The popular arts and mass culture represent our environment. The flood of their products reduces high art to minority status. This situation leads us to reconsider the privileged status of high art and the role of aesthetics as its theory, which is my main focus here. I take up three different cultural eras: early modern times, when the notions of art and aesthetics as a philosophical discipline were founded; our own day as the time of mass culture; and, lastly, the popular culture in the Edo period in Japan, the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, which reflected different choices.
In early modern Europe, the popular arts were born at the same time as high art. Art for the use of the people became possible because of the increase in productivity and wealth. There was a different notion of popular art as art produced by the people, a notion associated with Herder. Popular art, in this sense, was claimed to be the true art according to the concept of creativity from below and the plant model concretizing that concept. Modern aesthetics adopted the same plant model to insist on individuality as genius, for that was the only way in the commercialized world to win the right of free creative activity backed up by the right of intellectual property. Hence, high art was consecrated thanks to popular art, which in Herder’s sense reserved its own right.
By mass culture, I mean the aesthetic and intellectual activities mediated by the systems of mass media or, broadly, those activities in “the age of mechanical reproduction.” Forms of mass culture, such as movies, TV, popular songs, comics, video games, fashion, advertisements, websites, and so on, quantitatively overwhelm high art, and, in its forms of experience, mass culture obscures the sacred border of art. The situation is similar to when art and aesthetics were about to be established. The difference is that art is now firmly recognized as high culture, and the role of aesthetics is not to claim the right of art but only to justify the privilege art is already enjoying. A new aesthetics is to be hoped for, one that looks for a new order in the nebulosity of mass culture.
Popular culture in the Edo period in Japan, including ukiyo-e, haikai and kabuki theater, offers a counter example to the Western modern period and a sense of possibility for a new aesthetics. In this period, the people were not only consumers but also producers of culture. Traditional high culture existed but popular culture was segregated from it. Creativity, however, was absolutely on the side of the popular; the three forms of art mentioned above were new inventions of the people. Literature was not separated from the sciences of ethics and still fulfilled a critical function. The Ukiyo-e edition was of a conglomerated character: its subjects or genres were taken from the erotic world, sports, theater and tourism. These suggest the possibility of a different constellation of cultural fields for a new aesthetics.