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John Mullan


John Mullan, lecturer in English at University College London, is the author of Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the 18th Century and the editor of an anthology of 18th-century popular culture.--lrb.co.uk, Jan 2004

The invention of popular culture

John Mullan explains how we had to create high culture before we could have low culture

Perhaps there has always been popular culture. Preserved in the amber of high literature and art are the traces of the lower amusements of the past. Look into Shakespeare, Hogarth or Dickens and you can see the remnants of popular diversions: ballads and songs, fairs and pantomimes, sports and ingenious forms of cruelty to animals. Yet the idea that 'the common people' might have a culture (rather than just habits of rowdyism) dates from precisely the time when our idea of high culture was being invented. Popular culture has always been its ill-mannered twin.

The 18th century first saw the development of a culture that was available to anyone prepared to buy a ticket. Before this, the aristocracy had kept all that was best in culture for itself. Now culture was there to enrich and fill the time of the newly affluent, and genteel consumers could polish themselves by visiting art galleries or museums, attending concerts or performances of Shakespeare. As pleasure became 'culture', it became increasingly important for the polite classes (many of them nouveaux riches) to distinguish between high and low entertainments. Then, as now, those most insecure about their own refinement were likeliest to be most hostile to all that might be thought 'low' or 'vulgar' (until the mid-19th century the words most commonly used for what we might call 'popular').

Anxiety about, or disregard for, vulgarity were, from the beginning, forged by class. The two men who, in effect, invented that still-dominant cultural form, the novel, illustrate a polarity that remains with us. The most successful novelist of that century, Samuel Richardson, was an uneducated self-made man who obsessively rewrote his books to purge them of colloquialism and inelegance. His detested rival, Henry Fielding, a classically educated Etonian, cheerfully filled his novels with tavern scenes and coarse humour.

When culture can be bought and sold, taste becomes an increasingly useful social marker. It was commerce that gave 'culture' to the middle classes, but commerce could also sully it. So the Georgians set about building a national culture - from the plays of Shakespeare to the music of Handel - that only the qualified could properly enjoy. As this culture widened, paradoxically the separation of high and low ('polite' and 'vulgar') sharpened. Previously, the educated classes had been active participants in popular culture. At the beginning of the 18th century, highly educated writers often happily adopted popular verse forms. The big theatrical hit of the times was John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, in which popular songs of the day mingle with mock-operatic arias in a tale of Newgate lowlife. Gay's friend Jonathan Swift wrote ballads, burlesqued popular almanacs, imitated the grimly comic Tyburn hymns (commemorating the exploits of infamous criminals) and mimicked the demotic vocabulary of forms of street literature such as hawkers' cries.

Such writers, like their contemporary Hogarth, delighted in the unpredictable effects of collisions between the high and low. By the 19th century, respectable culture, now viewed as beneficial to health, was bestowed upon the lower classes. It became important to find 'improving' activities for the working classes whose work and leisure time were clearly segregated by industrialisation. Public spaces that still seem to stand for a shared culture - public libraries, museums and parks - were established to provide 'rational recreation' for the lower orders (although no games or sports were allowed in municipal gardens.) The genteel philanthropists and self-improving artisans who founded mechanics' institutes or branches of the YMCA set out to draw skilled workers and urban clerks away from the pubs and the music halls: culture for the people should be different from popular culture.

This was the age when society might be nourished by what Matthew Arnold infamously called "sweetness and light" (a phrase filched from sardonic usage by Swift). Such Victorian impulses had a long life: they were still present in the Reithianism of the early BBC, which explicitly set out to uplift popular culture. Arguably, they were also key in the shaping of postwar British cinema, particularly through censorship policy. It was not just prudishness behind this, but anxiety about the influence of this brassy medium. (In 1950 up to one third of the British population were going to the cinema at least once a week.) In the 20th century, high culture drew energy from an antagonism to popular culture.

As John Carey's Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) documented, much of modernism in art and literature grew from a revulsion for mass culture (including mass literacy and mass political enfranchisement). Indeed, the idea of the masses, suborned by cultural technology, replaced that of 'the people', clinging to vulgar traditions and pastimes. The very phrase 'popular culture' signifies a later development whose effects are still with us. From the founding of media studies courses in the 1950s to Christopher Ricks lecturing on Bob Dylan, one tendency has been to rescue popular culture for serious discussion. What was once low can be raised: Pilgrim's Progress, the poetry of Burns and Hollywood film noir have all become high culture. Yet the phrase also belies the fact that much of 'popular culture' may appeal strongly to everyone, regardless of class or education.

As the fearful 18th-century excoriators of the novel realised, 'high' and 'low' - Bach and Big Brother - can be appetites of one individual. In the cultural pages of this newspaper, high and low seem happily to inhabit the same space. Maybe, as some giddy postmodernists have declared, this means that cultural hierarchies are meaningless - that we live in a cultural Disneyland, where everything is parody and nothing can be better or worse. The history of popular culture lets us see that this is not so. On the contrary, some of the life of culture is in the very crackle of antagonism between high and low. Before the ideal of high culture for paying consumers was invented, popular genres were available to the most elevated of writers and artists, who were able to enjoy the clashes (and sometimes unexpected affinities) between refinement and vulgarity. Why should we not do so too?

Culture scares through the ages

It may seem the highest of culture to us, but for Puritan campaigners the theatres of the Elizabethan South Bank (including Shakespeare's Globe) were 'markets of bawdrie', distracting artisans and apprentices as much as the nearby bear-pits. They were banned from the City and constantly attacked. Eventually, drama was moved safely indoors and made exclusively for the upper classes.

At the beginning of the 18th century, societies for the reformation of manners tried to control these tumultuous occasions. Citizens petitioned to restrict the biggest and wildest, Bartholomew Fair (in London's Smithfield), and especially to remove 'entertainments': street theatre, conjurers' booths, gambling dens. The Victorians managed to rid themselves of the most persistent with an 1871 act to facilitate the closure of fairs.

Music halls:
Despite professions of respectability, these 'Fortresses of Beelzebub' (as they were dubbed by the Salvation Army), whose audiences were predominantly working class, worried the ruling classes throughout the late 19th century. There were continual efforts to control drinking and monitor the decency of acts. In response to middle-class fears, the London County Council formed a committee of morals in 1890, with the power to revoke their licences.

Books arouse passions, but particularly if it's thought they will incite the lower orders. Tom Paine was pursued for sedition when his The Rights of Man sold tens of thousands as a cheap paperback. His contemporary William Godwin was perceived as no threat because his anarchistic philosophy came in the form of a pricy hardback: too expensive to be a danger. In other cases, such as Lady Chatterley's Lover or Lolita, sex rather than politics was the issue.

Pop music:
There has been no other cultural form to excite such establishment defensiveness, from the screening out of Elvis Presley's hips on 1950s American TV, to the exclusion of the Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen from Top of the Pops and BBC Radio in Jubilee year (it reached No 1 anyway). In both these cases, as in others - such as Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Relax - the performers became notorious through the tremor of disapproval they excited.

Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962) provoked the first and most influential of storms about the influence of films on the young in 1971 (though he removed the child sex in the book). As Alex, Malcolm McDowell's weird garb echoed that of skinheads, and British papers featured a series of stories of 'copycat' violence. In 1979 Kubrick officially confirmed that he had permanently withdrawn the film.

After the judge in the trial of James Bulger's killers cited the 'video nasty' Child's Play 3 as a possible incitement to the murder, newspapers and TV rang with anxiety about the influence of video violence. This increased after the film - about a homicidal demon doll called Chucky - was shown on satellite TV, watched by tens of thousands of children. Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers was swept up in a similar controversy.

• John Mullan is writing a book on anonymity for Faber and Faber.

John Mullan
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001Saturday October 28, 2000
The Guardian

Eighteenth-Century Popular Culture: A Selection (2000) - John Mullan (Editor), Christopher Reid (Editor)

Eighteenth-Century Popular Culture: A Selection (2000) - John Mullan (Editor), Christopher Reid (Editor) [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

See also: popular culture - UK - 1700s

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