Looking at the Western World today, one has to say that we are living in a capitalist, consumption striving, mass-medially educated society. This structure can be summarized, besides others, by the term “Culture Industry”, an expression first used by Theodor W. Adorno. The German social theorist criticised the developments he experienced by the midst of the 20th century; not only was he claiming that the society in general was a product of the capitalist ideology, but in particular it was the mass media on which he focused his critique as the media was conveying the destructive ideology of the culture industry.
This essay will provide a critical analysis of the critique of the Frankfurt School, of which Adorno was a member, and a discussion whether it is justified to criticize the culture industry as an industry, and why.
First, it will be necessary to give a definition of the culture industry and to compare this to the traits of what defines an industry in general. In the following chapter on culture Adorno’s pessimistic view will be explained. For him, the idea of enlightenment, which means the overcome of ancient beliefs, myths and lack of knowledge, was formerly brought forward through art and culture. In the wake of the Nazi regime Adorno felt that this mission has failed, and thus there was no hope for the human race to ever see the truth. Today anthropologists in particular claim that the mass media gives a false impression of the world.
While Adorno embedded his critique of the mass media in a general social theory, this essay will be restricted to the former; nonetheless there will be three distinctive levels on which the issue will be reflected: the economic aspect, the social side and the political perspective, which cannot be separated from the mass media system.
This essay will also point to the limitations of Adorno’s critique, thereby defending the culture industry. The final chapter is supposed to give an answer to the key question.
2. The Culture Industry – a Definition
Adorno stressed two particular traits of what he called the culture industry: the predominant capitalist spirit of the mass media system and the persevering aim to blind the masses. ‘The entire practice of the culture industry transfers the profit motive naked onto cultural forms.’ (1996c: 86) Altogether he was criticizing an ideology that has become independent, uncontrollable and ruling the modern world:
Ultimately, the culture industry no longer even needs to directly pursue everywhere the profit interests from which it originated. These interests have become objectified in its ideology and have even made themselves independent in the compulsion to sell the cultural commodities which must be swallowed anyway. (Adorno 1996c: 86)
Adorno summarized the decisive development concerning art and culture: ‘Cultural entities typical of the culture industry are no longer also commodities, they are commodities through and through’ (Adorno 1996c: 86). At the same time he unveils that despite the claims that the modern cultural commodities were something new, something innovative, in fact, the products of the culture industry had to be characterized by their ‘eternal sameness’ (Adorno 1996c: 87).
Or in other words: ‘The issue is no longer simply that the media are compromised by their links to big business: the media are big business.’ (Curran 2000: 123)
This implies that the media no longer fulfils its duties in a democratic society but rather serves economic interests.
2.1 Modern Culture
Though Adorno is probably the most famous critic of the culture industry, there are plenty of theorists from different fields that follow his thinking. Alvin Gouldner simply used different terms to describe the Adornian scenario:
In industrial countries there is considerable tension between the “cultural apparatus”, largely influenced by the intelligentsia and academicians, and the “consciousness industry”, largely run by technicians within the framework of profit-maximization and now increasingly integrated with political functionaries and the state apparatus. (Gouldner 1990: 310)
Sari Thomas describes the effect of the culture industry on cultural products as follows:
‘What this means is that popular creations (whether material or symbolic) will generally reinforce the rules and values of the overall system. Put another way, we must look for the possibility that all major cultural artefacts and activities contribute, at different levels and in different ways, to the coordination and sustenance of the established system.” (Thomas 1995: 449)
It is no longer the content that counts. As McLuhan puts it, ‘the medium is the message.’ (McLuhan 1964: 7)
Or in other words, ‘the technology is the entertainment […].’(Frith 2000: 204)
Nevertheless, it must be said that culture has never been a pure tool of Enlightenment such as Adorno claimed. Access to its meaning and use was restricted to an audience ‘who has the means to appropriate it, or in other words, to decipher it.’ (Bourdieu 1990: 205) Thus art is not universally understandable, or for the use of all people.
Furthermore, Bourdieu says:
Being an historically constituted system, founded on social reality, this set of instruments of perception […]does not depend upon individual wills and consciousnesses and forces itself upon individuals, often without their knowledge, determining the distinctions which they can make and those which escape them…. (1990: 207)
 ‘A leading member of the “Frankfurt School” of social theory, Theodor W. Adorno is one of the towering intellectual figures of the twentieth century. His account of the modern mass culture industry is one of the cornerstones of his critical theory of society […].’ (Bernstein 1996: I)
 ‘Implicit in this outline is a complex set of requirements for a democratic media system. It should empower people by enabling them to explore where their interest lies; it should foster sectional solidarities and assist the functioning of organizations necessary for the effective representation of collective interests; it should sustain vigilant scrutiny of government and centres of power; it should provide a source of protection and redress for weak and unorganized interests; and it should create the conditions for real societal agreement or compromise based on an open working through of differences rather than a contrived consensus based on elite dominance.’ (Curran 2000: 148)
 ‘This formulation tends to conflate two different things whose separation repays analysis. One is the sources, the creative person, circles, or milieux, in which or by whom critical reason is displayed and exercised, in which science and technologies are developed, and in which sensibility is symbolically evoked and explored. These sources, however, are quite distinct from the media through which they are conveyed to audiences and publics. If this distinction between sources and media is not made clearly, there is a tendency to blur the social marginality of the cultural apparatus, their ideological isolation, and their political awareness. Correspondingly, to emphasize such a distinction is to indicate systematically that the producers of “culture” in modern society cannot communicate their work to mass audiences except by passing through a route controlled by media, and those who control the mass media, the consciousness industry.’ (Gouldner 1990: 310)
 ‘The concept of technique in the culture industry is only in name identical with technique in works of art. In the latter, technique is concerned with the internal organization of the object itself, with its inner logic. In contrast, the technique of the culture industry is, from the beginning, one of distribution and mechanical reproduction, and therefore always remains external to its object. The culture industry finds ideological support precisely in so far as it carefully shields itself from the full potential of the techniques contained in its products. It lives parasitically from the extra-artistic technique of the material production of goods, without regard for the obligation to the internal artistic whole implied by its functionality (Sachlichkeit), but also without concern for the laws of form demanded by aesthetic autonomy. The result for the physiognomy of the culture industry is essentially a mixture of streamlining, photographic hardness and precision on the one hand, and individualistic residues, sentimentality and an already rationally disposed and adapted romanticism on the other.’ (Adorno 1996c: 87)
 ‘The degree of art competence of an agent is measured by the degree to which he masters the set of instruments for the appropriation of the work of art, available at a given time, that is to say the interpretation schemes which are prerequisite for the appropriation of art capital or, in other words, prerequisite for the deciphering of works of art offered to a given society at a particular time’ (Bourdieu 1990: 206)