Hannah Arendt

Between Past and Future



Its Social and Its Political Significance


For more than ten years now, we have witnessed a still growing concern among intellectuals with the relatively new phenomenon of mass culture. The term itself clearly derives from the not much older term “mass society”; the tacit assumption, underlying all discussions of the matter, is that mass culture, logically and inevitably, is the culture of mass society. The most significant fact about the short history of both terms is that, while even a few years ago they were still used with a strong sense of reprobation—implying that mass society was a depraved form of society and mass culture a contradiction in terms—they now have become respectable, the subject of innumerable studies and research projects whose chief effect, as Harold Rosenberg pointed out, is “to add to kitsch an intellectual dimension.” This “intellectualization of kitsch” is justified on the grounds that mass society, whether we like it or not, is going to stay with us into the foreseeable future; hence its “culture,” “popular culture [cannot] be left to the populace.” However, the question is whether what is true for mass society is true for mass culture also, or, to put it another way, whether the relationship between mass society and culture will be, mutatis mutandis, the same as the relation of society toward culture which preceded it.

The question of mass culture raises first of all another and more fundamental problem, namely, the highly problematic relationship of society and culture. One needs only to recall to what an extent the entire movement of modern art started with a vehement rebellion of the artist against society as such (and not against a still unknown mass society) in order to become aware how much this earlier relationship must have left to be desired and thus to beware of the facile yearning of so many critics of mass culture for a Golden Age of good and genteel society. This yearning is much more widespread today in America than it is in Europe for the simple reason that America, though only too well acquainted with the barbarian philistinism of the nouveaux-riches, has only a nodding acquaintance with the equally annoying cultural and educated philistinism of European society, whore culture has acquired snob-value, where it has become a matter of status to be educated enough to appreciate culture; this lack of experience may even explain why American literature and painting has suddenly come to play such a decisive role in the development of modern art and why it can make its influence felt in countries whose intellectual and artistic vanguard has adopted outspoken anti-American attitudes. It has, however, the unfortunate consequence that the profound malaise which the very word “culture” is likely to evoke precisely among those who are its foremost representatives may go unnoticed or not be understood in its symptomatic significance.

Yet whether or not any particular country has actually passed through all stages in which society developed since the rise of the modern age, mass society clearly comes about when “the mass of the population has become incorporated into society.” And since society in the sense of “good society” comprehended those parts of the population which disposed not only of wealth but of leisure time, that is, of time to be devoted to “culture,” mass society does indeed indicate a new state of affairs in which the mass of the population has been so far liberated from the burden of physically exhausting labor that it too disposes of enough leisure for “culture.” Hence, mass society and mass culture seem to be interrelated phenomena, but their common denominator is not the mass but rather the society into which the masses too have been incorporated. Historically as well as conceptually, mass society was preceded by society, and society is no more a generic term than mass society; it too can be dated and described historically; it is older, to be sure, than mass society, but not older than the modern age. In fact, all the traits that crowd psychology has meanwhile discovered in mass man: his loneliness—and loneliness is neither isolation nor solitude—regardless of his adaptability; his excitability and lack of standards; his capacity for consumption, accompanied by inability to judge, or even to distinguish; above all, his egocentricity and that fateful alienation from the world which since Rousseau is mistaken for self-alienation—all these traits first appeared in good society, where there was no question of masses, numerically speaking.

Good society, as we know it from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, probably had its origin in the European courts of the age of absolutism, especially the court society of Louis XIV, who knew so well how to reduce French nobility to political insignificance by the simple means of gathering them at Versailles, transforming them into courtiers, and making them entertain one an- other through the intrigues, cabals, and endless gossip which this perpetual party inevitably engendered. Thus the true forerunner of the novel, this entirely modern art form, is not so much the picaresque romance of adventurers and knights as the Mémoires of Saint-Simon, while the novel itself clearly anticipated the rise of the social sciences as well as of psychology, both of which are still centered around conflicts between society and the “individual.” The true forerunner of modern mass man is this individual, who was defined and indeed discovered by those who, like Rousseau in the eighteenth century or John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century, found themselves in open rebellion against society. Since then, the story of a conflict between society and its individuals has repeated itself time and again in reality no less than in fiction; the modern, and no longer so modern, individual forms part and parcel of the society against which he tries to assert himself and which always gets the better of him.

There is, however, an important difference between the earlier stages of society and mass society with respect to the situation of the individual. As long as society itself was restricted to certain classes of the population, the individual’s chances for survival against its pressures were rather good; they lay in the simultaneous presence within the population of other non-society strata into which the individual could escape, and one reason why these individuals so frequently ended by joining revolutionary parties was that they discovered in those who were not admitted to society certain traits of humanity which had become extinct in society. This again found its expression in the novel, in the well-known glorifications of the workers and proletarians, but also, more subtly, in the role assigned to homosexuals (for instance in Proust) or to Jews, that is, to groups which society had never quite absorbed. The fact that the revolutionary élan throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was so much more violently directed against society than against states and governments is not only due to the predominance of the social question in the sense of the twofold predicament of misery and exploitation. We need only to read the record of the French Revolution, and to recall to what an extent the very concept of le peuple received its connotations from an outrage of the “heart”—as Rousseau and even Robespierre would have said—against the corruption and hypocrisy of the salons, to realize what the true role of society was throughout the nineteenth century. A good part of the despair of individuals under the conditions of mass society is due to the fact that these avenues of escape are now closed because society has incorporated all strata of the population.

Here we are not concerned with the conflict between the individual and society, however, although it is of some importance to note that the last individual left in a mass society seems to be the artist. Our concern is with culture, or rather with what happens to culture under the different conditions of society and of mass society, and our interest in the artist, therefore, does not so much concern his subjective individualism as the fact that he is, after all, the authentic producer of those objects which every civilization leaves behind as the quintessence and the lasting testimony of the spirit which animated it. That precisely the producers of the highest cultural objects, namely works of art, should turn against society, that the whole development of modern art—which together with the scientific development will probably remain the greatest achievement of our age—should have started from and remained committed to this hostility against society demonstrates an existing antagonism between society and culture prior to the rise of mass society.

The charge the artist, as distinguished from the political revolutionary, has laid to society was summed up quite early, at the turn of the eighteenth century, in the one word which has since been repeated and reinterpreted by one generation after the other. The word is “philistinism.” Its origin, slightly older than its specific use, is of no great significance; it was first used in German student slang to distinguish between town and gown, whereby, however, the Biblical association indicated already an enemy superior in numbers into whose hands one may fall. When first used as a term—I think by the German writer Clemens von Brentano, who wrote a satire on the philistine bevor, in und nach der Geschichte—it designated a mentality which judged everything in terms of immediate usefulness and “material values” and hence had no regard for such useless objects and occupations as are implied in culture and art. All this sounds fairly familiar even today, and it is not without interest to note that even such current slang terms as “square” can already be found in Brentano’s early pamphlet.

If matters had rested there, if the chief reproach leveled against society had remained its lack of culture and of interest in art, the phenomenon with which we deal here would be considerably less complicated than it actually is; by the same token, it would be all but incomprehensible why modern art rebelled against “culture” instead of fighting simply and openly for its own “cultural” interests. The point of the matter is that this sort of philistinism, which simply consisted in being “uncultured” and commonplace, was very quickly succeeded by another development in which, on the contrary, society began to be only too interested in all these so-called cultural values. Society began to monopolize “culture” for its own purposes, such as social position and status. This had much to do with the socially inferior position of Europe’s middle classes, which found themselves—as soon as they acquired the necessary wealth and leisure—in an uphill fight against the aristocracy and its contempt for the vulgarity of sheer moneymaking. In this fight for social position, culture began to play an enormous role as one of the weapons, if not the best-suited one, to advance oneself socially, and to “educate oneself” out of the lower regions, where supposedly reality was located, up into the higher, non-real regions, where beauty and the spirit supposedly were at home. This escape from reality by means of art and culture is important, not only because it gave the physiognomy of the cultural or educated philistine its most distinctive marks, but also because it probably was the decisive factor in the rebellion of the artists against their newly found patrons; they smelled the danger of being expelled from reality into a sphere of refined talk where what they did would lose all meaning. It was a rather dubious compliment to be recognized by a society which had grown so “polite” that, for instance, during the Irish potato famine, it would not debase itself or risk being associated with so unpleasant a reality by normal usage of the word, but would henceforth refer to that much eaten vegetable by saying “that root.” This anecdote contains as in a nutshell the definition of the cultured philistine.

No doubt what is at stake here is much more than the psychological state of the artists; it is the objective status of the cultural world, which, insofar as it contains tangible things—books and paintings, statues, buildings, and music—comprehends, and gives testimony to, the entire recorded past of countries, nations, and ultimately mankind. As such, the only nonsocial and authentic criterion for judging these specifically cultural things is their relative permanence and even eventual immortality. Only what will last through the centuries can ultimately claim to be a cultural object. The point of the matter is that, as soon as the immortal works of the past became the object of social and individual refinement and the status accorded to it, they lost their most important and elemental quality, which is to grasp and move the reader or the spectator over the centuries. The very word “culture” became suspect precisely because it indicated that “pursuit of perfection” which to Matthew Arnold was identical with the “pursuit of sweetness and light.” The great works of art are no less misused when they serve purposes of self-education or self-perfection than when they serve any other purposes; it may be as useful and legitimate to look at a picture in order to perfect one’s knowledge of a given period as it is useful and legitimate to use a painting in order to hide a hole in the wall. In both instances the art object has been used for ulterior purposes. All is well as long as one remains aware that these usages, legitimate or not, do not constitute the proper intercourse with art. The trouble with the educated philistine was not that he read the classics but that he did so prompted by the ulterior motive of self-perfection, remaining quite unaware of the fact that Shakespeare or Plato might have to tell him more important things than how to educate himself; the trouble was that he fled into a region of “pure poetry” in order to keep reality out of his life—for instance, such “prosaic” things as a potato famine—or to look at it through a veil of “sweetness and light.”

We all know the rather deplorable art products which this attitude inspired and upon which it fed, in short the kitsch of the nineteenth century, whose historically so interesting lack of sense for form and style is closely connected with the severance of the arts from reality. The astounding recovery of the creative arts in our own century, and a perhaps less apparent but no less real recovery of the greatness of the past, began to assert itself when genteel society had lost its monopolizing grip on culture, together with its dominant position in the population as a whole. What had happened before and, to an extent, continued, of course, to happen even after the first appearance of modern art, was actually a disintegration of culture whose “lasting monuments” are the neo-Classic, neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance structures that are strewn all over Europe. In this disintegration, culture, more even than other realities, had become what only then people began to call “value,” i.e., a social commodity which could be circulated and cashed in in exchange for all kinds of other values, social and individual.

In other words, cultural objects were first despised as useless by the philistine until the cultural philistine seized upon them as a currency by which he bought a higher position in society or acquired a higher degree of self-esteem—higher, that is, than in his own opinion he deserved either by nature or by birth. In this process, cultural values were treated like any other values, they were what values always have been, exchange values; and in passing from hand to hand they were worn down like old coins. They lost the faculty which is originally peculiar to all cultural things, the faculty of arresting our attention and moving us. When this had come about, people began to talk of the “devaluation of values” and the end of the whole process came with the “bargain sale of values” (Ausverkauf der Werte) during the twenties and thirties in Germany, the forties and fifties in France, when cultural and moral “values” were sold out together.

Since then cultural philistinism has been a matter of the past in Europe, and while one may see in the “bargain sale of values” the melancholy end of the great Western tradition, it is still an open question whether it is more difficult to discover the great authors of the past without the help of any tradition than it is to rescue them from the rubbish of educated philistinism. And the task of preserving the past without the help of tradition, and often even against traditional standards and interpretations, is the same for the whole of Western civilization. Intellectually, though not socially, America and Europe are in the same situation: the thread of tradition is broken, and we must discover the past for ourselves that is, read its authors as though nobody had ever read them before. In this task mass society is much less in our way than good and educated society, and I suspect that this kind of reading was not uncommon in nineteenth-century America precisely because this country was still that “unstoried wilderness” from which so many American writers and artists tried to escape. That American fiction and poetry have so richly come into their own ever since Whitman and Melville may have something to do with this. It would be unfortunate indeed if out of the dilemmas and distractions of mass culture and mass society there should arise an altogether unwarranted and idle yearning for a state of affairs which is not better but only a bit more old-fashioned.

Perhaps the chief difference between society and mass society is that society wanted culture, evaluated and devaluated cultural things into social commodities, used and abused them for its own selfish purposes, but did not “consume” them. Even in their most worn-out shapes these things remained things and retained a certain objective character; they disintegrated until they looked like a heap of rubble, but they did not disappear. Mass society, on the contrary, wants not culture but entertainment, and the wares offered by the entertainment industry are indeed consumed by society just like any other consumer goods. The products needed for entertainment serve the life process of society, even though they may not be as necessary for this life as bread and meat. They serve, as the phrase is, to while away time, and the vacant time which is whiled away is not leisure time, strictly speaking—time, that is, in which we are free from all cares and activities necessitated by the life process and therefore free for the world and its culture—it is rather left-over time, which still is biological in nature, left over after labor and sleep have received their due. Vacant time which entertainment is supposed to fill is a hiatus in the biologically conditioned cycle of labor—in the “metabolism of man with nature,” as Marx used to say.

Under modern conditions, this hiatus is constantly growing; there is more and more time freed that must be filled with entertainment, but this enormous increase in vacant time does not change the nature of the time. Entertainment, like labor and sleep, is irrevocably part of the biological life process. And biological life is always, whether laboring or at rest, whether engaged in consumption or in the passive reception of amusement, a metabolism feeding on things by devouring them. The commodities the entertainment industry offers are not “things,” cultural objects, whose excellence is measured by their ability to withstand the life process and become permanent appurtenances of the world, and they should not be judged according to these standards; nor are they values which exist to be used and exchanged; they are consumer goods, destined to be used up, just like any other consumer goods.

Panis et circenses truly belong together; both are necessary for life, for its preservation and recuperation, and both vanish in the course of the life process—that is, both must constantly be produced anew and offered anew, lest this process cease entirely. The standards by which both should be judged are freshness and novelty, and the extent to which we use these standards today to judge cultural and artistic objects as well, things which are supposed to remain in the world even after we have left it, indicates clearly the extent to which the need for entertainment has begun to threaten the cultural world. Yet the trouble does not really stem from mass society or the entertainment industry which caters to its needs. On the contrary, mass society, since it does not want culture but only entertainment, is probably less of a threat to culture than the philistinism of good society; despite the often described malaise of artists and intellectuals—partly perhaps due to their inability to penetrate the noisy futility of mass entertainment—it is precisely the arts and sciences, in contradistinction to all political matters, which continue to flourish. At any event, as long as the entertainment industry produces its own consumer goods, we can no more reproach it for the non-durability of its articles than we can reproach a bakery because it produces goods which, if they are not to spoil, must be consumed as soon as they are made. It has always been the mark of educated philistinism to despise entertainment and amusement, because no “value” could be derived from it. The truth is we all stand in need of entertainment and amusement in some form or other, because we are all subject to life’s great cycle, and it is sheer hypocrisy or social snobbery to deny that we can be amused and entertained by exactly the same things which amuse and entertain the masses of our fellow men. As far as the survival of culture is concerned, it certainly is less threatened by those who fill vacant time with entertainment than by those who fill it with some haphazard educational gadgets in order to improve their social standing. And as far as artistic productivity is concerned, it should not be more difficult to withstand the massive temptations of mass culture, or to keep from being thrown out of gear by the noise and humbug of mass society, than it was to avoid the more sophisticated temptations and the more insidious noises of the cultural snobs in refined society.

Unhappily, the case is not that simple. The entertainment industry is confronted with gargantuan appetites, and since its wares disappear in consumption, it must constantly offer new commodities. In this predicament those who produce for the mass media ransack the entire range of past and present culture in the hope of finding suitable material. This material, moreover, cannot be offered as it is; it must be altered in order to become entertaining, it must be prepared to be easily consumed.

Mass culture comes into being when mass society seizes upon cultural objects, and its danger is that the fife process of society (which like all biological processes insatiably draws everything available into the cycle of its metabolism) will literally consume the cultural objects, eat them up and destroy them. Of course, I am not referring to mass distribution. When books or pictures in reproduction are thrown on the market cheaply and attain huge sales, this does not affect the nature of the objects in question. But their nature is affected when these objects themselves are changed rewritten, condensed, digested, reduced to kitsch in reproduction, or in preparation for the movies. This does not mean that culture spreads to the masses, but that culture is being destroyed in order to yield entertainment. The result of this is not disintegration but decay, and those who actively promote it are not the Tin Pan Alley composers but a special kind of intellectuals, often well read and well informed, whose sole function is to organize, disseminate, and change cultural objects in order to persuade the masses that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and perhaps educational as well. There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.

Culture relates to objects and is a phenomenon of the world; entertainment relates to people and is a phenomenon of life. An object is cultural to the extent that it can endure; its durability is the very opposite of functionality, which is the quality which makes it disappear again from the phenomenal world by being used and used up. The great user and consumer of objects is life itself, the life of the individual and the life of society as a whole. Life is indifferent to the thingness of an object; it insists that every thing must be functional, fulfill some needs. Culture is being threatened when all worldly objects and things, produced by the present or the past, are treated as mere functions for the life process of society, as though they are there only to fulfill some need, and for this functionalization it is almost irrelevant whether the needs in question are of a high or a low order. That the arts must be functional, that cathedrals fulfill a religious need of society, that a picture is born from the need for self-expression in the individual painter and that it is looked at because of a desire for self-perfection in the spectator, all these notions are so unconnected with art and historically so new that one is tempted simply to dismiss them as modern prejudices. The cathedrals were built ad maiorem gloriam Dei; while they as buildings certainly served the needs of the community, their elaborate beauty can never be explained by these needs, which could have been served quite as well by any nondescript building. Their beauty transcended all needs and made them last through the centuries; but while beauty, the beauty of a cathedral like the beauty of any secular building, transcends needs and functions, it never transcends the world, even if the content of the work happens to be religious. On the contrary, it is the very beauty of religious art which transforms religious and other-worldly contents and concerns into tangible worldly realities; in this sense all art is secular, and the distinction of religious art is merely that it “secularizes”—reifies and transforms into an “objective,” tangible, worldly presence—what had existed before outside the world, whereby it is irrelevant whether we follow traditional religion and localize this “outside” in the beyond of a hereafter, or follow modern explanations and localize it in the innermost recesses of the human heart.

Every thing, whether it is a use object, a consumer good, or a work of art, possesses a shape through which it appears, and only to the extent that something has a shape can we say that it is a thing at all. Among the things which do not occur in nature but only in the man-made world, we distinguish between use objects and art works, both of which possess a certain permanence ranging from ordinary durability to potential immortality in the case of works of art. As such, they are distinguished from consumer goods on one hand, whose duration in the world scarcely exceeds the time necessary to prepare them, and, on the other hand, from the products of action, such as events, deeds, and words, all of which are in themselves so transitory that they would hardly survive the hour or day they appeared in the world, if they were not preserved first by man’s memory, which weaves them into stories, and then through his fabricating abilities. From the viewpoint of sheer durability, art works clearly are superior to all other things; since they stay longer in the world than anything else, they are the worldliest of all things. Moreover, they are the only things without any function in the life process of society; strictly speaking, they are fabricated not for men, but for the world which is meant to outlast the life-span of mortals, the coming and going of the generations. Not only are they not consumed like consumer goods and not used up like use objects; they are deliberately removed from the processes of consumption and usage and isolated against the sphere of human life necessities. This removal can be achieved in a great variety of ways; and only where it is done does culture, in the specific sense, come into being.

The question here is not whether worldliness, the capacity to fabricate and create a world, is part and parcel of human “nature.” We know of the existence of worldless people as we know unworldly men; human life as such requires a world only insofar as it needs a home on earth for the duration of its stay here. Certainly every arrangement men make to provide shelter and put a roof over their heads—even the tents of nomadic tribes—can serve as a home on earth for those who happen to be alive at the time; but this by no means implies that such arrangements beget a world, let alone a culture. This earthly home becomes a world in the proper sense of the word only when the totality of fabricated things is so organized that it can resist the consuming life process of the people dwelling in it, and thus outlast them. Only where such survival is assured do we speak of culture, and only where we are confronted with things which exist independently of all utilitarian and functional references, and whose quality remains always the same, do we speak of works of art.

For these reasons any discussion of culture must somehow take as its starting point the phenomenon of art. While the thingness of all things by which we surround ourselves lies in their having a shape through which they appear, only works of art are made for the sole purpose of appearance. The proper criterion by which to judge appearances is beauty; if we wanted to judge objects, even ordinary use-objects, by their use-value alone and not also by their appearance—that is, by whether they are beautiful or ugly or something in between—we would have to pluck out our eyes. But in order to become aware of appearances we first must be free to establish a certain distance between ourselves and the object, and the more important the sheer appearance of a thing is, the more distance it requires for its proper appreciation. This distance cannot arise unless we are in a position to forget ourselves, the cares and interests and urges of our lives, so that we will not seize what we admire but let it be as it is, in its appearance. This attitude of disinterested joy (to use the Kantian term, uninteressiertes Wohlgejalien) can be experienced only after the needs of the living organism have been provided for, so that, released from life’s necessity, men may be free for the world.

The trouble with society in its earlier stages was that its members, even when they had acquired release from life’s necessity, could not free themselves from concerns which had much to do with themselves, their status and position in society and the reflection of this upon their individual selves, but bore no relation whatsoever to the world of objects and objectivity they moved in. The relatively new trouble with mass society is perhaps even more serious, but not because of the masses themselves, but because this society is essentially a consumers’ society where leisure time is used no longer for self-perfection or acquisition of more social status, but for more and more consumption and more and more entertainment. And since there are not enough consumer goods around to satisfy the growing appetites of a life process whose vital energy, no longer spent in the toil and trouble of a laboring body, must be used up by consumption, it is as though life itself reached out and helped itself to things which were never meant for it. The result is, of course, not mass culture which, strictly speaking, does not exist, but mass entertainment, feeding on the cultural objects of the world. To believe that such a society will become more “cultured” as time goes on and education has done its work, is, I think, a fatal mistake. The point is that a consumers’ society cannot possibly know how to take care of a world and the things which belong exclusively to the space of worldly appearances, because its central attitude toward all objects, the attitude of consumption, spells ruin to everything it touches.

Posted: November 2021
Category: Essays