Throughout the history of modern art, whether demarcated from the onset of Romanticism, Impressionism, or early twentieth-century movements, the identity of art practice has been intimately bound up with that of mass culture. Keepers of the flame of critical modernism cast this relation as one in which fine art is the privileged term in any opposition–high/low, elite/popular, authorial/industrial, and they carefully guard the distinctions between them.  But the complex nature of the relation of fine art to mass-media imagery requires a more subtle characterization of the interlinked identity of the two domains. Fine art has become increasingly dependent on media culture, and on the forms of visuality generated within mass media, for its vocabulary of images. The tail of flue art no longer wags the monster dog of commercial production, and thus it seems urgent to expand our historical understanding of this relationship by looking more carefully at those manifestations of modern visual culture that can help lay the critical groundwork for a nuanced discussion of this relationship in terms not circumscribed by a disdainful dismissal of the early twentieth-century dialogue of modern art and mass media.
“Who’s Afraid of Visual Culture” by Johanna Drucker
I love the phrase “the tail of flue art no longer wags the monster dog of commercial production.”
The political and pedagogical implications of Americans’ refusal to critically analyze popular culture are disturbing. If Americans reject critical analysis of popular culture and other media texts, they reject analysis of a significant portion of their life activity. In 1996, according to Nielsen Media Research data, the average U.S. household consumed almost fifty-one hours of television per week, and the average individual consumed almost twenty-eight hours–an average of almost four hours per day and over a day’s worth of television per week (Head and Sterling 296-97). Furthermore, the sources of the messages that occupy this portion of Americans’ life activity are increasingly oligopolistic media corporations. According to Bagdikian’s 2000 version of The Media Monopoly, only six corporations own the vast majority of media outlets in the United States–down from fifty in 1983. In addition, Americans’ resistance to critical analysis of entertaining media texts has serious implications for the media literacy movement in the United States and may provide a difficult barrier to the introduction of widespread media literacy classes. Why teach classes on the media, after all, if the media are “just entertainment”?
Although it is inviting to sit back and bemoan the difficulties of teaching resistant students to critically analyze the media, a more productive task is to try to find solutions. What strategies can media educators use to persuade U.S. students that critical analysis is not incongruous with popular film, television, and other forms of popular culture? As one possible starting point, I propose that media educators look to Kenneth Burke’s theory of perspective by incongruity as a strategy to teach students that popular culture is indeed congruous with critical analysis. In Permanence and Change, Burke argued that it is difficult to persuade people to question critically their most valued assumptions about everyday life. Burke called these valued assumptions “pieties,” or “the sense of what properly goes with what” (74). Traditional logic often is not an effective tool to argue against pious assumptions because people often hegemonically refuse to question deeply held cultural assumptions. To persuade people to question their pieties, a rhetor needs to adapt a more complicated strategy than traditional logic.
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In lieu of traditional logic, Burke argues that a rhetor can better challenge pieties through perspective by incongruity. This strategy involves the use of imaginative metaphors to exemplify “relationships between objects which our customary rational vocabulary has heretofore ignored” (90). To argue against a piety, a rhetor must invent a creative way to compare two concepts that seem unrelated; A and B, which previously seemed incongruous, strategically must be compared so that they seem alike. Perspective by incongruity is powerful because, if successful, it jars people into new perceptions about the way reality can be constructed and may encourage people to question their pieties.