Is popular culture serious?
You Say You Want a Revolution? is being held at the V&A until 26th February 2017. The exhibition explores the era-defining significance and impact of the late 1960s, expressed through some of the greatest music and performances of the 20th century, alongside fashion, film, design and political activism. The exhibition considers how the finished and unfinished revolutions of the time changed the way we live today and the way we think about the future.
There are a lot of remarkable points about the exhibition to be made, but my general instinct is that we have somehow arrived in a kind of a Disneyworld. However, first of all, I feel I must emphasise the role the V&A has played over the years in instigating and fostering the heritagisation of popular culture, together with its specific risk-taking contribution to exploring new solutions to the addressing of such difficult themes. Firstly, in 2008, the V&A staged Cold War, thereby creating a space for more peripheral themes to be addressed in museums. Then, in 2011, it staged Postmodernism, Style and Subversion 1970-1990, which examined how postmodernism evolved from a provocative architectural movement in the early 1970s and rapidly went on to influence all areas of popular culture including art, film, music, graphics and fashion. Then in 2013, David Bowie Is came along to prove that it is possible to take advantage of several discursive layers at the same time: text, images, video, objects and sound. It also astonishingly demonstrated, with the remarkable assistance of Sennsheiser (the audio equipment company), that it is possible to exhibit musical sound as an artefact, and that the merits of sound in arousing emotion and stimulating engagement are rendered particularly significant in the light of the current demands of museum practice. In short, this history means we are forever in debt to the V&A’s influence in challenging the forces and relations which have sustained the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, which it has done by fostering the idea that ‘low’ culture is as valid a dimension of human culture as any other.
But then the current V&A temporary exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution? left me with serious concerns. While it again addresses a subject that is not readily acknowledged and allowed in ‘serious’ museums, on the other hand it acts as a reinforcement of this longstanding interpretation of popular culture, that it is a form of public fantasy and so of low interest and seriousness.
To be more precise, the exhibition left me wondering why it is that, in order to talk about popular culture in a museum, one has to design fun and colourful gallery spaces, display the greatest possible number of objects, shout sound from every corner, and make the exhibition available for as many visitors at the same time as possible. On the one hand, I believe the curators have had some success in the exhibition in conveying the entanglement of popular music with the sixties’ revolutions in identity, ideas, consumption, political protests, communications and lifestyles through its written texts. However, from the visual point of view I can only find the exhibition’s design to be relegating the epoch to a stereotyped visual environment of illusion, which certainly does not match the historical one.
As I was leaving the exhibition, I found myself thinking: please don’t tell popular culture this way, because you know that popular culture is too serious for it to be Disneyfied. Actually, nobody was pretending to be playing at life or indulging in fantasy during the period of 1966 to 1970 – as nobody has done during any other period in history. Popular culture is ‘a site where collective social understandings are created’ (Hall 2006), a true artefact of the way human beings have produced rituals and customs to articulate themselves both individually and bonded within social orders. I believe people sense that popular culture is of particular value to them and, as such, it is something more than a simple discussion of fun, colours and entertainment.
If, on the one hand, the exhibition seems to be seeking a balanced perception of ‘low’ and ‘high’ culture by facilitating exhibitions focusing on popular culture and expanding on its significance, its visual design nevertheless appears to be wrapping it in and fostering the same old ideas.
HALL, Stuart. 2006. ‘The Rediscovery of Ideology: the Return of the Represses in Media Studies’, in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, 3rd edition, edited by John Storey, London: Pearson Education