Marketing American Culture

The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture by John Seabrook
2000, 215 pages, Alfred A. Knopf

American Culture, American Tastes Social Change and the Twentieth Century by Michael Kammen
1999, 320 pages, Basic Books

Seabrook, author of The New Yorker's "Buzz Studies," engages us in the modern pop culture where highbrow and lowbrow tastes are blended into a new sensibility he calls "Nobrow." Everyone, high and low, wants to be a part of the "buzz." Rather than lament the new, Seabrook lauds the market system as more democratic and less bound by elitism. "For more than a century, the elite in the United States had distinguished themselves from consumers of commercial culture, or mass culture. Highbrow/lowbrow was the language by which culture was translated into status — the pivot on which distinctions of taste became distinctions of caste.”1 He saw, “American cultural hierarchy for what it really was: not a hierarchy of taste at all, but a hierarchy of power that used taste to cloak its real agenda.”2 Now that the “highbrow/lowbrow” system has broken down, the old divides and structures are no longer there to guide us. Popular and commercial can be of exceptional quality and elite and non-commercial can be of poor quality.

In a similar direction, but with greater detail and references, American cultures scholar Michael Kammen explains the distinctions between popular and mass culture, describing the progression from the direct engagement of people in popular culture at the beginning of the twentieth century to more spectator oriented mass culture (through the advent of various media) at the end of the century. He continues Seabrook's theme of the shift of power, describing the transition from the cultural authority of critics and scholars to the rise of previously under-appreciated populist sources of authority as opinion polls, television ratings and published statistics of film attendance. “Expert” scholars blasted Ken Burns' Civil War as imperfect history, yet audiences found it compelling. The “buzz” of millions of box office dollars on opening weekends has more impact than the journalist's carefully written film review. (Or, the buzz at GIA may be more important than whether someone reads this commentary.) Kammen provides a key treatise on changing tastes, increases in cultural populism and shifting cultural paradigms.

Seeing myself in these books' descriptions of “cultural experts” caused me to re-examine past practices and beliefs from my twenty-five-plus years as an arts worker and panelist (“tastemaker” some might say). Lest we lose relevance to the society around us, we're encouraged to engage in new ways of thinking as cultural workers of the twenty-first century. Kammen ends with the hope that the loss of elitism can allow for “leveling up,” with the “masses” enjoying “the riches” of the arts and culture belonging “equally to all of us.”3

Jerry Yoshitomi, independent cultural facilitator, YshJy[at]

1. P. 26
2. P. 32
3. Walt Disney