- Defending Mass Art: A Response to Kathleen Higgins’s “Mass Appeal”
The shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, have provided an occasion for American politicians to convoke one of their favorite rituals, the excoriation of the mass entertainment industries for their alleged corrosion of American values and their promotion of a culture of violence. This allows so-called statesmen, Democrats and Republicans alike, to posture ferociously and to look serious while failing to acknowledge the underlying forces, both demographic and economic, of contemporary violence, not only in America, but throughout the industrialized West.
Does the violent imagery in TV, film and rock cause violent behavior in the “real world?” Endless studies by social scientists have failed to provide a conclusive answer to that question. But politicians and ordinary consumers think the linkage is obvious, often supplementing their jeremiads with highly selective anecdotes. Nevertheless, if there were such a linkage, how are we to account for falling crime rates, not only in the U.S.A., but throughout the industrial world? Reputedly mass media violence is mounting, qualitatively and quantitatively. But “real world” violence is slackening. What should be obvious is that if mass media violence is rising while crime rates are falling, then it is unlikely that the mass entertainment industry is the relevant variable here.
More likely sources for the variations in “real world” violence are demographics and economics. In terms of demography, young males are the major cause of violence in most societies; when there are more [End Page 378] of them, there is more violence; when there are fewer, there is less. Moreover, from an economic point of view, bad economic times (when more young men are out of work) correlate with more crime; when there is more employment (as there is now in the U.S.A.), the crime rate drops (Littleton notwithstanding). The number of killings on TV doesn’t drive the crime rate up. The number of unemployed young males does. But since dealing with a structural problem like this would require really probing statecraft, grandstanding pundits prefer complaining about MTV, finding in New York and Hollywood the modern electronic equivalents of Sodom and Gommorrah. It is surely an ironical turn of events that politicians pander to the electorate with sensational claims on and about the media that are said to pander to the populace by way of sensationalism.
As should be evident from these remarks, I am extremely skeptical about the once and future uproar over mass entertainment, or, as I prefer to call it, mass art. My book, A Philosophy of Mass Art, spends a great deal of time attempting to undermine the most persistent charges against mass art—some so persistent that they actually antedate mass art, designed as they were by moralists like Plato, Augustine and Rousseau to condemn theater. 1 However, despite my efforts, Kathleen Higgins, in her recent review of my book has argued politely but firmly that I have failed to exonerate mass art from the most important allegations laid upon its doorstep. 2 So let me now see if I can do a little better the second time around.
Much of A Philosophy of Mass Art is devoted to demonstrating that many of the most recurrent blanket aesthetic and moral condemnations of mass art as such are ill-founded, and that mass artworks can and should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. This will result in some mass artworks turning out to be good, some bad and some indifferent. That is, mass art possesses a spectrum of values, just like any other sort of art. Mass art, despite what many philosophers have said, is not all bad as a consequence of its very nature, and mass artworks are best evaluated—morally, politically and aesthetically—one at a time. It is not the case, for example, as is often said, that all mass art is pseudo-art because it induces passivity in consumers (whatever that means).
Higgins, however, fears that I am too quick in my dismissal of many of the traditional arguments, such as the aforesaid passivity argument, that philosophers have deployed against mass art. She begins by noting...