The Rise of the Photographer pt 5: The Culture Industry | The Philosophy of Photography


The Culture Industry is the main driver of our sensory experience, most of the media you ingest is in large part suggested by the culture industry or the more common term; popular (pop) culture. The Culture Industry drives off of a persons leisure time in a modern Capitalistic society, and what they do in that leisure time. Or put more poignant; Producing artifacts of culture for the masses that demand them, to make as much money as possible. In other words, we are not creating culture for the sake of creating artifacts, to create a lasting impact on future generations, but we are creating culture for the sake of profiting.

An example of this would be if we were to look at replicas of famous artifacts, paintings, sculptures, etc. You are able to purchase Van Goghs ‘Starry Night’ in the classic 20x24 canvas for $169.00. Gustav Klimts ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I’ and the rich golds, browns and reds that represent wealth and prestige found within the oils can be bought for $219.00. There are endless examples of this, and it isn’t like the painters are receiving this money. The natural human yearn for culture and prestige is something the culture industry and capitalism feeds off. Who wouldn’t want to showcase their ‘Garden Path and Giverny’ to their friends? Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing morally wrong with purchasing reproductions. It does allow the layperson to showcase art in their homes, when in pre-capitalistic societies it would be reserved for the extremely wealthy.

For me, and on this journey through the philosophy of photography, I come to an ethical dilemma on aiding the culture industry but putting images for sale. The reason why I say this is because if I am commodifying my art, is it still art? It remains a photograph, I own the rights to that photograph and will remain the right holder for a long time, but is it still art? When something becomes commodified, it changes into a product, not a product for me, but for everyone. With it not being a commodity, it remains unique and untouched by the capitalistic machine; pure.

There are two philosophers that parallel this thinking, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Members of the famed ‘Frankfurt School’ (which includes one of my favourite philosophers Herbert Marcuse and his Critical Theory). Adorno and Horkheimer say in their book Dialectic of Enlightenment, “The Culture Industry endlessly cheats its consumers out of what is endlessly promises…that is the secret of aesthetic sublimation: to present fulfillment in its brokenness.” There is no promise that you will be satisfied with that reproduction of that Monet, because it is human nature to want more (or as Schopenhauer would put it “restlessly strive”). We know that Monet is not real, it is a reproduction, so what do we do? Well we purchase more reproduced art to try and fill the void the culture industry and capitalism feeds off of. The average person making $35,000/year can’t afford a $250,000 Rembrandt. It is here where Adorno and Horkheimer bring up the fabricated allure of sexualization in our society by saying, “The Culture Industry does not sublimate; it suppresses. By constantly exhibiting the object of desire, the breasts beneath the sweater, the naked torso of the sporting hero, it merely goads the unsublimated anticipation of pleasure, which through the habit of denial has long since been mutated into masochism.”

What Adorno and Horkheimer are saying, is that the culture industry suppresses our desires, whether that be sexual or nonsexual, into objects of desires. “For $10.00 you can see those breasts underneath the sweater”, not taking into consideration, although consensual the trappings of the pornographic industry. “With this machine and 3 easy payments of $99.00 you too can look like this muscular man”, not taking into consideration that diet is just as important as exercise. Don’t forget though that you can go on a diet plan as well, they will help you loose that weight you gained from the sugar laced into our foods, for a price.

This is not meant to come across as some wacky conspiracy theorist upset over the sugar industry. I actively live in a capitalistic society and engage directly in the culture industry, I accept the fact that this is the way of life right now, and for me to exist means me living and participating in this society. Not showing hardcore porn on prime-time is a good thing to have in place. This doesn’t discount what Adorno and Horkheimer have stated, because what they have stated is true. We do live in a suppressive society that commodifies objects of the divine and will charge a premium for that divine status. Adorno and Horkheimer would say “Works of art are aesthetic and shameless; the culture industry is pornographic and prudish. It reduces love to [only] romance. And, once reduced, much is permitted, even libertinage [devoid of moral principals] as a marketable specialty, purveyed by the quota with the trade description “daring”.” This got me thinking about the more respected aspects of art and especially in photography. The works of art in photography that stand the test of time and rise above the rest are the ones that exemplify the human body. Black and White nudes or semi-nudes usually in extreme glamour or extreme rawness are commonly found throughout the chronicle of photography. Is the culture industry the reason for this? It cannot just be a coincidence the human form absent of clothes is taboo, foreign while paradoxically identifiable and relatable. Adorno and Horkheimer would continue saying, “The Mass production of sexuality automatically brings out its repression. Because of this ubiquity, the firm star whom one is supposed to fall in love with is, from the start, a copy of himself.” If they are saying that the culture industry reduces love to only the romance part of it, would it then not be too far of a stretch to say that the culture industry reduces all forms of art to that of the lowest common denominator. Essentially removing all artistic value from that work, and instead of seeing the created artifact as:

1. Is it marketable, is there a market for this?

2. Can we attach a quota to this? [by this I mean “One of a kind, Unique, Rare, clearance".]

3. Is there any part of this that can be separated from the original source to extend the life of profit [notables include unnecessary movie trilogies, Video Game DLCs, Furniture, Photoshop presets.]

So, this is where I am when it comes to selling my prints. On one hand, I increase the potential to make money, something that is needed to survive because after-all I participate in modern society and in the culture industry. On the other hand, I think to myself that I am devaluing photography, not because I think my images are trash, but because I am partaking in an industry that is currently saturated with content. I can make it so my content stands out from the rest, of course, but at what cost am I doing that for? When I think of photography, I do not think of it as a money chase. Therefore I do not often do portraits and no longer do weddings or engagements; there is no enjoyment in that for me. For me photography is about being one with your surroundings, inspecting and embracing both the macro-ecosystem and micro-ecosystems. Weddings and portraits are perhaps timeless and cherished to certain individuals are not enveloping anything but a commodity.

Hypocritically I have prints for sale, but I am unsure how long I will have the store up. To me, photography is all about the story being told, not how much I can sell a print. Perhaps a book of my work, rather than individual prints, would be a more constructive way for me to keep true to my morals and engage in a bit of capitalism.

I did not go into full detail on the culture industry or Max Adorno and Theodor Horkheimers book Dialectic of Enlightenment. If you are interested in philosophy as well as a more modern critique of Capitalism than Marx, I recommend looking into The Frankfurt School.