Culture is a set of shared beliefs, ideas, and values that affect the behavior of people. It is expressed by communication and is affected by its patterns. Playing the key role in modern life, culture is present in manners, language, dress, religious beliefs, behavior, and system of values. Generally, culture includes a great number of aspects of people’s activity from visiting a play in the theater to taking part in a popular entertainment. That is why it is reasonable to single out three main kinds of culture: high, popular, and mass cultures. Although it is difficult to draw a distinct line between these three concepts as they are closely connected and interrelated, each of them has its peculiarities, plays a definite role, and arouses some questions for discussion.
The concepts of high, popular, and mass cultures are inseparable as the understanding of one is based on the understanding the differences that separate it from the other two. For better understanding of the differences, these concepts are to be defined and explained.
High culture is the term, used to describe the pattern of cultural attitudes and experiences that exist in the highest-class segment of society. High culture is opposed to the mass and popular cultures. The term usually refers to classical music, fine arts, theatre, and other sophisticated issues. Those who advocate the predominance of high culture believe that all these items establish a shared frame of reference among educated and well-mannered people. As a rule, high culture is associated with political power, intellectualism, and prestige. In the USA, it is also an indicator of wealth and luxury. The products of high culture are particularly admired by the upper middle class and elites (small groups holding power and privilege in society).
The term popular culture refers to the pattern of cultural ideas and attitudes that form the mainstream society. This concept is considered the most capacious comparing to the concepts of mass and high cultures. First, it was interpreted as national, but today it may move beyond the frameworks of one nation. Popular culture includes the items that are accessible to everyone and are easy to understand. Usually, it entertains the audience. It can change with time, and generally, it is influenced by media. The latter fact makes popular culture very close to mass culture. Thus, among the major traits of popular culture are the constant changes, impact of the lifestyle and material goods in use, and prevailing money economy. The forms of popular culture are music, film, television, fashion magazines, food, comic books, etc.
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Mass culture is the kind of culture that is disseminated by means of mass media, and that refers to the products of mass media. Mass culture is not rooted in people’s everyday interaction, and it is possible due to the electronic media and modern patterns of communication. What is the difference between mass and popular cultures? First, mass culture deals with the way the culture get produce while popular culture refers to the way this culture is consumed by society. Mass culture is mass-produced, distributed, and marketed. It can be viewed as a consequence of urbanization and industrialization, and it refers to the popular culture that is produced by industrial techniques of mass production. The items of mass culture are standardized, repetitive, and formulaic. In brief, mass culture is the one that is disseminated through mass media, whereas popular culture is a set of cultural activities reflected and aimed at the general masses of people. The advocates of high culture usually see both mass and popular cultures in a negative light.
Speaking about the examples of each kind of culture, it should be mentioned that they are numerous and are obvious in our daily life and interaction. In most cases, they are the products of mass and popular cultures.
At the same time, high culture can be seen as something set apart from everyday life. High culture seems to be something special to be treated with reverence and respect. As a rule, it includes the things of lasting value and some things that are worth preserving and admiring. The products of this kind of culture can be found in museums, art galleries, theatres, and concert halls. Among the examples of high culture items are some serious documentaries, news programs, classical pieces of music like those of Beethoven or Bach, opera, foreign language, and jazz. Besides, the literary works of prominent writers and poets, such as Shakespeare or Charles Dickens, are to be considered the products of high culture as well. Among other examples are the works of visual artists such as Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet, and many others.
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Mass and popular cultures on the contrary refer to everyday mainstream culture. It deals with the items that are mass produces, short-lived, and not valuable. The examples of these two kinds can hardly be called special ones. As a rule, mass culture is considered inferior to high culture. Its products are aimed at the mass of ordinary people but still, it does not have roots in the daily experiences of masses. These daily experiences may include some examples of folk music, legends, or retold stories. However, the items of mass culture are created for profit and success and cannot fully reflect the real experiences of society’s daily life.
Popular culture in its turn includes mass-produced and short-lived products, which are sometimes too trivial and lacking lasting artistic value. Popular culture includes TV shows and soap operas, thrillers and blockbusters, pop music, tabloids, and many other pieces. Mass and popular cultures are passive. Usually, they include different forms of entertainment, designed for a large number of people. It is believed that mass media form the attitude of the whole society towards its members and their lifestyles, and they can influence the collective mind of the nation. At the same time, consumers of mass culture are passive, and many challenging items are not able to influence their interests and ideas. It is also believed that political powers and elites are able to control the predominant ideology by means of mass and popular cultures.
In this way, high, mass, and popular cultures cannot be viewed separately as they are closely connected with each other. The problem of defining these concepts has been disturbing sociologists for many years. However, one more crucial problem that relates to the kinds of culture is the changing of distinction between mass and high cultures.
We may hear many sociologists and other scholars claiming that the distinction between mass culture and high culture is becoming weak and blurred. According to some writers, mass market makes the distinction between different kinds of culture meaningless. The expansion of cultural and creative spheres by means of advertisements, TV shows, movies, magazines, and books publishing, led to the general availability of a huge range of cultural products and media in particular.
The rapid development of technology and industry (for instance, the development of internet, satellite television, radio, music downloads and other items) as well as mass production of different goods have made all forms of culture freely available to almost everyone. Modern devices and technologies give people an opportunity to consume the products of mass and even high culture without leaving home and visiting any of specialized institutions like galleries, museums, art galleries, and other ones. Thus, high culture seems to lose its reputation of “special culture” and is no longer the property of elites.
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Nowadays, people can enjoy the diversity of cultural products and choices that they can use in different ways. We can pick and mix items belonging to different forms of culture. For example, many famous museums and art galleries attract not only rich and famous people, but also visitors from diverse backgrounds. Anyone can visit opera or theater. Today, the products of high culture merge with the elements of popular culture which in their turn interrelates with high culture. That is why it is almost impossible to draw a line not only between the concepts of different kinds of culture but between their products as well. Hence, no one can identify items of which culture is predominant in society.
Many modern artists have attempted to reshape some products of high culture, repaint the prominent works of visual arts, and play significant pieces of music using modern techniques. Although the new variants of the old works may seem interesting and fresh, many opponents of such renewals claim that high culture is being dumbed down. Today, many prominent paintings as well as other products of high art are being tuned into items for sale for consumption by masses, and thus, there is nothing special about high art. Nowadays, technology gives us a chance to study high culture products near our computers and TV-sets; and it is not strange to see Mona Lisa in every tenth sitting room. Besides, the images from significant painting are printed everywhere from t-shirts to mouse mats. It is not strange to hear Beethoven’s music, used in the advertisements, and classical literature, turned into mass movies and soap operas.
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Overall, the concepts of high, mass, and popular cultures help to understand the culture in general. Being closely interrelated, the kinds of culture are present in our daily life in different forms and products. Today, it is almost impossible to differentiate what culture is high and what is mass or popular one because the lines are blurred, and with time, they become weaker due to the development of new technologies and mass media.