When we look back and examine modernism as both a movement and a form of art, we see a not so subtle trend of modernism as a “breaking away” from mass culture. Often, the works (literary, art, music, etc) were meant to serve as a stark contrast from the themes, images, and ideas that held fast in mass society. It [modernism] was meant as an escape for the “elite” and “educated” in society because works in this movement presented lofty and cerebral ideals that were not easily grasped by even the most educated of people. Now, of course there are exceptions to this statement (Picasso’s work, while bizarre, was beloved by many many people of all ways of life) but by and large, Modernism was always held opposite mass culture.
Of course, this is painting with a very broad brush and obviously, I’m not saying that it was ONLY Modernism v. Mass Culture or that you couldn’t find blends of both out there but for the sake of argument, let’s just construct this as two competing (but occasionally overlapping) circles. The same conflict still holds true today. Musicians call modernism’s representation in music “intelligent music.” Most of the time it is atonal (as we traditionally define tonality. Most music considered “Serialism” is based on twelve tone rows and mathematical “cobbling” to define tonality… but at the end of the day physics will still call it dissonant so suck on that, Schoenberg) and almost arhythmic in nature. It is supposed to make the listener “think” but most of the time evokes no imagery and makes no suggestion about what to think about. Not that that is bad but it is such a stark departure from everything else that I find it hard to accept as anything more than academic play with numbers and analysis. Literature and film still have the essence of this “making you think” concept but often these genres are a bit more accessible to the average individual. Themes of morality, higher order reasoning, questioning the core concepts of existence, etc run through these works. While it is a bit different from say, Jersey Shore, it is still accessible and therefore entertainment.
So the question is: are we, as a society, appearing to get smarter as we blend the more lofty techniques, concepts, and questions with mass culture and making these ideals more accessible and even more marketable to more people? I would tend to shade more into agreement with the idea of our media getting more intelligent but I don’t think it is as statistically as big a growth as we would like to say. There is plenty watered down, basic, and relatively speaking mindless, material out there that is spoon fed to society and that we enjoy BUT we see things such as Weeds or Breaking Bad (for examples) that manage to blend in lofty ideals of morality into attractive action packed gripping stories. It is a trend I am glad to be a part of as the concept of “lofty ideas” is not a concept beyond anybody in our society should they choose to attempt at grasping it.