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Sunday, 9 January 2011

Project 11: The thorny subject of taste - Dick Hebdige

The Open College of the Arts – Visual Studies 1: Understanding Visual Culture - Part 2: Ways of Seeing.
  • Prior to reading this post, I apologise for any grammatical or structural errors. I felt as there has been such a lapse of time since my last post that I needed to just post something.  This is a work in progress so expect a few changes, including: an image of once of the front cover's of  The Face; a re-draft of the text; an extended bibliography; some further questions for consideration and another example.

Hebdige make a clear distinction between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture. Through contrasting the magazines The Face – which embodies ‘popular’ culture – and Ten.8 – embodying ‘high’ culture – he initially addresses the polarity between the two paradigms. This is distinction is used as a springboard contrasting a ‘modernist’ to ‘post-modernist’ visual culture and could be used to distinguish how the relationship between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ has lead to the blurring of that distinction in the contemporary cultural climate

Contextually we have to consider Thatcherism, a dominant ideology of British society at the time the article was written, and the writings of Jean Baudrillard on the shaping of Hebdige’s argument. Instead of assuming an ill-defined mass audience Hebdige understands that there is a younger audience, culturally defined by The Face, who is not moulded by the culture of the previous generation. 

In the previous Modernist world, embodied by Ten.8, there is a clear hierarchy in relation to information/communication: the precedence of written and spoken language over imagery. Knowledge is thus ordered by rules and tradition shapes the disciplines that proscribe a form for legitimate discourse; images are subservient (i.e. illustrating, verifying or supplementing) to the text. Images are not autonomous as they are situated in a historical and theoretical framework. This links the images to an idea of the past as they are placed in a perspective of time unfolding chronologically and systemically.

In the Post Modern world, distilled in the The Face, this hierarchical ranking is abolished. The once vertical axis has now become horizontal; the world is suddenly flat! It is no longer the function of language to explain the origins, function or effect of the image.

Now the autonomous image has become a physical resource for others to use for whatever purpose they wish. As there are no rules, the plurality of images allows for intertextuality where anything can happen,  regardless of the original context. As there is no stable systems, as structure is seen as redundant, roles do not just become flexible: they become blurred.

Information is dispensed for the benefit of capitalism; the intelligentsia is replaced by a class shaping the nature of public relations. The citizen becomes and the reader is taken for granted as a consumer. A lack of unities allows for the configuration of the same old elements in the production of cultural object. Thus for the benefits of capitalism, which defines the culture of the ‘Post’, the precedence of the image becomes the renewal of the now. The eternal present converts the now into the new; space and time has become discontinuous are culture and meaning is unconstrained.

A key theme in Hebdige’s argument against what he calls the ‘People of the Post’ is that it has problematised the politics of representation: it now doesn’t matter! Social realism (and the objective reality it is perceived to represent) has been renounced for the superficiality of consumer aesthetics. Cultural artefacts, like The Face, explicitly supersede the traditional and orthodox construction of the cultural politics surrounding the image and the ‘popular’. According to Paul Virilio, due to the dominance of micro-narratives and fragmentation, a blurring between boundaries - including truth and fiction which questions the nature of reality - which has resulted in a corrosive flat world. The loss of cultural gravity that has held such distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture has collapsed. The lack of structure allows for unlimited number of combinations, though there hollowness makes them fragile. The ‘Post’ world of reflected in the artificially designed environment of The Face, and indeed other cultural items of the epoch, do not require your presence as nothing adds up to much anymore.

Deconstruction and the distracted gaze of the urban consumer are also touched on by Hebdige. In the world of the ‘Post’ the reader has the freedom to take pleasure from the text without feeling obliged to make a commitment to the diktats of the text which was once required.  Critics, like John Berger while searching for the ‘truth’, used to attach an image back to its original context, authenticating it in a system of narratives, while the critics – and the consumer – of the ‘Post’ do not seek to recover this truth in an image. Instead they wish to liberate the signifier from the constraints of ‘representation’; inevitably this undermines the validity of the distinction between adjectives of taste (e.g. good/bad, style/substance, legitimate/illegitimate), authorship and challenges traditional authority. As the there is no meaning, class distinctions or history, the referent and the signified disappears, leaving only the signifier. This void allows for the celebration artifice and the construction of one’s own persona.  

What is left of Cultural distinctions exchanged via the withered signifier is linked to changes economic production; the 20th Century post-war shift into a ‘post-industrial’, or ‘consumer’ society, of multi-national media conglomerates. In Hebdige’s opinion the nature of Post Modernism causes the base/superstructure model is annulled under the homogenised global culture of ‘hypercapitalism’. In the Post Modern world has the consumer, not just the artist, become a flanneur?

From Hebdige’s focus we are able to see the key part Baudrillard plays in the critical theory of the Post Modern world.  Hebdige distances himself from Baudrillard by showing ambivalence towards the epistemological stance of the superficial pleasures of the Post Modern world in comparison to the external objectification of Modernist critique to the iconoclasts perspective.

I believe there is still a slight difference between high and popular culture today – if only an intellectual decision - but what so strictly defined them as polarities has been broken down; whether this be down to capitalism or changing perception.

We do experience a homogenised culture which is less culturally exclusive; this may be due to the effects of media convergence which is accelerated by computerisation and digitalisation. For example, ‘High’ culture such as Opera and Ballet has now the freedom to select parts of popular culture, evidently borrowing from consumer aesthetics, offering something different to the consumer who pays to experience them.  This ultimately questions what distinguishes them as what is perceived as the elitist peripheries of art form (i.e. music, theatre and dance).  Though I tend to agree with Baudrillard in the opinion that when popular culture intertextualises an element of what is perceived as high culture, it usually has a pardodic effect.

Ultimately as consumer, cultural capital is a commodity. I think ‘High’ culture is still preserved in academia which is abstracted from the cultural market place. In light of developments in the media and other branches of the arts and culture the ‘Second World’ – an analogy Hebdige uses for a Post Modernist world –, flat because of the irrelevance of structures and the dominance of the signifier over the signified is the prevailing culture of today. 


The supposed dichotomy between high and popular culture referencing one another:

  •  Opera: a convention of operettas is to issue borrow from contemporary society, which can be satirised through the convention of the medium. They do not just   borrow subject matter but also imagery from popular culture. For example, Skin Deep (Opera North, 2009).
  •  Art – Painting: Pop art, with the lapse in time since its conception, could be seen to be part of a high culture considering the present art scene. The cultural references made by some of the signifiers in Richard Hamilton’s ‘Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ would now require some elite knowledge to understand. The nature and shape of popular culture has shifted since 1956.
  • Advertising: The parodic nature of low referencing high culture is evident in the ‘Haribo Tangfastics’ advert the Wedding Photograph (click for link). Removed completely from its original context, the aria is used humorously. This does not bring cultural capital to the advert but instead is incorporated into the form of the advert; it brings no meaning to the advert apart from the imagined effect this product gives the consumer.
  • An example from The X Factor: Despite personal critical opinion, The X Factor dominates British popular culture. Evident in the media coverage it yields and the role it plays in some consumers lives; while it may be only a television programme it could be seen to represent trends in British culture. Concerning high culture, The X Factor uses Carl orff’s ‘O Fortuna’ as one of its themes; again this has a parodic effect.  Interestingly, is it a mere coincidence that the version is recorded by one of the artists belonging to the Syco music label?

    It would be interesting if the producers of the programme have a concept of the meanings that can generated by this text. Cultural fascism anyone?


Hamilton, R. 1956. Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? [Collage] Kunsthalle Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany. 

Hebdige, Dick. 1985. ‘The bottom line on planet one: squaring up to The Face’ In Hiding in the Light: on the image and things. 1988. London: Comedia and Routledge.

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