The fifth week of class was my favorite. We looked at the emerging trends in comics that appeared in the 60s and 70s that have stuck around through today's books. In our assignment, we had define pop culture and determine if it is something that was created in the 1960s.
In the simplest definition, pop culture (pop being short for popular) is about the thoughts and ideas that drive a culture – primarily in the realms of popular arts and entertainment. Pop culture is formed by the trends, sounds, and images that shape the opinions and attitudes of large swaths of a populace.
With that perspective, pop culture could exist in any era of history. In theory the gladiatorial games during the 1st and 2nd century could be deemed pop culture of the era as it was designed to entertain the masses of the Roman Empire. However, in ancient times and through most of the Middle Ages, entertainment was a luxury that was only afforded to a select few. What we could classify as popular during their time would not have been available to anyone with a nomadic lifestyle, or the slaves, the farmers, and the lowest members of society. Culture was reserved for the elite: emperors, kings and queens, and wealthy merchants.
By the time history reaches the Renaissance era, we begin to notice a division of high culture to entertain the aristocrats, and low culture for the commoners. It is during this time that the Catholic Church was commissioning artists like Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni and Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci to create masterpieces of art – paintings and sculptures to adorn St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican and other cathedrals across Europe. Art was paid for by the bishops, cardinals, and popes of the church to shape the culture and to influence the monarchs.
Yet as technology and practices in agriculture, worker’s crafts, and metallurgy improved, coupled with better living conditions and increased health, peasants of the Renaissance era possessed more recreational time than many of their stature in prior generations. They began to seek out their own form of entertainment. While high society would entertain themselves with masquerades and balls, the common people would attend festivals and gather at the tavern. Soon they would find their own version of culture, often venues of entertainment considered too low brow for the upper classes of society. Writers like William Shakespeare (and later Charles Dickens) catered to these lower class tastes – and it is their work that has endured due to their popularity among the poorer and larger segments of culture.
All history considered the term popular culture did not come into use until Dickens’ time. The industrial revolution gave common citizens more spare time, more opportunities for education, and greater desire for entertainment. This gave rise to minstrel shows and vaudeville. Improved technology moved the forms of mass entertainment to radio, magazines, movies, and television. During the first half of the 20th century, comic books began to be an influencing medium of popular culture.
From the folk songs sung in medieval taverns, to the traveling Wild West shows in the American frontier, to Marvel Comics’ first Fantastic Four issue in 1961, the common thread of all pop culture is that it was never intended to entertain the highest echelons of society. Pop culture was always meant to reflect the attitudes and values of the ordinary people, common folks. It was always a dumbed down version of what was available to the upper class.
Clearly, pop culture has existed long before modern times. However, the cultural revolution of the 1960’s transformed how all of society viewed pop culture. During the sixties, pop culture was mainstreamed more than it ever had been before. Certain elements found simultaneous success as both high and low culture. The creators and innovators of pop culture began to be more influential. Through Beatlemania, artists like Andy Warhol, filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, and the musicians who performed in front of 400,000 people at Woodstock, the art and ideas of pop culture were at the forefront of shaping history.
What makes the sixties unique when looking at modern pop culture is the decade’s lasting impact. If you trace the lines of who influenced who, most musicians can point to The Beatles (either directly or indirectly) as their inspiration. Today’s directors can trace their influences to movies from Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, Alfred Hitchcock and their work from the sixties. Current comic books (and the related cinematic universes) owe their heritage to the teamwork between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at Marvel, and the revival of the Justice League of America at DC during the sixties.
More than any other era of history, the sixties have left a bigger footprint. Many of the legendary figures we see in the movies, watch on TV, and read in comic books have roots in the revolutionary culture of the sixties.