Folk culture / high culture / mass culture / digital culture

It can be useful to distinguish between each of the following common types of culture in the Western tradition, and the relationship each of them has with appropriation. Folk and digital culture are generally or potentially participatory, while high and mass culture have not tended to be.

Folk culture

Middle Ages – present (frequently participatory)

Folk culture includes things like religious rituals, art, music; ethnic practices, observations, music, etc; home music making, amateur impromptu culture, and any non-commercial, generally unrecorded, creativity.

Folk culture is often created in a collaborative way. For instance, at the village dance non-professional musicians play and may improvise or make changes to standard tunes, people dance. Much of folk culture is organic and “unpremeditated” (unlike when a single artist sets out to create a great or lucrative work). Folk culture is often made or performed by ordinary people.

Appropriation in folk culture: Appropriation tends to be natural and organic – creation is collaborative and anonymous and individual ownership is comparatively rare and insignificant. For instance, in the creation of the blues people took other people’s tunes and words and modified them, sometimes unintentionally. There were no recordings and early blues were not written down and published, so ideas were traded more freely among producers of that culture.

High culture

Renaissance – present (rarely participatory)

High culture includes media such as classical music, opera, theatre, art galleries, poetry, classics of fiction written before 1950, etc. Generally stuff that is “unrelatable” to a person raised in the postmodern world and that requires knowledge or historical understanding to be appreciated, but which still has some presence in our culture falls into this category.

High culture has generally been created by professionals for patrons (later for the public, the wealthy, or cultural institutions). Those who create high culture are usually extraordinary artists, with unmistakeable talent and in most cases a great deal of education and professional training. In the classical era they relied heavily on patronage from the nobility, the church, the powerful and the wealthy. It was generally the work of extraordinary artists and consumed mostly by privileged audiences. For instance, Mozart needs the patronage of the Emperor to create many of his works, and they may be dedicated to the Emperor or other powerful figures. In general he does not collaborate with other composers.

Appropriation in high culture: Appropriation tends to be  frowned upon – individual originality is important and appropriation is relegated to practices like emulation, allusion, adaptation, edition, and so forth.

Mass culture

20th century – present (non-participatory)

Mass culture is stuff produced or promoted by companies, generally with the goal of capitalizing on creative work. This includes commericial pop music, Hollywood movies, television, radio, ads.

Ordinary people are the consumers, rather than the creators, of mass culture, or creative participants in it. This culture is created by professionals for public consumption, but in the interest of  media corporations, small businesses, promoters, etc. In the 19th and 20th centuries, mass culture gradually replaces folk culture as a shared, artificially manufactured “popular culture” that is consumed by people, but in which they participate minimally (attending concerts etc).

Appropriation in mass culture: Appropriation is common, but mostly licensed (legal, and under the control of corporations). Whatever “works” (sells) is recycled for profit. Knock-off is very common. Creation tends to be collaborative (but by small groups of professionals) and ownership tends to be corporate.

Various types of commercial appropriation are common: adaptations (books into movies, movies into tv series, movies into comic books, etc), authorized remixes, recontextualizations in advertising, sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, spinoffs, and so forth.

Digital culture

21th century (participatory)

Digital culture includes virtually everything to be found on the Internet. It is often the amateur creation or ordinary people, and only rarely is it created for commercial gain. Examples of this form of participatory culture include homemade YouTube videos, YouTube video mashups, photo and art sharing sites, Soundcloud, social media, etc.

This culture is created by anyone, for anyone. It has gradually started to augment, replace, and remix mainstream mass culture. Many people today spend more time on YouTube than they do watching television, for instance, and the coolest people don’t listen to pop hits at all, but only remixes and mashups of them on Soundcloud and similar places. (;-)

Appropriation in digital culture: Appropriation is rampant, usually not strictly legal, and nearly impossible to police. It is frequently critical of the material being appropriated or recasts it with emphases different from the original. Ownership is impossible. This kind of appropriation is also often promiscuous and uninformed, meaning that sometimes the appropriated material can send a message different from the one intended by the appropriator.

See also: participatory culture.