Ron Austin has been a writer and producer in Hollywood for over fifty years, he is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, and he is a founding member of Catholics in Media. Austin knows Hollywood. And so it is quite interesting to read his recent (May 21, 2011), Address at Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology's 79th Annual Commencement, in which he made several strong, even fascinating, remarks. Here are a couple of excerpts:
Timing is important in show business. As an adult convert, my engagement with the Catholic Church began in the last years of the Second Vatican Council, and our present timing is, I believe, significant because, now that fifty years have passed, there is, in my judgment, a need to re-assess the relationship of the Church to the misnamed “popular culture.”
I refer to the term “popular or mass culture” as being misleading and a misnomer because I don't believe that it is a “culture” by any standard definition.
I'm not just being semantically fastidious. This is one of the significant changes that has taken place.
The word “culture” is variously defined but the term assumes at least some minimal degree of coherence, at least a loose matrix of symbols, language, models and ideas that have continuity. Culture points to what more or less tells us who we are and maybe even where we're going. The “popular culture” of the media doesn't do this, if, indeed, it ever really did.
This is a judgment that I admit is severe and perhaps even rash, and will and should be challenged, but I offer it as a starting point more than a firm conclusion. To the extent that the so-called popular culture is incoherent and contradictory, it is not a reliable guide to life or beliefs. If it is no longer able to offer or sustain hope, and this is crucial, if this pseudo-culture no longer offers hope then this is a serious challenge to the Church, that is, to those of us in and of the Church.
When I entered the Catholic Church over thirty years ago, the goals of the post-conciliar period were articulated in terms of “enculturation,” the integration if not assimilation of Christians and their Gospel ideals into the present-day society. But can one speak of “enculturation” if there is, in effect, no “culture”? At the very least this objective needs to be seriously reconsidered in the light of the degree of alienation and the increasing social fragmentation. And I'm not just speaking of talk radio. ...
From the earliest days in Hollywood there have been attempts to turn the caprices of entertainment into a stable and rational business. Most have been frustrated, but in the 1950s the loss of the adult audience to television and other factors produced an even more desperate search for a reliable mass audience. This led to the creation of what was called the “youth market” – the shaping of a largely adolescent audience with, in the post-war era, unprecedented disposable income.
This was perhaps the first time in history that adolescents were targeted as a distinct consumer group. They were an ideal audience, very susceptible to mass marketing due to the natural adolescent dependency upon peer approval. This became the mass base upon which movies and music increasingly depended, and there were profound effects on society in general.
It led in time, for instance, to a change in the nature of fame and celebrity. The previous iconic figures of the movies were adult romantic heroes and heroines, but they were replaced, in time, by the restless adolescent rebel and finally the “anti-hero.” Figures such as James Dean, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and later The Beatles, whatever their talent, did not represent the aspirations of adulthood, and this marked a change in the very concept of what was desirable and acceptable.
Mimesis, the imitative factor, is quite naturally powerful among the young, and a phenomenon that Jacques Barzun observed with prescience then emerged – the oxymoronic “conformity of dissent” – an attitude of rebellion and a rejection of past standards that was, if anything, more conformist and compulsory than anything an adult authority could mandate.
The “rebel without a cause” was then, in effect, commodified and absorbed into advertising. By the end of the 1970s, an advertising agency appealed to major corporate sponsors by offering the image of a young, handsome, disaffected youth, staring defiantly at the camera. The appeal to the corporate advertisers was “buy this twenty-one year old and you get his friends free.”
This “youth orientation” has had a lasting effect not just on entertainment but on everything from clothing to food and soft drinks, but, most importantly, it led to an increased sense of disaffection and, equally significant, a separation if not break between generations.
Teilhard de Chardin said that the most difficult thing to determine is when something actually began, so I don't want to imply that the growing divisions and broken bonds within American society were primarily due to the effects of the mass media. I'm not defensive about Hollywood, but my experience suggests that the “counter-cultural” attitudes that later promoted indiscriminate sexuality and even drug use were themselves the effects of underlying social factors -- war, divorce and urban isolation. Hollywood wasn't selling ideas; it was selling products. And to this day the mass media mindset doesn't promote an oppositional “value system” but an aggregate of attitudes, many of them contradictory and confused.
Read the entire address on the DSPT website.