2. The Mainstream

The Space of the Mainstream

We sorta know where it’s going
We sorta go where it’s flowing
The Mainstream
Flowing to you
Flowing through you
The hits just keep on coming
Always room for one more
In the mainstream
Flowing to you
Flowing through you
It’s coming for you
All for you and one for all
In the mainstream
On and on
Floating on
Floating in
The mainstream
Try and stop it
Stop and try it
Everybody buy it
We sorta know where it’s going
We sorta go where it’s flowing
The mainstream
______________

“The Mainstream”
Copyright 2003
Music by The Ingredients
Lyrics by David Robbins

The mainstream is a powerful force in modern life. As a cultural producer you can’t entirely escape negotiation with it. Your work is either part of the mainstream or it isn’t. Your intentions for your work will count for only so much; the mainstream decides. And of course, further complicating things is the fact that the mainstream evolves; some day your work might become part of the mainstream — even against your will!

The fate of any individual’s cultural production aside, the mainstream is in everyone’s peripheral vision. We ask ourselves: “Who is my work intended for? ’Everyone’? Why? What do I gain by emphasizing accessibility? What do I lose? Does the effectiveness of my work depend on embracing or rejecting specialized languages of presentation?” Concerns such as these, shaped by the force of the mainstream, have special vibrancy today because of our recently enhanced ability, courtesy the digital technologies, to work directly, efficiently, and inexpensively in the languages and formats of the pop motherland. Movies, TV shows, and pop music are mainstream communication formats, the communication formats of the mainstream, and the ease with which today’s independent imagination deploys them brings a consequent pressure to develop our thinking about the mainstream. (When there was less chance of our participating in it, the mainstream demanded less thought from us.) Visual artists in particular will find this an unfamiliar mental exercise: in the modern era the art context has aggressively set itself apart from the mainstream culture and reveled in the separation, the difference, the liberating marginality that had ensued. High Entertainment does not participate in this tradition.

A High Entertainment does not scorn the mainstream. It takes the mainstream into account. It respects the idea of “a mainstream” and the legibility and accessibility of mainstream product, yet at the same time it does not pay undue respect to the particulars of the mainstream — this or that production method, this or that product. A High Entertainment product enjoys the game of trying to reach as many people as possible but, knowing that it is a game, avoids being defined by it.

Mainstream 101

At present, Mainstream Studies is a field about which we have more questions than answers.

We take the existence of “a mainstream” for granted, and yet what, really, is the mainstream? It’s a cultural force, yet it has the presence of a natural force. Like nature the mainstream is everywhere, constant, and self-renewing.

Why is there a mainstream, i.e. what is it for? What purpose does it serve? Who is it for?

If we say that the mainstream functions to confirm, what does it confirm? Certain ideas that a society has about itself? Such as?

Is the idea of a mainstream a universal, appearing in all cultures? Is a mainstream equally important to all cultures, or is it more important to some? (It could be argued, for instance, that the concept of a mainstream plays a much more central role in democratic societies than in royalist.) Has there been a mainstream as long as there’s been culture, or was there a stage at which the idea of a mainstream became more emphatic? Is so, what brought about that change?

What are the vehicles by which the mainstream is delivered? Is, say, the craft of needlepoint a mainstream vehicle? No. Is wood-carving? No. Why aren’t they? In their means of execution, in their possibilities for distribution, needlepoint and woodcarving are inefficient. Not enough speed, not enough dispersion in needlepoint or woodcarving. Rapid speed and wide dispersion would seem, then, to be two of the operative energies defining mainstream vehicles in our time.

Three Articulations of the Mainstream

Let’s take a break from the questions for a moment and glance at three ways in which the space of the mainstream has been articulated in architecture.

mcdonalds

Most familiar is the sort of repetitive, “brand” architecture typified by such chain restaurants as McDonald’s. Brand architecture intentionally unifies the space of the mainstream, by emphasizing ubiquity and standardization. When we complain of too many modern cities looking too much the same, when on a road trip we drive past yet another McDonald’s in another small American town, when we resort to eating at McDonald’s to give ourselves a break from deciphering menus in some foreign land, we have entered a theater of unified space authored by a corporate brand.

Brand architecture indeed suppresses any reading of mainstream space other than unified; it relates one big contemporary truth (that it has itself engineered!) while at the same time suppressing myriad other, equally valid truths about the organization of space. (This is what irritates us about brand architecture.)

A second example of the embodied mainstream comes from Morris Lapidus, whose buildings are, like brand architecture, a post-war phenomenon.

Morris Lapidus understood the game of the mainstream and excelled at playing it. His Miami Beach hotels of the 1950s — the Fontainebleu and the Eden Roc among them — unashamedly embraced the reality of pop commerce, and advanced that reality into form.

Lobby, Biltmore Terrace Hotel, Miami Beach, 1951“What am I selling?” Lapidus asked himself. “I’m selling a hotel, a luxurious, playful atmosphere. There’s nothing else to sell.” His designs infused the spirit of Watteau into architecture — “My hotels are to tickle, to amuse.” Lapidus made frankly populist, audience-centric architecture, buildings not in the service of the state or abstract historical discourse but, rather, the People — a specific demographic with a specific use for a specific type of building. Lapidus: “Whose tastes was I trying to satisfy? … The critics were not going to be guests at the Fontainebleu.”

His epiphany? “I finally realized that American taste was being influenced by the greatest mass media of entertainment of that time, the movies. So I imagined myself the set designer for a movie producer who wanted to create a hotel that would make a tremendous impression on the viewers. Wasn’t that exactly what I had wanted to do when I studied architecture? So I designed a movie set!” Bar, Americana Hotel, Bal Harbour, Florida, 1956Ah, but with a crucial difference: “My sets were not for a play or a stage, they were the interiors of a grand hotel.”  Lapidus’s hotels, observed Thomas Hine, “would have no particular expectations based on traditional proportions, historic styles or particular building materials or construction methods. Lapidus built according to what people had in common, which was not education or taste but the experience of mass media. It is the architecture of people who yearned to join the mainstream and have succeeded, through their own efforts, in joining it.” [ 1 ]

Lobby, Americana Hotel, Bal Harbour, Florida, 1956At the same time that Lapidus’s hotels embodied “hearty vulgarity” and “intentional nonsense” (“I…do what I think is a sort of baroque in good taste” in a style “neither period nor modern.”) they possessed formal and conceptual integrity. “My buildings would express what was taking place in the interiors, and if the interiors would curve and undulate, my buildings would curve and undulate.” The form did follow the function, in other words — only here the definition of “function” broadened to include overt recognition of the centrality of fantasy and leisure. For mainstream American architecture, this was a big step forward.

A third type of design that reflects mainstream space — and another sort of “people’s architecture” — was designed by the SITE Architects in the 1970s for the Best Company. Although the opposite of Lapidus in terms of style, the SITE architects — James Wines, Alison Sky, Michelle Stone, Emilio Sousa — position the audience in a similar, and similarly theatrical, way to his. Like Lapidus’s hotels the Best buildings tap the collective unconscious (here played out in a strip mall environment) by picturing dynamic processes — peeling, crumbling, tilting. Instead of referring to design or architectural history a building is treated as a found object — a box, to which things are done. These are simple structures articulating clear narrative situations apparent to all.

Best buildings from the 1970s by SITE Architects

Doing the Math

The mainstream (based on the evidence of these various monuments to it) comprises communication product — manifested in format as much as in intent — that is defined by its legibility and accessibility. Legible by, accessible to whom? To as many people as may desire access to it.

Considered mathematically, this is simply remarkable: the scale of entity X (here, The Mainstream) is determined by the number of people who acknowledge X!

The mainstream is, then, a game of numbers — a game of scale. Adults are known to be attracted to games of scale; attempting to enter the mainstream is one of the games that adults play to pass the time in adulthood. (Of course, not all work does well to seek the scale of the mainstream. Some work is meant for altogether different scales of culture — smaller, more intimate scales. In its heart of hearts, though, our time isn’t so interested in work meant for scales smaller than the mainstream — a serious mistake, perhaps, on the part of our culture, but there it is.) Why is it desirable to be absorbed into the mainstream? For one thing, it can be lucrative. The mainstream is the big market. Too, absorption into the mainstream symbolizes history’s acceptance, and who doesn’t want that?

There’s a catch to entering the mainstream, however. In order to enter the game that the mainstream represents, the particular communication product seeking absorption must restrain any criticism it might have made of that consortium of forces which sees to it that the mainstream continues to flow and irrigate. That restraint is essential, for (what amount to) political reasons. The forces that feed and maintain the mainstream are (it should be obvious) capital and the power that controls capital. Those communication forms that rely on a large capital investment — movies, TV shows, pop music among them — will be more obliged, therefore, to restrict any criticism they conceivably might have leveled. They are designed, in other words, to not reveal all that they know. The limits to truth-pursuit and truth-telling that these communication forms impose on themselves keep them in the shallow end of the pool, and it’s this, survivalist’s willingness to remain in the shallow end that, at least in part, defines these works as “entertainment.” [ 2 ]

High Entertainment challenges this tradition. Anyone who can shoot, edit, print, and distribute their own movies and TV shows isn’t under the same constraints faced by producers of conventional mainstream entertainment. A High Entertainer is even free to activate the mainstream as theme, as concept, as material to be exploited. (Was it The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper cover, a collage of mainstream and cult figures, that announced this possibility? Didn’t that album cover, created by Peter Blake in 1967, signal both a conscious recognition of a mainstream and the idea that this conscious recognition might be put to use?) By so doing he or she may very well advance these matters on a broad plain.

Conceptual Art for the Masses?

If a High Entertainer is free to use mass media communication formats toward conceptual ends, does that make High Entertainment some sort of “conceptual art for the masses”? Is that really the goal here?

I’m hesitant to endorse that interpretation. “Conceptual art for the masses”: how is the phrase (and the idea it suggests) in any way distinguished from plain old mass culture, or advertising, or marketing? Don’t we already have “conceptual art for the masses”?

The Mainstream and Time

Like the Present, the mainstream is huge and invisible and constant. The mainstream is the eternal present tense of culture.

Characterizing the mainstream as a stable, constant cultural force assumes some pre-conditions. It assumes not only the existence of a certain kind of stable, constant production but also a stable, constant audience for that production. And in order for a mainstream to work its myriad effects, the audience must have time to engage with those effects. Leisure is thus a major factor informing any conception of the mainstream.

Leisure is all about time. Time for what? Leisure! The mass experience of leisure is born of time-saving tools and processes. As our brains evolved we innovated many such tools and methods that, commonly described as time-saving, were equally time-creating. All that freshly minted time had somehow to be filled. We became very good at filling it. We learned to fill time ever more subtly. The expansion of time yielded not only leisure hours and a need to fill those hours but a self-consciousness about filling those hours — a capacity, in other words, to reflect upon or comment upon time passed in leisure. Entertainments, activities, and artifacts that were created for leisure consumption came increasingly to be informed by our reflections on leisure.

In an information age, this development appears right and natural. In a sense, then, it is so like us to ask: What is leisure for? Are we supposed to be doing something with it? Is it an end in itself, or is leisure, which would seem to be all process, actually the product too? That some ambivalence should attach to leisure isn’t at all new. Questions about the role of leisure were raised even by Aristotle, who suggested that “leisure time be used to do something that was desirable for its own sake.” As usual, Aristotle had his mind set on nobility of purpose. Seneca, more cynical and practical, argued that “as a perfect state of life is unattainable, a life of leisure constitutes the next best thing.” Cicero saw leisure in practical terms too, but more positively — as a way to re-charge. Montaigne “made palatable the notion that people, in the interest of their mental welfare, must ‘escape from reality’….” [3] (It should be pointed out that in the modern world, where leisure doesn’t merely reflect on experience but fills so many hours that it indeed comprises experience, Montaigne’s notion of entertainment as “escapism” has its limitations.) Fretting over leisure was once reserved for philosophers and the idle classes. But just as all classes now share many of the same leisure-time pursuits, are entertained by many of the same products, and benefit from the same time-saving devices, so too has the tendency to reflect on leisure become democratized. We can all participate in it.

In the process of expanding the availability of leisure to all classes, would not a median condition of leisure have formed? Is it this “median condition of leisure” that “the mainstream” refers to? Is it a pre-condition of the emergence of a mainstream that roughly the same kind of leisure be available to all classes?

Of course, to present leisure as something separate and apart from the world of work and ambition is to present a false or at best partial picture. We frequently pass our leisure hours entertained, and the kinds of entertainments that we use don’t materialize out of thin air, they come from somewhere — from, for the most part, a small number of enormous corporations. The space of the mainstream is to a large extent a managed space. It is not news to you that the producers and distributors of mass entertainment have their own aims, which may include but certainly are not limited to showing people a good time. (Entertainment, under modern conditions, operates at such a scale, economically and culturally, that pure altruism isn’t really thinkable. Power attaches. The people who are involved in the production of modern entertainment product enjoy considerable power. Would you let that power go unused?)

For this reason, to opine that one of the functions of mass entertainment might be to distract a populace from asking hard questions that might lead to real dissent is not the observation of a paranoid. Similarly, to suggest that the powerful who produce entertainment sometimes use it as a means of ingratiating themselves to the masses — whatever else can the Super Bowl halftime show be for? — is not being unduly suspicious. But this is not news to you. You weren’t born yesterday. You understand that when entertainment producers claim they’re just giving us what we want, they are depending to some degree on the public’s ignorance of more satisfying alternatives — which limits to knowledge, of course, the producers have themselves arranged, since investing in known rather than unknown quantities decreases their own exposure to risk. You get that. No one has to tell you that, rather than fostering experiment, the profit motive that drives the marketplace often limits the range of invention. You’ve been onto the game for a long time now.

Through entertainment product, profit-seeking individuals try to contain the space of the mainstream and pre-determine the direction of its flow. It is the dark side of modern leisure. At the same time, negativistic Marxian takes on conjuring and controlling desire aren’t the only possible reads. Is modern marketing ‘the greatest concerted attempt at psychological manipulation in all of human history” [4] or the artistic expression of a capitalist economy? Art historian Dave Hickey has observed that, after the Second World War, American industry “found itself facing the challenge that has confronted every artist since Watteau, that of a finite, demanding market for a necessarily overabundant supply of speculative products.” Thus: “…rather than producing and marketing infinitely replicable objects that adequately served unchanging needs, American commerce began creating finite sets of objects that embodied ideology for a finite audience at a particular moment — objects that created desire rather than fulfilling needs. This is nothing more or less than an art market.” Hickey asserts that today the whole of American commerce performs as an art economy, with no strong distinction to be found between art production and the basic capitalist strategy of the post-war economy.

Who’s right? Fortunately, it isn’t left to interpreters to decide the matter. New, objective developments have broken the old controls over the mainstream, and in the process dissolved some of the old arguments. Digital technology spearheads a strong challenge to the modernist tradition of a centralized control of leisure. You and your pals the camcorder, the microphone, and the Internet comprise a genuine alternative to media control.


[ 1 ] Thomas Hine, Populuxe

[ 2 ] In light of this characterization we might reasonably wonder what reward the audience for the mainstream gets out of the arrangement. Yes, they get a steady supply of product, pitched at a competent level of professionalism. They have contact with the entertainment vibration, of course; the mainstream is the interface between the Infrastructure of Fun and the Consumer. And their contact with that product delivers contact with the mainstream, which contact is, for some reason, desirable. Exactly why isn’t clear. What does contact with the mainstream do for the audience? What does that contact deliver to them? “Entertainment” is the means by which an important modern abstraction — the mainstream — stays a part of their life. Members of the audience gain a sense of their time, of course, but a sense of one’s time can be derived from many, alternative sources. Ultimately, it really is a bit of a mystery why the audience doesn’t rebel!

[ 3 ] Dolf Zillman, “The Coming of Media Entertainment”

[ 4 ] Robert W. McChesney, “The Age of Hyper-Commercialism” in The Problem of the Media