Educating popular taste: revisiting ‘The Popular Arts’

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Hall and Whannel’s book is a landmark in the history of media education in the UK. But something’s missing from the republished edition: it’s education!

 

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Three quarters of The Popular Arts

Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel’s book The Popular Arts is a landmark text in the history of media education in the UK. First published in 1964, it was reprinted several times during the ensuing decade. The book is discussed extensively in most accounts of media education, perhaps most notably in Len Masterman’s Teaching the Media (1985) – which also contains a hilariously snooty review of the original by David Holbrook.

The Popular Arts began life as a book for teachers. In the year it was published, Hall had moved from his role as editor of the New Left Review to take up a position at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. Whannel was head of the Education Department at the British Film Institute, where he had worked since 1957. However, both men had a background in teaching in secondary modern schools. (For overseas readers, secondary modern schools were for less academic children, who had failed the selective examination at the age of eleven.) This experience is one Hall and Whannel describe as a ‘sobering’ one for any teacher – ‘a time at which he is made acutely aware of the conflict between the norms and expectations of formal education and the complexities of the real world which children and young people inhabit’.

As the book’s introduction describes, the authors partly abandoned their attempt to write a ‘practical handbook’ for teachers, in favour of something that was ‘aimed more widely – to the teacher and the educationist, of course, but also to the general reader who is concerned about these problems in an “educational” sense, using the term in its broadest context’. By far the most substantial section of the book is entitled ‘Topics for Study’, and consists of a set of chapters on specific media, including romantic fiction, advertising, crime movies, westerns, and so on. While there is an interesting chapter on youth culture, there’s little attempt here to consider any educational implications.

91n4XdPOP+LI first read the book in the mid-1970s, while I was doing my initial teacher training course. Although it was already dated by then, it seemed to provide a bridge between the broad arguments of the pioneers of Cultural Studies (such as Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart, who are both key points of reference in the book) and the possibilities for classroom practice. I had been looking in vain for an affordable second-hand copy when I saw an announcement that the book was due to be included in the wider programme of re-publication of Hall’s work that has followed his death in 2014. However, when the book arrived, I was dismayed to find that a large chunk of it had been excised – specifically, the whole final section of around 80 pages, which described the book’s broader implications for teachers and went on to provide some detailed proposals for classroom projects. There’s a passing reference to this in the new preface (by Richard Dyer), but it’s not mentioned on the book jacket or in any of the publicity material. A quarter of the book is simply missing.

I don’t know whether this was a decision on the part of the series editors – Catherine Hall and Bill Schwarz – or the publisher – Duke University Press. It may be that they felt this more explicitly educational material was too time-bound to be of much use; although one could say the same thing about much of what remains in the book (for example, there’s a detailed chapter about the state of the British film industry in 1963 that has little more than historical interest). For me, I’m afraid it reflects the continuing marginalisation – and indeed erasure – of education within the field of Cultural Studies more broadly. The kind of educational activism represented by Hall and Whannel (or indeed by Hoggart and Williams before them) – teaching about popular culture to disadvantaged, working-class young people – hasn’t been on the radar for Cultural Studies academics for a very long time, despite their political pretensions.

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Hall (R) in NLR days

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Paddy Whannel

Of course, The Popular Arts is a book of its time – and an interesting time it was. I’ve been writing about this period recently, looking at how writers, film-makers and political commentators responded to the rise of youth culture, as the fifties slid into the sixties: you can find my essay here. The book appeared just before many of the significant changes of the 1960s (although there’s a revealing additional note about the Beatles appended to the chapter on youth culture). This was a point at which prevailing cultural hierarchies were just beginning to break down, not only in consumer culture and media but also in high art and literature. In outlining the context, the authors refer to the growing academic interest in media and communication (Raymond Williams’s Communication came out in 1961), but also to what they call ‘the so-called “teenage” revolution’. Educationally, this was also an interesting period of change, with a range of conferences, official reports and other publications that wrestled with the challenge of the emerging popular culture of the time. (Some of this is apparent in the first chapter of The Popular Arts, although the discussion that came later in the book has been excised.)

Essentially, Hall and Whannel are looking for a form of cultural analysis that moves on from the literary approach of the critic F.R. Leavis, and the sweeping rejection of popular culture that went with it. The Popular Arts appeared thirty years after Leavis and Denys Thompson’s earlier landmark text, Culture and Environment: The Training of Critical Awareness (1933) – itself also a book aimed primarily at teachers. However, the Leavisite approach remained influential, especially among English teachers (and some would say it still does…). For Hall and Whannel, teaching reluctant working-class kids in the 1950s, it seemed not just elitist but also largely ineffective. In their opening chapters, they gently point out the problems with this approach, not least its tendency towards ill-informed generalizations about popular culture. They suggest that this defensive approach doesn’t work in the classroom – although neither, they argue, does an ‘opportunist’ strategy, in which the teacher ‘embraces the leisure interests of his pupils in the hope of leading them to higher things’. They also make some persuasive observations about the limitations of popular arguments about media ‘effects’, an approach that has remained influential in media education.

81gr8LDDbyLHowever, as subsequent commentators have observed, The Popular Arts largely remains trapped within the basic assumptions of Leavisism. Its fundamental preoccupation is not with the political dimensions of popular culture (which might appear surprising to those who are familiar with Hall’s later work), but with questions of cultural value. The educational task, they argue, is to provide a ‘training in discrimination’, that would enable young people to differentiate between good and bad. Yet unlike the Leavisite approach, this wasn’t a blanket rejection of popular forms, but rather a matter of discrimination within: ‘the struggle between what is good and worthwhile and what is shoddy and debased,’ they write, ‘is not a struggle against the modern forms of communication, but a conflict within these media.’

A key part of the authors’ argument is that this requires detailed analysis rather than mere ‘generalities’. In the chapters that make up the core of the book, they largely deliver on this: there are in-depth accounts of examples as diverse as Coronation Street, Billie Holiday, Andrej Wajda’s film A Generation, shampoo advertisements and John Ford’s westerns – and a great deal more besides. The actual method of analysis is rarely explicit (there’s certainly no semiotics to be found here), although there is a valuable focus on the visual dimensions of these texts. It’s hard to read the authors’ observations on the Western, or their analysis of advertising, without thinking of the academic work that was to follow: this was indeed one of the earliest publications to take popular culture seriously (or at least some elements of it). Some of it – especially the accounts of romance and relationships and of the popular press – still seems fresh and innovative.

Nevertheless, throughout each of the areas they discuss, the authors’ primary aim is to differentiate between work that they regard as being of high quality and work that is not. In the process, ‘discrimination within’ seems merely to replicate existing hierarchies. The line between art and trash is not so much abolished as shifted, in order to accommodate some limited examples of truly ‘popular’ art (which they are keen to distinguish from ‘mass’ art, ‘churned out by the mass production system’). In general, the authors like film – especially European art films, and the work of Hollywood auteurs – but they don’t have much time for television; they enthuse about jazz, but they don’t much like pop music; and they certainly seem to think that all advertising, all teenage magazines and most popular literature is just trash. Within this, most of the judgments seem to replicate predictable distinctions. Mickey Spillane and Ian Fleming are bad, Raymond Chandler is good; La Grande Illusion is good, Bridge Over the River Kwai is bad; Dixon of Dock Green and Coronation Street are bad, although Z-Cars and Steptoe and Son are given qualified approval; and so it goes on.

51ljQgp7VfL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Their analysis of the emerging commercial youth culture is typical in this respect. It’s here that the analysis moves beyond the text itself, and starts to take account of the user or the audience (although why that wouldn’t be the case with some of the other media they discuss isn’t wholly clear). This chapter provides a nuanced, sociological account of the changing youth market at the time; yet the question of value inevitably returns. There are some pop songs that are ‘worth listening to’, they say, but in general jazz is ‘an infinitely richer kind of music, both aesthetically and emotionally’. ‘The worst thing which we could say of pop music,’ they conclude, ‘is not that it is vulgar, or morally wicked, but, more simply, that much of it is not very good.’ Most readers would probably agree with this – but they would be very unlikely to agree which pop music is ‘worth listening to’ and which isn’t. As with Leavis, the criteria for these judgments aren’t really made explicit, except in very general terms: a great deal of material is dismissed as (for example) shallow, conventional, cheap, banal, crude, and vulgar, yet these assertions are made as though they were self-evident. There seem to be a great many critical criteria in operation, which are not always applied consistently; and they are used to compare some extremely diverse examples taken from very different contexts.

Of course, I’m not implying that judgments of value are illegitimate or old-fashioned. Certainly, some of the tone and the preoccupations of The Popular Arts do seem oddly antiquated. Hall and Whannel frequently invoke Leavisite ideas about ‘humane values’, ‘moral seriousness’ and ‘quality of life’ that now seem pompous and grandiose. Yet the issue of cultural value cannot and should not just be swept aside by a kind of postmodern populism. I would agree with Hall and Whannel’s broader argument that young people need to be exposed to a range of cultural experiences, not just those that are most heavily promoted in the commercial marketplace. I might even agree that education needs to encourage ‘a widening of sensibility and emotional range’, as they put it. But ultimately, I don’t share the view that elevating students’ taste is either a worthwhile or a particularly viable aim. We need to understand how judgments of taste and value are formed and sustained, and the social functions they serve – so we need a sociological analysis of the whole process – but getting students to agree with us on what’s crap and what’s not seems to me to be fairly pointless.

I’m not sure that The Popular Arts still has much to say to us on these matters today, although it has a definite historical interest, and it is certainly worth a look. However, those of us who are interested in education will need to keep searching for the original text…

2 thoughts on “Educating popular taste: revisiting ‘The Popular Arts’

  1. Pingback: Cultural Studies and the evasion of education | David Buckingham

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