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  • Mass Appeal
  • Kathleen Marie Higgins
A Philosophy of Mass Art, by Noël Carroll; 320 pp. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, $18.95.

In A Philosophy of Mass Art, Noël Carroll defends the aesthetic validity of what he calls “mass art.” He defines mass art in terms of its accessibility to wide audiences and its being produced and disseminated by technologies “capable of delivering multiple instances or tokens of mass artworks to widely disparate reception points” (p. 188). Although the category so defined overlaps the range of “popular art,” Carroll insists on making a distinction between the two concepts. Popular art, he claims, is a much wider category, including many instances of art not technologically disseminated in the manner Carroll requires of mass art. It makes sense to speculate about the existence of prehistoric popular art, but not about the existence of prehistoric mass art. Like other subsets of art, Carroll avers, the category of mass art admits of both good and bad instances, on both aesthetic and moral grounds. Indeed, mass art includes works of “the highest achievement” (p. 184) as well as those of poor quality.

Carroll shifts the burden of proof to those critics who deny mass art’s potential for excellence. Nothing inherent in mass art requires that it be aesthetically impoverished, he insists. He prefaces his own analysis by critiquing a spectrum of arguments for and against mass art. Carroll includes among his targets such mass art enthusiasts as Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan. He rejects what he describes as the [End Page 197] “progress argument,” which claims that mass art contributes to the expansion of our productive forces by symbolizing and encouraging changes in perception that can contribute to human emancipation. McLuhan makes such an argument in quasi-biological terms, claiming that the mass communications media utilized by much mass art will change “our ‘sense ratios’” (p. 159). Carroll sees no evidence that mass art is really changing our perceptive abilities, an issue to which we shall return. He also rejects Benjamin’s “new art” argument, which insists that mass art should not be judged by traditional canons, since it reflects momentous “changes in the forces and relations of the productive base of society” (p. 128).

The author’s arguments against the celebrators of mass art sometimes question the extent of the claims made, not their general direction. For example, he is sympathetic to the “new art” argument’s claim that mass art should be judged on its own terms; he simply suggests that celebrators would do better with weaker premises. Carroll’s case against the progress argument is primarily that purported consequences of mass art are not inherent to the technologies employed. In particular, Carroll is unconvinced by Benjamin’s suggestion that technology itself implies particular political and moral commitments. Carroll contends, effectively in my opinion, that technologies “are morally neutral, until they are put to use or enlisted in the service of human projects and purposes” (p. 139).

Carroll’s own views, while not as celebratory as those of Benjamin and McLuhan, are certainly optimistic. His critique of other analysts is directed more squarely against the opponents of mass art. Carroll considers a variety of arguments to the effect that mass art is aesthetically impoverished or damaging to audience sensibilities. These include Dwight McDonald’s “massification argument,” which claims that mass art necessarily gravitates to the lowest levels of taste; Clement Greenberg’s “passivity argument,” which contends that mass art is not genuine art because it is designed for a passive audience; R. G. Collingwood’s “formula argument,” that mass art cannot be proper art because it is inherently formulaic; and three arguments raised by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the “freedom argument” (that mass art undermines the free activity of our imagination and reflection, thereby undercutting our aesthetic, political, and moral autonomy), the “susceptibility argument” (that mass art, by blunting our imagination and reflection, makes us susceptible to its content, which insinuates that there is no alternative to the status quo), and the “conditioning [End Page 198] argument” (that mass art repeats stereotypes endlessly, thereby suggesting that the circumstances depicted are immutable).

Carroll offers vigorous counters to these arguments. He proposes...

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pp. 197-205
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