Cultural literacy tells us what we should know, whereas cultural vocabulary tells us what people do know

The concept of a shared cultural vocabulary is related to yet different from that of cultural literacy. Cultural literacy comprises the knowledge of general history and of great works of literature, music, art and philosophy essential to be a good citizen. Too often conservative critics present lists of what constitutes cultural literacy that focus almost exclusively on the traditional works of white European males. More progressive critics will include the works of non-westerners and women and of newer art forms such as film and graphic novels. These critics—both conservative and progressive—all postulate cultural literacy as proscriptive: here is what you need to know.

Cultural vocabulary takes a different approach—one that describes instead of prescribes—by defining the cultural vocabulary as the body of information that most people in a culture share. Whether or not we should have read T.S. Eliot is not relevant to a description of the cultural vocabulary; what counts is that in 2014 a business magazine such as The Economist will cleverly reference Eliot’s “The Waste Land” by opening an article with “April has been a cheerful month for the Affordable Care Act…”

Those like E.D. Hirsch and Harold Bloom who construct lists of great literature and other cultural artifacts with which every culturally literate person should be familiar must frown dyspeptically at the symbolism of a TV commercial becoming as much a part of our cultural heritage as Huckleberry Finn or the founding of Jamestown. I’m sure that Bloom’s prescriptive cultural vocabulary would exclude Mean Joe Greene throwing a jersey or Mikey liking a dry cereal.

The argument concerning what constitutes cultural literacy and therefore should and should not be part of the cultural vocabulary goes back centuries. In Greek times, critics argued whether the low art of pottery carried the weight of painting. In late medieval times and the Renaissance, the argument was between Latin versus the vernacular. For the past 200 years, the argument has been about the relative merits of high and low culture, between serious novels and potboilers, literature and comic books, Beethoven and the Beach Boys. In all these instances, critics have argued about the relative merits of high and low (or popular) art.

But a television commercial is something different from both high culture and low culture. It represents commercial culture. Its makers intend not to edify nor to amuse, but to sell a product, service or idea.

Commercial culture has a history that may be as long as that of either high or low cultures, thanks to the fact that those who pay for propaganda are usually those who control the social order. The cultural dictators of all ages, especially the conservative ones, have tended to warmly embrace commercial culture. The Aeneid, a piece of propaganda purchased by the Roman Emperor Augustus, makes all the lists of the cultural essentials. I think one can make a compelling case that the psalms were works of pure propaganda meant solely to influence public opinion: King David (or the writers he hired) created our beloved psalms to improve public opinion about his actions, which was at a low after he had used the armies of Israel’s enemies to take over the country and then sent his best general out to die so he could cavort in the streets with the man’s wife. English literature students still read early Irish poems, which were little more than paid political announcements for Irish chieftains. We see print and poster advertisements by Toulouse-Lautrec, the Russian Constructivists, Depero and other visual artists hanging in art museums all over the world. Every serious film buff lauds the technical aspects of Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda films, made for and financed by the Nazis. Many commercial works have managed to make it into the exalted cultural literacy pantheon of authoritarian critics of all ilks.

Before the advertising of products and services began sometime in the 19th century, virtually all works of commercial culture were either masked as entertainments or part of a liturgy. Nowadays, commercial culture will sometimes mask itself in movies which have as their sole purpose the selling of merchandise, e.g., movies about comic book heroes that spin off action figures, costumes, masks, toys, clothing, book marks, calendars, coasters, decorative boxes, jewelry, jigsaw puzzles, mugs, napkins, note cards, pens, tote bags, trays, lunch boxes and other branded merchandise. But more often than not, commercial culture today involves a naked sales pitch. That our cultural vocabulary so quickly consumes the naked sales pitches of “where’s the beef” and “can you hear me now” reflects the crass materialism of the age.

The development of the mass media of advertising, and then of film, radio, television, video games and the Internet has led to commercial culture playing a far great role in determining our cultural vocabulary than before World War II. We can see the hegemony of commercial culture everywhere: the enshrinement of commercial or decorative artists such as Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons in our pantheon of the visual arts; the widespread tattooing of Coke and other brand logos on body parts; and the widespread interests in celebrity culture (which I define as a preoccupation with the commercial transactions of people who are famous for no reason except perhaps for being wealthy). All represent the hegemony that commercial culture has achieved.

That hegemony shines through the recent ending of the Madman series, which, like the end of the first season, asserts that commercials are an art form by setting up situations in which the protagonist Don Draper transforms the discontents of his life into seminal TV commercials—at the end of the first season, his memories of his family, now fractured by his infidelity, becomes the Kodak “Moments” commercial; the last scene of the last episode of the series shows Draper, having found peace through transcendental meditation, dreaming up the wildly popular “I’d like to teach the world to sing” Coke commercials. The sublimation of real life into art has a long history—Dante, Shakespeare, Flaubert, Joyce, Proust, Hemingway, the list of authors whose works are at least partially autobiographical seems endless. With Mad Men, we see commercial art imitating life in a work of dramatic art about commercial art.

Tomorrow I take a look at some of the ways that words and phrases are added to our cultural vocabulary.

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