Last updated: May 19, 2019
Topic: ArtMusic
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Commodity culture and commodification are modern phenomena. In his book “the Culture Industry” Theodor W. Adorno analyses modern music and art culture and explain its origins and impact on modern society. He pays a special attention to mass culture and impact of commodification on music industry and art. In producing subjects able and willing to consume, not merely work, mass culture became an indispensable instrument of disciplining the mass of the population in the ways of life of the new productive mode. According to Adorno, buying and giving goods are forms of expressing ourselves.

Consumption in a commodity culture is as much a psychological process as an economic one because the connection between what people purchase and what they actually need has been completely severed. “The self-reflection of culture brings a levelling down process in its wake” (Adorno 2001, p. 67). In a parallel development, the ability of machines to mass produce objects connected with a powerful – that is to say, profitable – counterpart in the new-found ability of advertisers to mass produce images and discourse designed to make these innumerable objects appear valuable and necessary. But the true source of self-reflection lies in the fact that decisive aspects of reality today elude representation through the aesthetic image. Monopoly scorns art” (Adorno 2001, p. 65). The attempt to sketch the specific contours of mass culture is premised most broadly on a single claim: that in the gradual shift in American society from a producer-oriented, crafts-dominated economy to a consumer-oriented, mass production economy, mass culture became the dominant ideological determinant of individual behavior.

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Adorno underlines that urban populations are swelling, making possible the sales of goods to large numbers of people at a rate never imagined before. The dependably high volume of sales make producing commodities even cheaper, freeing up capital for more and more involved advertising strategies, and thus laying the groundwork for a shared discourse among the rich and poor alike, understood now as popular culture.

When an object, through advertising, is characterized as unique and personally fulfilling and is at the same time readily available to everyone. Commodity culture and commodification means adaptation of unique art and culture to modern consumption patterns and styles of life. The product (music and art) itself, moreover, became more streamlined and formulaic, as studios sought to make costs and profits more predictable. The inevitable move toward standardization of product kept costs down and sped up the production process. Adirno (2001) states that:

Even the performance ideal of serious music in the sense of a perfect account of the work that takes no risks, as this has developed under monopoly conditions, has fallen under an iron grip of rigidity despite the ostentatious appearance of dynamism. The favoured compositions of mass culture are specifically selected in accordance with this trend (p. 72). Naturally, the art of posturing, because it was so effective at infiltrating social boundaries, was attacked as being insincere by the very people whose boundaries were being infiltrated.

Wilde demonstrated that sincerity is the luxury of the inclusive; it is the self-affirming principle of people of wealth and property who control access to their own society, and who use it as a shibboleth to exclude others. Sincerity, one might say, is in the eye of the key holder. Personality, in this case, is a composite of “tactics” permitting one to enter the enemy camp of society and subvert the “strategies” designed to make colonial subjects feel inherently inferior.

It is possible to say that Adorno (2001) connects commodity culture with mass culture and mass consumption which involves music and art. A movement from a set notion of style to the individual production of “lifestyle” generates a new form of symbol generation independent from history in a way never possible before. Commodity culture is based on the sense of satisfaction and completeness that the product gives us; this phenomenon of human desire makes a commodity culture both possible and profitable.

Like the advertisement making a manufactured commodity appear as an object of desire, the music message creates repeat customers by offering a powerful mix of absolute reassurance specifically tailored to a preexisting anxiety. Commodity culture and commodification play a crucial role in Adorno’s thought explaining the nature of modern mass music and “cultural monopoly”. For instance, Adorno (2001) claims that: “the lack of conflict which in mass culture stems from the allencompassing concerns of the monopoly can even be seen today in great art within those very works which most resolutely resist the cultural monopoly” (p. 3). The consumer has been persuaded to believe in what he or she wants, and has been further conditioned (as a side effect of this ideological seduction) into no longer wanting what he or she already has. In a more concrete description of this process, going shopping bestows a temporary state of grace on the consumer. It is a state of grace-as powerful as it is temporary, not unlike that which the faithful experience during the ritual of participating in a church service. Adorno admires the ability of music industry to attract “repeat customers. He interprets the structure and content of the mass music as an effective advertising campaign, one that is, from his point of view, ingeniously designed to attract consumers eternally. Adorno claims that mass culture had a long history. Cultural historians have rightly pointed to the late nineteenth century as the pivotal period for the beginnings of modern consumer culture, attended by the popular press, advertising and the urban theater. Moreover, these economic struggles took place at every phase in the mode of production.

At the level of production proper, the drive continually to expand or be swallowed up by larger concerns compelled filmmakers to go into hitherto uncharted territories of distribution and exhibition; at the level of exchange, it compelled exhibitors to band together and go into production; and it even drove the elite actors to go into production. Desire generated in the commodity culture of the twentieth century which is culturally specific. Modern light music is commercially generated and culturally intelligible. Their static separation [serious and light music], which certain caretakers of culture have ardently sought – the totalitarian radio was assigned to the task, on the one hand, of providing good entertainment and diversion, and on the other, of fostering the so-called cultural goods” (Adorno, 2001, p. 34). Whereas earlier one would assume a given style in order to “fix” oneself at a certain point in the social hierarchy, by the turn of the century, attention to style indicated the exact opposite ambition: one’s determination to move freely in and around, up and down a social hierarchy that had become unfixed.

Before modern mass production, “style” was a way to indicate where one stood in relation to a preexisting social hierarchy, but, with the advent of mass-produced images, clothes, and advertisements in the twentieth century, “style” became more personal, more a way to declare one’s independence from the existing order. Adorno underlines that modern music is a cultural commodity especially “commercial jazz and hit songs” (p. 34). Modern advertisers and markers create “an illusion of a social preference for light music” (p. 34).

Adorno underlines that “musical fetishism takes possession of the public valuation of singing voices. Their sensuous magic is traditional as is the close relation between success and the person endowed with ‘material’. But today it is forgotten that it is material” (p. 36). Commodification is important for Adorno because he claims that “’values’ are consumed and draw feelings to themselves, without their specific qualities being reached by the consciousness of the consumer, is a later expression of their commodity character” (p. 7). For Adorno, the aesthetic is a relief from the light music and mass culture. Following upon this, he offers a reason why the urban experience weighs particularly heavy on the impoverished shopper. While education served to include and differentiate among subjects in order to reproduce a division in the labor force, mass culture functioned in general as an inclusive discourse that addressed all subjects.

Although this address came in different forms for different audiences (some productions are geared more toward women, for example; films are obviously intended more for young adults), there is a commonality to the overriding, anticipated effect of all mass cultural apparatuses: the construction of subjects who will consume. This does not mean that all could or did act on this constructed desire. The development of film as a popular medium, radio’s phenomenal growth and the burgeoning advertising and public relations industries changed the structure through which mass culture’s message passed.

Adorno uses the concepts of commodity culture and commodification to explain modern culture and its current state. Just as the commodity erases all trace of the human labor that produces it, as well as any suggestion of the relationship among power, economics, and identity in such production, music and art also functions as a commodity in that it promotes pleasure while obscuring relationships of power, even though it is these very relationships of power that produce the pleasure In modern world, everything can be sold: values, ideals, tastes and desires.