Monthly Archives: February 2016

For at least a century, terms like 'avant-garde' and 'cutting edge' have been associated with cultural products that lie outside the mainstream. That is, the cutting edge is usually something that most people aren't interested in. By the time it becomes mainstream―in other words, by the time the majority of people come to know about or appreciate it―the cultural product in question isn't cutting edge anymore. This is true in almost every medium, including painting and other visual arts, film, music, and literature. The things that have real, lasting cultural importance, are, at first, adopted and endorsed only by a select few.

Becoming Mainstream
Of course, the question that is raised by these considerations―what causes cultural products to rise from obscurity to cultural importance, and eventually, to enter the mainstream? There is an argument to be made that the tastes and whims of influential people and institutions have as much to do with this process as the content of art and media itself. For example, Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the most famous 'outsider artists' in history, rose from obscurity to massive prominence largely thanks to the influence of Andy Warhol and his associates.

The point is even more strikingly made in the example of music. Which musicians become famous has historically been almost entirely up to the record companies. Much mainstream pop and rock music is tailor-made by large record companies to have a high profile and high sales from the start, with little thought to artistic expression or cultural importance. More experimental musicians, however, have to get lucky with record companies in much the same way. Out of 10 culturally relevant musicians, one might get a decent deal with an independent record company, without which, their music would never be heard. Which one of the 10 gets this exposure is, perhaps, the luck of the draw. If the indie band goes on to become hugely influential to future musicians, the role that fortune played in this state of affairs ought not to be overlooked.

Who Decides What's Important?
To some extent, then, the avant-garde is determined by those who are already part of the mainstream. Record companies, production companies, established artists, and art galleries, all have an important say in what's cutting edge, so the distinction between the avant-garde and popular opinion is perhaps not so clear cut. In order for creative endeavors to have an effect on culture, someone with the power to impact culture has to get involved.

Underground Promotion
Historically, small-scale promotion of new, exciting media has been important. When a new band or independent filmmaker arises and appeals to trendsetters, these trendsetters spread the word in a number of ways, and this 'underground' promotion helps avant-garde artists along the path toward cultural relevance and mass appeal. In the past, if something gained enough of an audience to be noticed by larger institutions, it had as good as succeeded in 'breaking through'. Today, however, it is becoming less and less clear what a breakthrough act is, what the mainstream is, and whether the concept of mainstream versus avant-garde media retains any relevance at all.

Becoming Famous Online
The most obvious example of the cultural shift that has taken place over the past decades can be seen in the way the Internet has affected the spread of cultural information and media. In the past, a new pop group had to start locally, growing in importance via word of mouth and bootlegging, eventually earning the attention of a large record company and growing in popularity (and, often, decreasing in cultural importance) from there. Now, this process has been almost completely overtaken by online word of mouth. A new band, instead of distributing demo tapes to record companies and radio stations, can put its music on the Internet for all to hear. People anywhere in the world can listen to and respond to the band's music, vastly increasing the potential increase in popularity via word-of-mouth. Thus, culturally important, experimental musicians can become widely known before they have been noticed by the mainstream. It hardly needs to be said that this places far more importance on the content of the media being distributed online. The support of an established artist is no longer necessary for new artists to become successful. Instead of a cultural hegemony of the influential, we now have a situation where, thanks to technology, culture is becoming more democratic.

The Democratization of Culture
The democratization of culture is, perhaps, killing what was once known as the mainstream. Because institutionalized support is irrelevant, a musician, artist, or even (though to a lesser extent) a filmmaker can become successful and well-known without ever becoming famous in the traditional sense of the word. Instead of culturally important media products rising to the mainstream after slowly gaining acceptance in avant-garde communities, many media communities remain avant-garde. Not only does this eradicate the idea of a strong distinction between cultural relevance and mainstream prominence, it calls into question the future of the mainstream. With a more democratic approach toward culture, the cultural hegemony that established the mainstream in the first place may no longer be necessary.

The entertainment industry is constantly under scrutiny―whether it is the sex and violence in movies, the language in music, or the focus of video games. As entertainment becomes more progressive, those who are vocal against that progression try to speak up louder to drown out the noise. For them, it is a seemingly winless battle, though as there are few if any instances in which moral disagreement has had a significant impact on the way the industry operates.

Music
Music has long since settled into a groove in which essentially anything is okay. The result is, a music industry that does not provide nearly as much objectionable and public material as it once did. There was one point in the early 1990s, when it seemed like every day had another music artist's name in the papers alongside that of an angry senator. While albums are still marked with the Parental Advisory stickers that were introduced in those early days of moral objection, the bounds are essentially gone.

Access to music is as free and prevalent as ever, with services like iTunes and MySpace making it nearly impossible to filter out the unwanted noise anymore, and so, for the most part, the watchdog groups have stopped. It's an interesting result, and has only occurred in the music industry.

Movies
Film has always been subject to scrutiny. After all, it features graphic images of violence and sexuality that can be offensive for a number of demographics, from children to adults and everyone in between. And while violence and sex have essentially wormed their way into mainstream acceptance, there are still plenty of topics that can bring about an uproar in certain communities.

Consider the recent uprisings in religious groups over what they feel is morally objectionable material such, the most recent example of which is The Golden Compass. The film is based on a series of books that depicts a fractured sector of society acting as a metaphor for the author's vision of the Church. This sect kidnaps and experiments on children, forcing them to stand up and fight back. The result is a series of books that teaches an alternate view of religion, one in which it is not as cut and dry as organized dogma would have you believe. It is a strictly agnostic approach and one that the Church finds offensive.

Similar to their response to The DaVinci Code in 2006, the Catholic League―with its 350,000 members―has decided to boycott the film in the hopes of convincing other Christians to ignore it. The result is a wash of publicity and controversy over a film which is not supposed to be that good.

It is interesting that the current state of moral ethics provides ample space for protest against films that breach religious and racial boundaries (The Passion of the Christ is a good example), but the long time proliferation of sex and violence that has recently seeped into even the most innocent of children's films and television programs continues.

Video Games
By far the biggest source of discussion and controversy in recent years in regards to moral obligations is the video game industry. Today, the ESRB rates and labels video games between E (for everyone) and AO (adult only). The rating system is effective in telling parents what their children will be facing in a video game. However, the ESRB is a self-regulatory board run and operated by the gaming companies, which has caused many senators and ethics pounding lawyers to grow even more upset at games like Grand Theft Auto, or the most recent maelstrom in Manhunt 2.

Most recently, senators have called for an overhaul of this system for a particular instance in which Manhunt 2, which originally received an AO rating for its violent portrayal of murder, was rerated with an M rating for Mature. No game console will currently support an AO game, meaning that for Manhunt 2 to be released, it needed to be edited and rerated. However, there has now been additional controversy over the leniency with which the ESRB rerated the game.

For the Nintendo Wii edition in particular, which allows players to act out the specific violent techniques with the Wii Remote and Nunchuck, senators are concerned as psychologists have come forward citing the damage this can do to a child's mind.

While video games have continued pushing the same boundaries of sex and violence as films, they have a slightly different hurdle to overcome. Because they are traditionally considered for children, and because acts are specifically handled by manipulating an on-screen character, they pose a more substantial threat for some individuals to the child's mind. Regardless of how much they might grow or change, they will always be scrutinized for what they allow you to do.

The moral dilemma that strikes any entertainment medium will continue to strike as long as popular media is available to the masses. While music and film have become more accepted over time, the video game and eventually Internet mediums will probably continue to spark controversy, both in the media and in government.