerns, mystery thrillers, or crime fiction and, if possible, work out some rationale that would justify teaching courses, writing articles, and attending conferences devoted to popular culture. Perhaps the most fully developed case for the “enthusiast” school of popular culture was made by Leslie Fiedler in What Was Literature? (1982). Fiedler confessed, “I love soap operas, cop shows, and fright-night films,” though he added that he was “still a little defensive about my admiration for [Gone with the Wind].”17 Seeking to explain the power of works that fail to satisfy traditional aesthetic criteria, Fiedler argued: “They are read not for the virtuosity of their authors or the elegance of their structure or style, much less the precision of their language or their subtlety of thought, but for something quite other: their mythic resonance, their archetypal appeal” (77). Fiedler wanted to “take a cue from Longinus” and “drastically downgrade both ethics and aesthetics in favor of ‘ecstatics’” (139). Adopting “ecstatics” as the favored critical approach would mean abandoning “all formalist, elitist, methodological criticism” in favor of an “eclectic, amateur, neo-Romantic, populist” approach (140). Yet traditional literary criticism would not be entirely rejected; Fiedler cautioned that he was “not suggesting that the search for standards be abandoned completely and that evaluation be confined to noises of admiration or distaste, the simple ‘Wow!’ or ‘Ech!’ which seems to satisfy some of our students” (126).

Still, Fiedler’s attempt to borrow the authority of Longinus for his own argument misfires. Longinus (or whoever wrote the treatise ascribed to him) did indeed value literature on the basis of its ability to achieve the sublime, which “transports us with wonder,” yet insisted that “a piece is truly great only if it can stand up to repeated examination,”18 a test that much of the work Fiedler champions (e.g., “fiction by novelists never accepted into the canon of okay art, like Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, Rider Haggard, L. Frank Baum, and Margaret Mitchell” [21]) could not pass. Longinus did not suppose, as Fiedler intimated, that the sublime could be found in “the most debased popular art” (139). The sublime for Longinus “consists in a certain distinction or excellence of discourse” achieved by “the greatest poets and prose writers.”19 For Longinus, “the true sublime uplifts our souls” and “carries one up to where one is close to the majestic mind of God.”20 In contrast, works with what Fiedler calls “mythic resonance” may “provide the shameful pleasure we all feel (though often hesitate to confess) in contemplating images of terror and pain” (9) and often encourage “identification with men and women more brutal or lustful than our ordinary selves” (50). More important than Fiedler’s misuse of Longinus, however, is his recognition that the critic has an obligation not only to make literary judgments but also to make explicit his basis for judgment.

The debates in the twentieth century between those who insisted that humanities departments should focus on the study of works of high artistic merit and those who argued for an increased emphasis on the study of popular culture were about important issues and aroused strong passions. Against Fiedler’s assertion of the emotional power of works like Gone with the Wind, Allan Bloom made the case for the Great Books, arguing that one “may live more truly and fully in reading Plato and Shakespeare than at any other time,”21 and for his pains was widely condemned as an elitist, a reactionary, and probably a racist.

Looking back, however, what strikes one is the extent to which both sides shared key assumptions. Almost everybody agreed that evaluation of literary or artistic quality was part of the critic’s responsibility, though heated disagreement raged about what criteria were appropriate. There was general agreement with the basic premise of humanistic study that the best works of literature and art provide both aesthetic pleasure and insight into human life, although views about the nature of the pleasure and the content of the insights differed widely.

But by the time the century closed, these debates had been supplanted by the newer theoretical frameworks that severed popular culture from the humanities altogether. Today, in most colleges and universities the study of popular culture has become a part of “cultural studies,” a transdisciplinary approach whose attraction derives in large part from its implicit promise that adepts gain the ability to make authoritative pronouncements about all aspects of human life without going to the trouble of learning the rudiments of any particular discipline. In Cultural Studies: A Critical Introduction, Simon During describes the new superdiscipline as “the politically engaged study of culture, especially popular culture.”22 True enough, but it is also important to note, as Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, editors of the landmark 1992 anthology Cultural Studies, with considerable understatement put it: “cultural studies has not embraced all political positions.”23

Its advocates are virtually unanimous in emphasizing that cultural studies may be pursued only by those on the political left, preferably supporters of revolution, euphemistically referred to as “social transformation.” Grossberg, Nelson, and Treichler agree that

a continuing preoccupation within cultural studies is the notion of radical social and cultural transformation . . . in virtually all traditions of cultural studies, its practitioners see cultural studies not simply as a chronicle of cultural change but as an intervention in it, and see themselves not simply as scholars providing an account but as politically engaged participants.24

According to Douglas Kellner, “A critical cultural studies will thus overcome the boundaries of academic disciplines and will combine political economy, social theory and research, and cultural criticism in its project which aims at critique of domination and social transformation.”25 And if one is not entirely committed to revolution or even “social transformation,” one should at a minimum feel “a commitment to education as a tool for progressivist politics.”26

There are some even on the left who worry that the unanimity of political opinion required in cultural studies may not be altogether a good thing. One of the pioneers of American cultural studies, James Carey, is concerned that “by putting politics outside of discussion, and insisting that intellectual work proceed within an a priori view of proper leftist belief—conveyed between the lines, parenthetically, or with knowing glances and smiles—all sorts of intellectual alliances have been foreclosed at the outset.”27 Todd Gitlin frets that cultural studies leftism may actually impede leftism outside the university: “[Cultural studies] substitutes an obsession with popular culture for coherent economic-political thought or a connection with mobilizable populations outside the academy across identity lines.”28 Nevertheless, cultural studies remains not merely a leftist project but also, like the Frankfurt School’s “critical theory,” a version of Marxism that eschews the empirically testable claims of the original and instead divides the world into oppressors and victims, thereby avoiding troublesome questions about the worldwide success of capitalism and the failure of Marxist regimes according to economic or any other verifiable criteria. Its supporters characterize the relation of cultural studies to Marxism in a variety of ways. According to Simon During, cultural studies is a form of “postmarxist theory,” while The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism refers to its “residual Marxism.”29 Hayden White asserts that “cultural studies is a neo-Marxist activity,” while James Carey points to “obligatory Marxism or neomarxism” as the “background for…cultural studies as they today are conventionally understood.”30

To become accepted in the cultural studies mainstream, one must not only make the right (that is to say, left) political judgments, one must avoid making any judgments at all about literary or artistic quality. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism explains that in cultural studies “[l]iterary texts, like other artworks, are neither more nor less important than any other cultural artifact or practice….the investigator will focus on art or literature insofar as such works connect with broader social factors, not because they possess some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic value.”31 Laura Mulvey goes further in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” an essay included in the Norton, and described there as “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary.”32 For Mulvey, aesthetic delight is not merely irrelevant, it is positively bad (for political reasons, of course) and she does her bit to “destroy” it: It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article....Not in favor of a reconstructed new pleasure…but to make way for a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film.”33 Not all cultural studies proponents are as actively hostile to aesthetic pleasure as Mulvey is, but most reject any attempt to judge works of art, popular or otherwise, in regard to artistic quality. As Simon During observes, “the discipline tends to regard all cultural practices and objects as value-equivalent.”34

Instead of the non-academic, non-Theoretical cultural criticism of Eliot on Marie Lloyd, George Orwell on Donald McGill, or Philip Furia and Martha Bayles on popular music, cultural studies gives us Laura Kipnis on Hustler magazine. Following the norms of cultural studies, Prof. Kipnis studies Hustler carefully, attempting to decide whether its political impact is ultimately progressive or reactionary. On the plus side, she notes that “Hustler sexuality is far from normative.…[I]ts letters and columns are full of the most specific and wide-ranging practices and sexualities, which don’t appear to be hierarchized, and many of which have little to do with the standard heterosexual telos of penetration.”35 Even better, “Hustler devotes itself to producing generalized transgression…rampantly transgressing bourgeois norms and sullying bourgeois property and proprieties” (376). On the other hand, she must admit that “Hustler is certainly not politically unproblematic. If Hustler is counter-hegemonic in its refusal of bourgeois proprieties, its transgressiveness has real limits” (388). Kipnis is conflicted. Yes, Hustler does seem to exhibit misogynistic tendencies, but is that always a bad thing if it is also anti-bourgeois? Her immediate response is disgust, but the key question is whether what she is feels is “feminist disgust or bourgeois disgust” (378). She’s not sure: “Given my own gender and class position I’m not sure that I’m exactly in a position to trust my immediate response” (387).

Mainstream cultural studies, it seems, is unwilling to take art of any kind seriously, whether popular or classic. Richard Posner is not far wrong in suggesting that the aim of cultural studies “is to knock literature off its pedestal and find vehicles easier than literary works for making political points.”36 To respond fully to literature and art requires the recognition that there is more to life than politics. The best popular art, like the great classics, demands a response beyond what the impoverished vocabulary of cultural studies—transgressive, progressive, reactionary, oppositional, hegemonic, etc.—can offer. No doubt the limited time available to undergraduates for the study of literature and the arts mandates that college curricula in art and literature departments should be devoted almost entirely to the great works. Literature and art of high merit are incomparable sources of insight and aesthetic pleasure, while much popular art has only sociological importance. The intrinsic richness of the great works almost guarantees that anybody who gives them any attention at all will benefit, while the value of the study of lesser works depends much more on the quality of the guidance provided.

The primary distinction on and off campus today, however, is not between those committed to the study of the Great Books and those interested in popular art and literature. That division lies instead between those whose commitment to politics is so all-embracing that the very notion of an aesthetic dimension becomes inconceivable and those who believe the ability to appreciate and judge works of art and literature by aesthetic standards independent of politics is a key achievement of a truly liberal education. It is the division between those who remain true to the traditional humanistic belief that art and literature at their best make available insights into human life that cannot be found elsewhere and those who are certain that literature and art, whether popular or classic, provide nothing that cannot be explained, or explained away, by Theory.

  • Share
Most Commented

April 16, 2021


Social Justice 101: Intro. to Cancel Culture

Understanding the illogical origin of cancel culture, we can more easily accept mistakes, flaws, and errors in history, and in ourselves, as part of our fallen nature....

April 19, 2021


Critical Race Theory and the Will to Power

A review of "1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project" by NAS President Peter W. Wood....

May 30, 2018


The Case for Colonialism

From the summer issue of Academic Questions, we reprint the controversial article, "The Case for Colonialism." ...

Most Read

August 23, 2021


Testing the Tests for Racism

What is the veracity of "audit" studies, conducted primarily by sociologists, that appear to demonstrate that people of color confront intense bias at every level of society?...

May 30, 2018


The Case for Colonialism

From the summer issue of Academic Questions, we reprint the controversial article, "The Case for Colonialism." ...

March 29, 2019


Homogenous: The Political Affiliations of Elite Liberal Arts College Faculty

A study on the partisanship of liberal arts professors at America's top universities. ...