Art as a critique/resistance to mass media and popular culture…

One of the most exciting, alluring, and sometimes off putting functions of contemporary art is to serve as a response to modern society. Being that mass media and popular culture are integral components of our modern society, it is imperative that art reflects and critiques both. Mass media has been known to present a one sided popular opinion or a “watered down” version of current events and contemporary artists use media to present another, often hidden, side to the story. For example, we see this in documentary film and photography. Artists use contemporary media to critique popular and celebrity culture, which has become increasingly ingrained in our society, as well as cultural ideologies and social justice issues. I chose a few of my favorite art pieces that demonstrate how art functions as a critique of mass media and popular culture:

Erika Rothenberg, Freedom of Expression National Monument, 2004

“Inspired by the concept of a soapbox, Freedom entices passersby to climb its gently sloping ramp and embrace the megaphone to voice their thoughts, poetry, grievances, and hopes. Providing a public forum for dialogue on the dynamics of free speech, power and powerlessness, and a multiplicity of social and cultural concerns, the artwork engages individuals and groups to use the space in the tradition of a town square. The artwork is both celebratory and ironic and directly addresses public frustration over getting its voice heard.”


Bruce Nauman, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, 1967

“By using the mediums of mass culture (neon-signs) and of display (he originally 
hung the sign in his storefront studio), Nauman sought to bring questions
 normally considered only by the high culture elite, such as the role and function of art and
 the artist in society, to a wider audience… by using a form of communication 
readily understood by all (neon signs had been widespread in modern industrial society) and by placing this message in the public view, Nauman let everyone ask 
and answer the question.”


Jenny Holzer. Truisms, 1977–79. Spectacolor electronic sign. Times Square, New York, 1986.

“The location of the sign at the very crossroads of Broadway and 42nd Street marked Holzer’s texts’ entry into the world of entertainment as well as news … her texts had to bear up in the context of bright lights, night life and low life that demand the attention of a mass of pedestrians and motor traffic.”


Richard Prince, Spiritual America, 1983

“Shot at the outset of the American ‘culture wars’ of the Eighties, Prince’s most famous and controversial re-photograph carries the title ‘Spiritual America.’ Prince’s ‘Spiritual America’ is an appropriation of Garry Gross’s lascivious photo of a nude, ten-year-old Brooke Shields. The all-American girl stands in a deep bathtub, with thick, almost seminal, steam swirling at her feet… Shields’s face, as critic Michael Newman describes it, captures the contradictory nature of American spiritual values and longings, showing ‘both the fearfulness of the child and the total control of the temptress.'”


The integration of art and media in academia is absolutely vital in our contemporary society. While art is relatively participatory, mass media and popular culture are no longer something we can opt-out of participating in. In order to link and contextualize current and historical cultural themes, contemporary art, media, and technologies together can be used to emphasize critical academic points, strengthen lessons, and relate to youth culture on a deeper level. Diversifying lessons by adding elements from contemporary art, modern technology, and non-traditional media can not only make lessons more relevant to today’s students, but also help students learn to think more critically about the information they are receiving and the sources they are receiving it from. In this way students learn to form their own opinions about the world around them.

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