Modern Art and Mass Culture

This subject introduces undergraduate students to the history of modern art, primarily in Europe and the USA, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, specifically as a product of the interface with industrially-produced mass culture, advertising, and/or the “folk” or popular arts. Through lectures and recitations we will examine the interaction between these domains of culture, and assess their role in forming a modernist aesthetic in the visual arts, and prompting a “postmodern” revolution. Modernism became a conscious program and strategy for visual artists more than a century ago, postmodernism is itself thirty years old! We will follow these strategies of engagement through their checkered pasts, assess their effectiveness over the last 150 years, and conclude with the uneasy cultural politics of the 21st century’s emerging new media practices.

How does art produce, reflect, exaggerate or ameliorate the effects of modernization, such as urbanization, industrialization, global capitalism, or mass politics? Is culture generated by elites, or by anonymous energies bubbling up from below? What is the relationship between art and visual technologies such as photography, cinema, television, and the digital media, each of which emerged at a specific historical moment to challenge the complacency of high art? And finally, which theories of cultural production remain useful for thinking about such issues today?

For the purposes of this course, mass culture is broadly defined. The very concept emerges from within modernism, and is not always seen in negative terms. In the positive sense, it is culture that belongs to “the masses” rather than to an elite; it is an art made for the people (at all educational and economic levels) rather than the church, the king, intellectuals or the aristocracy. More negatively viewed, it is ersatz culture, copied and predigested, a phony replacement for genuine or good art. Inescapably, these terms and concepts are leveraged by modern technologies; mass culture arises when visual forms generated for an elite can be widely replicated, broadly distributed, and easily “consumed” by other people. Mass culture can be global – by definition, we all share mass cultural references. At the same time, it can be understood as the primary mechanism by which “rarity” or “otherness” from the periphery of the developed world becomes newly available for cultural appropriation (via “primitivism,” commodification and globalization). There is nothing static about mass culture, but neither can modernism itself be fixed in a single time and place. From primitivism to postmodernism, mass culture has played an enormous role in visual art. Modern artists and theorists, in turn, have given us new ways to think about popular culture and harness its force.

The lectures begin in revolutionary France, moving rapidly into 19th century art by Courbet, Manet, Degas, and the Impressionists, examining the impact of popular woodcuts, lithographic posters, and the new technique of photography in “the painting of modern life.” The rise of urban leisure and commercial entertainment in Paris will be discussed in the work of Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec. Next, the turn away from urbanism toward so-called “primitive” cultures will be reviewed in the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin, asking how “other” peoples and their art become commodified through travel, postcards, the marketing of exotic foods, and other aspects of European colonial culture. Then, we will turn to twentieth-century anxieties about a popularized machine culture, as evinced by restless new movements such as Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, Dada, and Surrealism. Modern artists’ new approaches to form – collage, ready- mades, photomontage, and assemblage – will be examined along with the contemporaneous disciplines of semiotics and psychoanalysis that help explain their logic. We will also look at the new teaching institution that grappled with bringing such innovations to product design – the Bauhaus. Through these lectures and discussions, we will evaluate the position of art in relation to mass production, consumer culture, and dramatic political change in four decisive moments: post-Revolutionary Russia (1920s), Weimar and fascist Germany (1920s and 1930s), the Great Depression and world war (1930s and ‘40s), and international Pop Art (1950s-‘60s). The semester will conclude with several lectures on postmodernism (1970s-90s) and art of the past two decades, examining works that critique the intersecting mass formations of femininity and masculinity, the marketed author/ artist/ curator, the culture industry of the museum, and what I call an “aesthetics of experience.” The rise of social media will be examined as an inextricable part of contemporary art’s “mass culture.”

The art and theory of modernism, and its self-conscious heir postmodernism, both thrive on a dialectical relationship with mass culture. The history covered in this subject is challenging and unconventional, as one might expect given the dramatic changes in human technologies of representation, reproduction, and mass production during the past 200 years. We will reconstruct the historical density of these situations, but allow the argument, provocation, and difficult complexity of the art and issues to remain. No prior or specialized knowledge of either art or mass culture is assumed. On the contrary, the point is to see art as a vital and unpredictable part of everyday life, particularly in its engagement with the mass culture that affects us all.