Popular Culture and Leisure

Popular Culture and Leisure

As to the first, if he asks several persons at a baseball game, what brought them there, he will receive a variety of answers: “to enjoy the game,” “to get the sunshine,” “to get away from home,” “to rest.” If asked what leisure means to them on a more general level, the same persons are likely to consider it as “time off from work,” “free time,” “my own time,” “doing what I like,” “rest,” and so on. A more sophisticated audience or a categorical-minded observer might attempt to classify such views in still other ways:
Leisure as a bulk of time, qualitatively distinct from other time, such as the evening.

Leisure as freedom from those activities that have to be done, such as work or household chores.

Leisure as an end, distinct from work as a means.

Leisure as a minimum of obligation to others, to routine, even to oneself.

Leisure as re-creation, to prepare for better work, to store up energy or knowledge.

Leisure as self-improvement, whether in study, seeking new friends, or new experiences.

Leisure as social control, using the time of others to win them over or influence them; i.e., Roman games, German youth.

Leisure as a social symbol of class position, age, or success.

Leisure as sets of attitudes or motivations, not a content.

Leisure as physiological or emotional necessity, such as therapy or physical rest.

The Industrial Revolution had taken work out of the home into the factory and office. The home became a place of male leisure, serviced by women, at the same time that many things that had once been made at home were now bought in stores. Offering objects for leisurely use in the home, advertising – the form of popular culture that is most concemed to sell the satisfactions it promised – was primarily addressed to women.

The consumer was usualiy viewed by producers and eritics alike as female. In part there was good reason for this: women were responsible for as much as 85 percent of consumer spending. Middle-class women constituted a new leisure class, spending their time at shops, theater matinees and hairdressers.

The ethos of sensuality cooperated with the cosmetic industry to insist on the “natural right” of American woman’ to be beautiful. In the 1920s the “flapper” as a beautiful American woman was a ubiquitous advertising image. She was, as social historian Stuart Ewan put it, “Pure consumer, busy dancing through the world of modem goods. She was youth, marked by energy not judgement. Her clothes, her vehicles, her entire milieu was mass-produced – and she liked it.”

It was because “mass culture” was addressed particularly to women that it was amatter of anxiety. The “masses” were taken to have exclusively “feminine” characteristics: they were irrational, capricious, passive, and conformist. Like women, the masses would respond only to emotional appeals and “raw sensation”.

The effect of the automobile on recreational habits was often decried in the 1930’s: the substitution of a passive amusement for something more active; standardization and regimentation; the moral problem of the parked sedan and roadside tourist camp. The Sunday-afternoon drive was devastatingly described — the crowded highways, traffic jams, and accidents; the car windows tightly closed against spring breezes; and whatever beauties the landscape might offer lying hidden behind forbidding lines of advertisements.

“One arrives after a motor journey,” one eminent sociologist wrote, “all liver and no legs; one’s mind is asleep, one’s body tired; one is bored, irritable, and listless. 25 But what such critics forgot was that the great majority of Sunday and holiday motorists, or even vacation tourists, would have been cooped up in crowded towns and cities except for the automobile.

The country they saw may at times have been almost blotted out by billboards and the air they breathed tainted by gasoline fumes. But the alternative in many cases would have been the movie, the dance-hall, or the beer-parlor. The steamboat and the railroad began a century ago to open up the world of travel and provide some means of holiday escape from one’s immediate enviromnent, but until the coming of the automobile, recreation along these lines was a rare thing. The wealthy could make the fashionable tour in 1825, the well-to-do built up the summer resorts of the 1890’s, but every Tom, Dick, and Harry toured the country in the 1930’s — thanks to the automobile.

Much of the criticism of the way the automobile was used in leisure-time activities may have been justified, but any gen, eral condemnation of its part in national recreation implies that pleasure travel, outdoor life, and many sports should have largely remained the prerogative of the wealthy few who could afford other means of transportation.

The cultural objects designed for them could not, in the eyes of elite male critics such as Dwight Macdonald or the poet TS. Eliot, qualify as art. Macdonald was disturbed by what he called Gresham’s Law in Culture, by which “bad stuff drives out the good by mimicking and debasing the forms of High Art”.

His colleague Clement Greenberg, writing in 1946, argued in similar terms, that “Mass Culture pre-digests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a shortcut to the pleasures of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art”. Although in some respects this argument echoed the position of blacks who claimed that “whitening-up” their music had deprived it of its essence, it was more forcefully a defense of cultural elitism against the contamination from the hands of a larger and more “vulgar” audience.

So they constantly disparaged the effects of “mass culture” as moraliy corrupting. That argument was applied equaliy to dime novels and to skirt lengths or movies, but it was always couched in terms of a discussion of the effects on the mentaliy and moraliy deficient – children and “morons” – of objects that were not fully under the control of the cultural elite. At its root was a middle-elass fear that there was no controlover the behavior and values of the lower orders. Against this denunciation of “nickel madness”, there arose a counter-argument, couched in terms of the definition of “entertainment” as “harmless”.

In 1916 the Supreme Court adjudged that movies were not to be permitted the free speech protections of the First Amendment, because they were “a business pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit…not to be regarded as part of the press of the country or as organs of public opinion. They are mere representations of events, of ideas, and sentiments published or known, vivid, useful, and entertaining, no doubt, but… capable of evil, having power for it, the greater because of their attractiveness and manner of exhibition.”

The activity of regulating entertainment, whether through censorship, mechanisms such as the Motion Picture Production Code, or less official devices, constituted an attempt to render the potentially harmful object harmless, but throughout, this was a debate conducted among the cultural elite about what might be permitted to the lower classes, whose opinions were seldom directly requested.

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