Changing Culture: Through or in Spite of the Marketplace?

Here’s a question I’ve been pondering for a number of years: when you want to change culture, is it better to start from an analysis of what the culture/market wants, or is it better to start from a personal conviction or idea about what the culture should be like? That is: should we work within the interests of the culture—however misdirected or disordered they may be—or should we work to change the interests of the culture by offering something new?

It’s a dialectic that some people might reduce to elitism vs. populism; top-down vs. bottom-up change. But those binaries don’t really get at what I’m talking about… I’d consider myself neither an elitist nor a fan of top-down reform, but when it comes to culture, I’m increasingly skeptical about letting the audience be our guide. I don’t know… maybe that is elitist.

Ultimately, it’s about what you think about market sovereignty in the cultural industries.

The film industry, for example, has differing opinions about market sovereignty. On one hand, the big studios are totally responsive to the box office and the box office alone. If the people turn out to see Norbit in droves, Hollywood will make Norbit 2, no matter what they’d like to do. But on the other hand, there are loads of more artistic and independent-minded films being churned out every year with personal and political messages unconcerned with the approval of large swaths of the marketplace. There are companies like Plan B and Participant Productions that only make these “change people’s opinions” type films, to more or less tepid financial results.

Likewise in the music, television, and publishing industries. There are market-minded approaches (find the next Jonas Brothers, Lost, or Dan Brown before these interests wane!), but there are also personal/artistic approaches.

The question is this: can we change anything if we create some personal, challenging artistic product that only reaches a few hundred people of a certain niche? Or can we only ever effect change if we research and respond to the market trends, creating products that may not be our ideal but are nevertheless moving more units?

Ironically, this was a crucial question in my mind last weekend when I was at the GodBlog Convention in Las Vegas.

On my blog, I often find myself in conflict between what I really want to write about and what I think people want to read. To be quite frank, I find myself responding to the statistics detailing which types of posts post the highest numbers. But in the end, I wonder if I really want to be beholden to “the audience” in this way (especially since I’m doing this for free!).

The question remains unanswered in my mind, and it goes way beyond my own personal blog.

You see it in all aspects of society. In politics, for example. The two presidential candidates are almost completely defined by a response to what the populace is telling them they are concerned with. The media, on the other hand, is more oriented towards setting its own agenda; but even within media there is a wide discrepancy on this. On one hand there are people like Matt Drudge who determine “news” based on what is the most sensationalistic and scandalous (i.e. that which the public is most interested in); on the other there are things like C-SPAN’s BookNotes which hopes to improve the discourse around new literature and has little to no concern for what the audience wants.

Both are impacting culture, in different ways. But which will—at the end of the day—leave the culture better off?