Both high and popular culture are spin-offs of ritual; but whereas high secular culture is limited to a specific set of historical circumstances, popular culture is found in all societies: folk-tales are desacralized myths, erotic ballads transfer worship from a god to a sexual object. In the West, the “high” esthetic genres (epic, drama, lyric) emerge from religious ritual as public performances, sanctioned and promoted by the polis, of Homeric epics, Pindaric lyrics, Aeschylian tragedy. These performances are not as a rule restricted to a social elite, although the citizenry itself is a privileged class in comparison with their slaves or wives.

Despite the undoubted correlations between class and cultural level, it is better to understand the audiences for art and entertainment, high and popular culture not as two different groups of people but as two different ethical attitudes. Those attuned to the more difficult attitude of high art have always been drawn to the popular as well; tragic festivals included satyr-plays. These attitudes can be traced back to the originary event through the intermediary of its repetition in ritual. Whatever indulgence it allows to desire, the underlying structure of ritual is sacrificial; the participants must abandon their hope of possessing the whole in order to obtain a part. High art preserves the overall ritual attitude in a “secular” context emancipated from ritual. The esthetic subject enforces in the real world the interdiction of the central object attributed to the divinity in the ritual context, both provoking the desire for it and showing that this desire cannot be satisfied. In contrast, the origin of popular art is on the periphery of ritual, in those moments when the appetites are indulged without thought of their dependency on the sacrificial whole, the participants benefiting from the sacrifice without (apparently) suffering from it. Mikhail Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque” category embodies this attitude, while demonstrating its trans-sociological nature, since all classes of society are expected to participate the carnival as one day of indulgence preceding forty of penance.

Popular culture, whether it be pre-industrial folk culture or the mass-produced culture of industrial societies, is entertainment for those who, like the proletariat of Rome, feel unburdened by social responsibility–a “proletariat” composed not of cradle-to-grave proletarians but of those who adopt, whether for a moment or a lifetime, an attitude of indifference to the functioning of society as a whole. This was the attitude of the Roman proletarius, and the Marxian proletarian still embodies it even as he inherits the earth, since the socialist utopia is presumed to be able to integrate individual desire and public benefit so smoothly as to require no conscious effort on the part of its participants. (See Chronicle 278.)

It would be callous to mock the artistic tastes of the nineteenth-century worker laboring sixteen hours a day in factory or mine who had little leisure and less inclination to consider issues that did not touch directly on his survival. Yet his bourgeois employer, owner of the means of production and patron of the arts, was considered a scarcely more ideal audience by the artistic community; for the latter, the bourgeois too were part of the “people,” albeit with daintier tastes that would later be called “middlebrow.” Postromantic artists distrusted all audiences beyond themselves because they saw themselves rightly or wrongly as the sole guardians of totality in a world apparently stripped by the market of its universal norms.

What compensates the participant in the originary scene for his obligatory renunciation of the whole for a part is thesparagmos, the discharge of originary resentment against the central object. The popular attitude that derives from this compensation can most simply be characterized as one of resentment against the limitations of one’s condition in hierarchical society, whether justified or not from the standpoint of distributive justice. The popular subject seeks imaginary satisfactions in compensation for his worldly frustration, but since his “oppressor” is real whereas fulfillment of desire is not, the heart of popular culture is revenge on the former rather than celebration of the latter. The utopia of desire can only be pointed to; the image of fulfilled desire abolishes human temporality and cannot therefore maintain our attention on the esthetic sign.

Popular culture takes advantage of the world of representation to take revenge upon reality, whereas high culture never loses sight of the fact that the originary function of representation is the preservation of the community through sacrifice. The tragic is the ultimate high-cultural experience; in obeying the artist’s will, we profit from the tragic hero’s sufferings, but rather than rejoice in them we identify with their necessity from within as well as from without. We attain the catharsis of our own excessive desires through this process, whereas popular culture discharges these desires in imagined satisfaction.


The most important reality of contemporary esthetics is the seemingly ineluctable marginalization of the high arts. With the possible exception of architects, whose esthetic bears the guarantee of practical purpose, no contemporary artist would have the temerity to compare his work with the historic greats in his field, something the “high modernists” such as Picasso, Stravinsky, Joyce, Eliot, or Proust did not so long ago without hesitation.

This separation, obvious today, of the esthetic ambitions of high modernism from those of the postmodern era reflects the great ethical revelation of the twentieth century embodied in the Holocaust. The postmodern esthetic is more or less that defined for “art after Auschwitz” by Theodor Adorno, who, after declaring that it would be barbaric to continue to write poetry, decided that art was still possible on the condition that it renounce beauty and wholeness and devote itself, as one critic put it, to the “negative expression of the absent truth.” To accept the central will of the artist as coinciding with the sacred order of things smacks of the Führerprinzip; the victims of the Holocaust cannot be recuperated by incorporation in a tragic rite. High art requires that the social order be, as if from a Durkheimian perspective, the source of all values; the Holocaust challenges the legitimacy of this order and with it, that of the high culture that affirms it. Yet however critical the esthetic subject’s posture may be toward the worldly order, his very subjectivity is mediated by the sacred center, the source of language and all representation. Subjectivity itself is then called into question; but since the “caller” is himself a subject, the postmodern esthetic becomes a series of displays of self-negation, with respect to which Derridean deconstruction remains the most subtle and anthropologically grounded reflection.

The effect of the postmodern esthetic has been devastating to the practice and reception of high art. The arts that were formerly the privileged embodiments of human totality are either reduced to a moral-less practice of decoration (Christo is probably the best-known and most widely viewed artist of our era) or confined to a coterie of connoisseurs. The high modernist’s sense that he alone, in contrast with his uncomprehending “bourgeois” audience, is capable of articulating the values of the totality, is reduced in postmodernity to producing the “revelation” that the totality is a sham. High art remains only as a means for denouncing its own inherent pretensions. The creation of art conceived as self-deconstruction leads in practice to a Gresham’s law competition in outrageousness; the use of excrement to turn the plastic arts into a kind of esthetic Black Mass is an indication of this. The totalizing and sacralizing attitude that high art inspires finds refuge in the appreciation of the works of the past.


But art itself is not dying. In the postmodern context I have just described, the “profane” nature of popular art becomes an advantage. The popular artist is content to adapt artistic forms to the resentments of his audience rather than put the social order in question in order to reaffirm it. To the postmodern high artist’s deconstruction of his own authority corresponds in the popular work the spectator’s “camp” discounting of the resentful attitude he temporarily adopts in order to enjoy the work. The protected formal context of popular art, geared to the spectator’s satisfaction rather than to the artist’s conception of cosmic order, permits its creator and spectator, in the moral neutrality of their market-mediated relationship, to seek something of the esthetic satisfaction of high art through the transcendence of the very resentments that popular art exists to satisfy. Because it begins from the legitimation of individual desire rather than the affirmation of the social order, the popular attitude can become the means of imaginarily reconstructing this order. In the popular work, the model of the originary scene of crisis and resolution permits desire to be explored for its comic or tragic elements independently of any a priori communal totality. This is more or less the esthetic mode Raoul Eshelman has elaborated over a series ofAnthropoetics articles (in issues VI, 2; VII, 2; VIII, 2, and X, 2) under the concept of performatism.

I think this neo-high-cultural role is played most significantly by cinema, whose commercial focus and collective “authorship” provide its esthetic subject with a guarantee of humility that allows it to mitigate its self-deconstruction and seek to reconstruct the “perspective of the whole.” This new role of popular art in the postmodern era and particularly in our post-millennial, performatist age is a complex issue that I intend to explore in future Chronicles.