[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Entertainment Workers

Posts in this series
What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Changes In The Conditions of Production

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: The Capitalist Celebration

Related Post
Symbolic Violence in Neoliberalism. This post describes symbolic structures and cultural producers which I call symbolic workers here.

The entertainment we enjoy helps us to understand our society, how we fit into it and what we might expect from our interactions with it. Some of what we learn can become part of our habitus, our predispositions in dealing with the world. I don’t have much of a framework for this, but I’m just going to plunge ahead. I know that this is too broad, so caveat: not all violence, not all romances, not all symbolic workers, etc; also hooray for escapism.

My general view is that the idea of markets has totally taken over the entertainment field, with bad consequences for individuals and our society. Every creative idea has to get access to a channel controlled by big capital. That requires getting past gatekeepers who are only interested in ideas with the potential for profit. That means sticking to the conventional wisdom, or at least not straying far from it. If you can’t get access, your idea is limited to small channels, and it only gets into public notice if it goes viral. Few things go viral, meaning that many clever ideas go nowhere.

In this post I’ll take two examples of the results: the culture of fear and violence, and reinforcement of the stereotypes of the relations between men and women.

I never thought much about the violence in the movies and on TV until I saw the 1991 movie, The Silence of the Lambs, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, and directed by Jonathan Demme. Here’s Roger Ebert’s review. He describes it as a horror movie, and true enough, the movie is terrifying and horrible. But it’s also a work of art, specifically murder and torture depicted artfully.

Rembrandt, The Slaughtered Ox, 1655, Louvre, Paris

Now I see the violence in movies and TV shows, and as ugly as it is, it doesn’t compare with cable news channels. They love shock and awe of bombing and missile attacks, and talk somberly about the regrettable loss of human life alongside tributes to our brave troops, all with the accompaniment of patriotic music. Local news competes on the basis of fires, car crashes and murders.

Michael Moore looked at the issue of gun violence in the US in his documentary Bowling For Columbine. He doesn’t draw firm conclusions, but points to several possible explanations, one of which is the culture of fear in the US. In the movie Moore interviews sociologist Barry Glassner, whose book The Culture of Fear was one of the influences behind the movie. I haven’t read the book, but here’s a review featuring an interview with Glassner.

“The public has become skeptical and critical of the news media in recent years – and part of the reason has to do with ignoring truly important concerns and compounding others beyond all reason,” said Glassner.

The sociologist ended up spending five years poring over more than 10,000 newspaper, radio and television accounts of social issues, and he discovered a distinct pattern.

“Scratch the surface of any pseudo-fear and you’ll find a wide array of groups that stand to benefit from promoting the scares, including businesses, advocacy organizations, religious sects and political parties,” Glassner said.

What Glassner and Moore portray is the contrast between the US self-description as the glorious Home of the Brave and the reality, a large population of bed-wetters. The bed-wetters aren’t brave, but they are full of bravado, much of it centered around their guns. They see themselves the brave men standing on the wall protecting us from immigrants and criminals. I’m pretty sure these images came from movies and TV shows.

Another major part of the entertainment business is books. Here’s a nice review of statistics on the industry, showing that one of the big genres is romance novels. Not coincidentally, romance is a big part of TV and movies. There are several cable channels devoted to this genre, including Lifetime and Hallmark. Romance books, movies and sitcoms reinforce the stereotypes of women. Ebert noticed a version of this in his review of Silence of The Lambs:

The movie has an undercurrent of unwelcome male attention toward [Jodie Foster’s] character; rarely in a movie have I been made more aware of the subtle sexual pressures men put upon women with their eyes.

In the horror/thriller genre, the primary role played by women is helplessness, and the male provides that help, rescuing her, or avenging her. That works in the romance genre as well. Here’s a blurb for a book currently on the Amazon Best Seller list for romance:

“Let’s get married.”

That was the last thing I had in mind.
Then I saw Holly, a curvy redhead in a tight green dress.
I knew she was mine. And I had to claim her.

Reading on we find out Holly been taken by a drug cartel, and he’s going to have to rescue her. Also, he’s a hot billionaire. There’s a whole subset of these books where the hero is a hot billionaire. It’s great that hot billionaires are just like regular guys only more so, built like linebackers and just dying to marry a random pretty grade school teacher or college dropout trying to make enough money to go back to college and learn to work with autistic children.

Hallmark movies are asexual versions of these books, only cheaper. The goal of the woman is to get married; the goal of her friends and family is to get her married; and it all works out and is sealed with a chaste kiss.

There is no sense of the real world in these movies. The couple never sleep together. They don’t talk about politics or housework or work or children or any of the other things dating couples get to eventually. No one lives in fear of job loss, or any kind of insecurity not related to getting married. The writers never get the details right; they seem indifferent to the way things work in the real world. There is always someone with a wise word about love that sounds like something from a self-help book. Of course these movies and books are escapism, but they reinforce stereotypes of the relations between men and women and a positive view of capitalism.

As Glassner says in the quote above, fear-mongering isn’t spontaneously generated. It’s stirred up by people seeking an advantage of some kind. They don’t do this directly. Instead, they hire symbolic workers and set them to work creating the symbolic structures that benefit them. In the first two posts in this series, I describe some of the overall influences affecting all cultural producers, the consolidation of employment and consequent reduction of entrepreneurial opportunities, and the general acceptance of capitalism as a given, rather than as a contested theory.

Our entertainment is created by large organizations funded by large pools of capital. That’s true of movies, television, professional sports and music. Workers in the entertainment field are subject to the pressures of commercialism, which cuts against their individual creativity and intellectual autonomy. And, they all accept the capitalist system as the overall structure of society and social relations.

The people who write romances books, make horrifyingly violent movies and operate cable news and local news are only able to reach the public through gatekeepers, all of which are large conglomerates. All of these symbolic workers are subject to the bureaucratic pressures affecting all salaried employees, and the hierarchy of these businesses ensure that the gatekeepers don’t screw up and let something subversive into the public arena.

As the entertainment industry has coalesced into a few giant players in each area from movies to television to publishing, the intellectual freedom and creativity of symbolic workers has been narrowed to a tiny range. Conglomeration is great for reproducing the class structure, and for reinforcing the conventional wisdom. The symbolic workers in this business aren’t intellectually autonomous in any real sense. No matter what they think of their jobs, they are merely doing the work of reinforcing the symbolic structures desired by their employers.

33 replies
  1. Sabrina says:

    Very interesting. There’s a lot you could say about entertainment from the lens of the fall of cultural elites (and related cultural pursuits, such as valuing artistic expression) and associated anti-intellectualism, which crops up a lot with this topic. It seems as though movies that require thoughful study are put automatically into a non-mainstream category. As an example, a recent movie I saw in the theatre (to be fair, I don’t go very often) was Mother!. Regardless of one’s thoughts on the movie- the trailers did NOT portray it accurately as it was not a horror movie- it was certainly surprisingly different and artistically creative. Rather than a horror film, it began as an odd biblical play with a small cast of archetypal characters and moved into an extravaganza of cinematic excess. There were many things to both like and dislike about the movie, but the most striking thing was the sheer number of people who just walked out halfway through. They didn’t stay to sit through the entire movie and judge it on its merits since their patience was tried a bit too much. This ended up making large companies wary of backing quirky films with expensive ad campaigns (I believe this was Paramount), and so, similar movies in the past year have had little to no promotion and very restrictive screening. This is one of the fundamental problems with the chokehold that large companies have on artistic expression. Instead of venturing to back a movie with artistic integrity (regardless of whether it ends up being a blockbuster and universally well-liked), these movies receive little promotion and limited releases. It discourages those who like less mainstream movies from even going to the theatre; conversely, it narrows what is actually played to a variant of one of the few acceptable genres, which all follow a carefully charted course. 
    Taking intellectual risks is not rewarded; as a result, it’s not incentivized. There’s an entire cascade of results from this decision; most notably that actors fear making a poor decision and top-list talent shies away from risk. What we’re seeing enacted in film is also being enacted in music, as well- safety by following a tried and true formula rather than trying something new. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: audiences, over time, cease to expect anything new and in fact, begin to view novel ideas as unpleasant experiences- as boring or too hard to follow- practically guaranteeing they won’t be made.

    [As an aside, this reminds me of a more recent criticism of obscure movies or music- terming them “pretentious” or “too elitist”. Complexity is now seen as almost a gimmick in its own right; this is worrisome as audiences are now primed to expect that the creator of art has a (usually sinister) angle in creating it. Art for its own sake has become a quaint notion, a relic from a more innocent time. It is a sad turn of events, indeed].

    There are so many great discussions to be had related to art and cultural relativism (and relevance), though this was the first point that came to mind since I’d had that theatre experience fairly recently. This has been a great series so far. Very well written, Ed- thank you for this!

    • Ed Walker says:

      In the mid-70s, we lived in Columbus OH. When Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties came out, it didn’t get to Columbus for a good while, and when it finally appeared, we were so anxious to see it that we packed a meal and went all the way up north to the small theater as soon as I could leave work, planning to get a ticket when the window opened and, if necessary, to eat standing in line. We were sure it would be sold out. About 20 people showed up.

      It was a great movie.

      • Sabrina says:

        Great story! That is definitely one of those times where you realize that what you adore artistically diverges from the mainstream- and in your case, it was a jarring moment. I haven’t seen that movie but since you mention it, I think I’ll put it on my to-do list.

        As an aside, I’m glad so many people here like TCM, such as bmaz and yourself. For some reason, I’m not surprised that among the analytical people that frequent this site, classic movies would be appreciated! They are a masterclass in technique, down to every shot. There’s something to be said for a medium that doesn’t allow for do-overs and the amazingly well-thought out cinema that can result.

  2. Palli says:

    Sadly, there is a plenty Art for Art’s Sake in America. Artists have little hope for middle-class life style without a straight job with art making squeezed into leisure hours. That’s sort-of OK-we make art because we must, not as a commodity but as communication.  What there is of a viewing public is mostly desirous of their own ideas memorialized in art objects or largely uncomfortable & ill-informed about the continuum of art’s cultural  purpose & meaning. The dilettante/museum audience, influenced by financial value, is uninterested in the critical process of artists outside the profitable corporate environs. The circles of dialogue artists create for themselves necessarily become social support groups while constructive critiques often get short shrift. Visual literacy is bad enough in the US but Art as cross-societal conversation is drowned out by the hoopla of mass culture & advertising.

    Yes, there are many discussions waiting…thanks

  3. bmaz says:

    Ed, this is why most all of my favorite movies can be found on Turner Classic Movies. Though, will have to say, Demme’s Silence of the Lambs is very much a classic work of art, and so much so that there never should have been sequels

    • Frank Probst says:

      It’s usually in my Top 5 list of favorite films.  But I think most people miss how unbelievably downbeat the ending is.  A line that is largely played for laughs (“I’m having an old friend for dinner.”) distracts you from where you’re at when the movie ends versus where you’re at when the movie begins.  At the beginning of the film, a terrifying but not all-that-intelligent serial killer is on the loose.  At the end of the film, that serial killer is no longer a threat, but someone who is far more dangerous has escaped custody and is at large.  In other words, the FBI’s actions have made the overall situation far worse than it was to begin with.  It’s something that almost no one thinks about after seeing the film, largely because Hopkins’ performance is so charismatic, even though the film shows you just how utterly ruthless he is.

  4. Soldalinsky says:

    “The entertainment we enjoy helps us to understand our society, how we fit into it and what we might expect from our interactions with it. Some of what we learn can become part of our habitus, our predispositions in dealing with the world. I don’t have much of a framework for this, but I’m just going to plunge ahead. I know that this is too broad, so caveat: not all violence, not all romances, not all symbolic workers, etc; also hooray for escapism.”

    Has anyone here seen Red Sparrow 2018?  It’s disturbing and candidly illuminates how Hollywood want’s to mold my disposition into some distorted ideological narrative.  Movies like this are the reason I don’t like Hollywood or support the entertainment industry.  The movie is packed full of subliminal propaganda.  Russians = VERY BAD!  White men with power = VERY VERY BAD & OFTEN RAPISTS!  KOMPROMAT skills are your greatest asset comrades! The plot centers around poor and innocent Jennifer Lawrence going to whore school because she is forced to by an oppressive (of course it’s the Russians) government that exploits her sexuality for, you guessed it, more power.   Luckily, some kind CIA operative takes her in and nurtures her because Americans are exceptional and we’d never exploit sexuality for power or to further an agenda.   Please spare me.

    Do people really wonder why our society is so messed up?

    • Watson says:

      @ Soldalinsky

      I started a ‘Red Sparrow’ novel but put it aside because its portrayal of Russians was so cartoonishly evil.

      Is Russia our enemy? Sure, but that’s how we wanted it. The US and Russia are playing the same game, in which nations, corporations, and individuals contend rather than cooperate.

      Vladimir Putin could have been born in the USA: he’s a Christian, capitalist, nationalist, authoritarian, homophobic, Cheney-like master bureaucrat from the security sector, riding herd over a bunch of greedy Trump-type oligarchs.

      For Trump to have collaborated in a Russian regime-change op against the US makes Trump an American quisling; but for Putin to have run a regime-change op against the US makes Putin a Russian patriot.

      Americans could have proclaimed a new era of mutually beneficial economic relations and mandatory non-violent dispute resolution after it won the Cold War. Instead, proclaiming that competition builds character and makes us plucky, Uncle Sam employed ‘shock therapy’ to re-construct Russia in its own image. When we are appalled at what we see from Russia, we should keep in mind that we are looking in the mirror.

      Warfare, spying, sabotage, regime change ops, etc., are baked into the Westphalian arrangement that the US has insisted on perpetuating. A ‘patriotic’ American complaining about hostile acts from other nations is like a football player complaining that people are trying to tackle him.

      I think Russia/Putin bashing is misguided: it diverts attention from our urgent need to fix the problems in our electoral process, and to address our home-grown racist fascism.

  5. Palli says:

    As an ancillary thought to the comments to Ed Walkers post: Notice how the informed discussion remains limited to the cinema arts-an art form where even Indy artists are deeply reliant on money-lots of money- and mass consumption. No mention of the other arts, despite the old master framed painting image (an “easel” canvas originally painted for common domestic display).

  6. lefty665 says:

    “the entertainment industry has coalesced into a few giant players in each area from movies to television to publishing”  All sub sets of the neoliberal elites. A cross reference between this crowd and max contributions to the Clinton campaign would have a high correlation.

    • bmaz says:

      Jesus, it does not have dick shit to do with the “Clinton campaign”. How Clinton deranged are you?? Your “correlation” claims are truly full of shit.

      • lefty665 says:

        Ed said it well “As the entertainment industry has coalesced into a few giant players in each area from movies to television to publishing, the intellectual freedom and creativity of symbolic workers has been narrowed to a tiny range. Conglomeration is great for reproducing the class structure, and for reinforcing the conventional wisdom. The symbolic workers in this business aren’t intellectually autonomous in any real sense. No matter what they think of their jobs, they are merely doing the work of reinforcing the symbolic structures desired by their employers.”

        There was a lot of money raised out of Hollywood for Clinton. Much of it in corrupt DNC machinations of $356,100 each. https://www.politico.com/story/2016/04/clinton-fundraising-leaves-little-for-state-parties-222670  Neo lib birds of a feather. You’d do well to get over your denial. Fortunately they were not able to push their candidate over the top. Unfortunately, the other candidate did. Lose, lose, but it could have been worse, and still may be as the Russia hysterical neolibs embrace the neocons and ratchet up the tantrums. I’ve broken out Tom Lehrer’s “We’ll all go together when we go”.

        • bmaz says:

          This is just fucking asinine. I understand you have an irrational seething hatred of all things Clinton, but don’t pollute Ed’s post with that rank horse manure.

        • lefty665 says:

          Apparently you haven’t been paying attention to this entire series of posts Ed has done on neo liberalism. Too fixated on Trump hatred it seems. They both suck, but she’s no better than he. They are both disgusting and despicable, but in different ways.

          You may hate, but I do not. Please do not displace your overwrought emotions on me.

        • bmaz says:

          Don’t know where the hell you get off telling me what a do and do not pay attention to, but you do.n’t know and should not do that. And it was you that dragged Clinton in this thread, not me. Your pathetic hatred of her is well known here in our comment section. And I’d advise you to back off and not further junk up Ed’s post.

  7. Soldalinsky says:

    Palli, Facebook has a stranglehold on independent artists. Facebook has algorithms looking for people pushing their artwork and flagging / suppressing activity. Artists get zero promotion unless Facebook gets its cut. I think advertising starts at about $150 a month or $5 for single posts.

    • Palli says:

      Interesting. The circle of working artists of which I am a part do not primarily use FB for art, except to inform close friends about new work or directions. If we use FB & twitter, it is as a social tool or political tool, not for professional documentation. Most (although ludites like me do not) have websites with clear Artist Statements, CV & images of bodies of work with links, obviously, to exhibitions & galleries. Search engines guided by name, media or image transport viewers directly to museum, gallery representation & artist sites.

      RE: this public discussion about art in culture, I’m less interested in artist promotion & sales (most artist might agree) as I am about public dialogue in the arts. My straight job for decades was art education curator and even in my hours as the artist, it always vexes me to find the appreciation condensed to monetary value. Art is communication and contemporary artists want to be heard in the dialogue of the moment. Artists want their art to be seen at least, it not more, than paid for.  Artists are constantly commenting on the social & political world,  I wonder why so many depend on entertainment arts to make them see or feel about social issues. For example, sculptor David Nash or Andy Goldsworthy teach perception of natural environment in quiet epiphanies that alter any subsequent walk in the woods. Or seek Barbara Kruger’s wry declarations for social/political perspectives, Martin Puryear for the sense of the spirit, Robert Colescott for the upturning of American history mythology. Instead we turn to entertaining pundits. The space for thinking around works of art is often larger than the memory of the darkened theater with anonymous companions or the blue rays from the home miniaturized entertainment screen. There are regional artists everywhere: museums, college and private galleries, contemporary artist spaces & art center galleries… where art can can be noticed as a part of life. Looking at art, critiquing what and how an artist’s work says ideas is an essential part of a living culture, not an elite pursuit for the wealthy leisure class. Lecture over.

  8. Ed Walker says:

    @Palli: Art has become an object of travel for most people. When we go traveling, we gol to a museum to see art; and even when we are not traveling, we go to our museums. We don’t expect to see it in our homes or in our daily lives in the world. When art moves to museums instead of the walls and floors and tables of our homes it loses its relevance and becomes one of those distinctions that separate the classes.

    As you point out, producing creative artwork is expensive, so the cost is often too much for almost all of us. That creates barriers, and makes it hard to enjoy artwork.


    • Frank Probst says:

      Interesting point.  It made me look at what we’ve got on the walls and tables and floors of our house.  The first thing I’d say is that it’s not much.  The second thing is that our walls are exclusively decorated with fantastic photographs that were taken by either my partner’s sister or by my brother.  They’re all gifts, so neither one of them got a dime for their work.  I don’t think my partner’s sister does much (if any) photography anymore.  My brother is still active and has over 150,000 followers on Instagram, but he makes almost nothing from his photography, and certainly not enough to live on.

      • Palli says:

        You gave them walls, you consider their message often. These photographs talk to you and that is all valid to art, your brother & yourself. This recognition of yours can go somewhere.

    • Palli says:

      These comments sadden me. First, Art can be caught before it is ensconced in a museum. Fewer of us make art for the vast white walls of museums than you think. Corporate art, kitsch art, hotel or mall art are mundane art objects that sometimes separate the classes, but walk into any poor or middle-class painter/printmaker/sculptor’s home and you will see art on every wall, floor & table in every room-and it won’t all be their personal work. All art was once just contemporary art communication even if it is lucky enough to land in a museum or private collection.

      As a curator, as an artist, I lament whatever barriers we sense. Why museums, filled with so much arresting material is perceived as making art irrelevant & a hinderance to thinking with art, seems odd as so much of our daily lives is regularly spent filtering out uncomfortable social spaces-sights, sounds & opinions-in the first place.

      As an artist, the biggest expense in art-making comes down to time, without the support of other people in a culture, the sacrifice is tangible for everyone. And now for the hard sell: You too can buy art and there is great benefit to seeing a work of art outside a museum in the odd and the deliberate moments of a person’s day-as one sips coffee or looks up from a book or just relaxes at the end of a day.

      • bmaz says:

        I live at the confluence of Phoenix and Scottsdale. There is fantastic art here. Maybe not like NYC or San Francisco, but pretty awesome. Most of the year, there is Thursday Night Art Walk in Old Town Scottsdale, and it is awesome. And, also, there are monthly First Fridays in the Downtown Phoenix Art District.

        Both are simply wonderful. And free. Heck in Scottsdale, half the galleries actually have wine and appetizers out for you. It is pretty cool.

  9. pdaly says:

    Times of conformity are found in previous eras, too, which makes me hopeful that the current stranglehold will be replaced in the future by someone(s) else.
    The thought of gatekeepers/constricted expression struck me as I wandered museum art galleries in the US and Europe, especially the endless, stifling supply of paintings of The Holy Family, Mary, Christ, and the Crucifixion of Christ.  In European cities,  it was cathedral after cathedral (I lost count of the number of churches in Venice alone) built during eras when there was seemingly no time or room for anything else.
    It is a breath of fresh air to then turn a corner and see installations of Renaissance art, Impressionist art and ancient art and sculpture (I’ll leave abstract modern art to its defenders). I’m aware Augustus was well-known for using sculpture and public buildings for political propaganda (ex., his Ara Pacis monument).

  10. pdaly says:

    With respect to seeing art, airplanes have democratized somewhat the experience of traveling to Italy to see ancient sculpture that previously only the young men and women of means going on the Grand Tour could see.

    I like the fact that U.S. libraries, art schools, and museums in the 1880s were eager to broaden the experience of a ‘classical education’ for all by purchasing plaster casts of these famous pieces and displaying the replicas in local schools for students to study in their home towns. In the 1800s plaster casts were formed off the original statues in Europe–something that museum curators today would never allow.

    The Slater Museum (dedicated in the 1880s) located on the campus of Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, Connecticut is one of the last remaining places to see a large collection of these plaster casts. Evidently, the display of “copies” fell out of favor in most self-respecting art museums, so most collections of plaster casts were destroyed or removed from view at other institutions.  I think only London’s Victoria & Albert Museum and Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum rival the Slater’s collection of plaster casts–and the Slater museum is part of a high school!


    Speaking of affordable art, The Caproni Brothers were Italian immigrants to Boston in the 1870s, and they were one of the few groups of artisans allowed to make plaster casts from the original European sculptures. Today, the original Caproni molds are owned by the Giust Gallery in Woburn, MA, and so the Giust Gallery continues to make plaster casts for customers. They are not cheap, but at several $100 each for a near duplicate to the original, they are not priceless either.
    Also, high quality bronze replicas (often reduced size) of famous sculptures were purchased as souvenirs by the Grand Tour travelers. Those souvenirs are now sold in antique shops.

    • bmaz says:

      Great comment. And I want a couple of those replicas.

      In a different vein, far too many quality museums are free to enter and view these days. And it will only get worse with the governmental starvation of the arts. But so many quality museums are still rather cheap bargains, I wish more people would go see the work there. They are in every city and town. Go see them. Take your kids. That common act is what keeps that history alive. And we need to keep the history alive.

  11. Henrietta Pussycat says:

    My God ED! Walter Cronkite called it quits, due to age policy, in1980 and Terry Gilliam didn’t finish the final cut for Brazil until 1985.

    Neither of these facts support your r\rational\un melancholy attempts to gastroesophagealy blend salaried bureaucratic class structure into a reproduction conglomerate.

    Fuck Me! Who knew these marketing gatekeepers would be such pricks with the ticket they make you print…


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