Tag Archives: Max Horkheimer

The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. An essay by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (1944)


How this research affects my creative work

Since I began studying with OCA understanding and examining our social reality has become an interesting and ultimately important subject area requiring a multi-disciplinary approach encompassing historical and contemporary studies, economic and political understanding as well as an interest in people and society. It is intrinsic to developing an understanding of our identities and our sense of being and as such I see it as an extremely important and unavoidable medium for informing my creative work.

Introduction and background

This is a highly significant essay in cultural sociology studies presenting a critical analysis of the capitalist organisation of cultural mass production in modern Western societies. The text examines the impact of this system and who’s purpose it serves. The topics of people and society have been the subject of several of my assignments previously and I am keen to deepen my critical awareness to ensure that my creative work is well read, informed and robust in theoretical information and content.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno were important members of what became known as the Frankfurt School, a group of German scholars and artists formed as the Institute for Social Research from the 1920s. Their multi-disciplinary works included aesthetics, economics, sociology, psychology and were developments of Marxist ideologies on capitalism and mass industry and production discussing rationalisation and exploitation in twentieth century western countries.

My interest in the Frankfurt School initially came about after viewing John Heartfield’s photomontages on permanent display at the Tate Modern (see here) and after reading John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing (1972) which makes significant reference to another essay published by the Frankfurt School which I subsequently read in full “The Art in the age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin. (see here)

What does the essay say?

“For Horkheimer and Adorno, when art and entertainment are commodified for the mass market in concentrated, rationalised businesses, culture becomes formulaic, commercialised, imaginatively limited, and critically stunted; and audiences became passive, conformist, and uncritical. True individuality is absorbed, true human needs are repressed, and even intimacy is reified.” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1997: P45)

The system has become so ubiquitous and embedded in society that independence from it’s purpose and structure is impossible. Any fringe activities are labelled as independent or up and coming and, similar to public tastes and attitudes, are as much a part of the system that they either gain organisation from or seek to join or participate in. Any genuinely individual outputs are co-opted by the system and all genuinely subversive activities are subject to censorship and termination.

Those interested parties controlling the economic power and capital in turn affect and own objective social tendencies and therefore the creative industries, “cannot afford to neglect their appeasement of the real holders of power if their sphere of activity in mass society is not to undergo a series of purges.” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1997:P40)

We as consumers are effectively organised, categorised, indexed – no one (need) escape as there is something for everybody. Cars, magazines, clothing brands, fast food outlets all offer specific mass product propositions to specific socio-economic groups which cater for every individual taste and fashion manufactured by the culture industry. This process is so cynical that the price of the specific product bears no relation to the product in it’s own right, it relates purely to consumer demand and the ability to pay.

The authors argue that the artlessness of mass culture is rationalised by claims that the culture industry is indeed a business but which has to all intense purposes replaced religion as the dominant ideology, guiding light and binding structure for the individual within society.

We accept the leisure options on offer and we don’t need to decide or think as it is already done for us and whilst the experience which is, “to all appearances planned by those who serve up the data of the experience, that is, by the culture industry, it is infact forced upon the latter (consumer) by the power of society, which remains irrational, however we might try to rationalise it” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1997:41)

The product or content in essence never changes the details are interchangeable. There may be an upgrade or development but apart from that basic change or replacement we are completely familiar with the start middle and end of all products and this is a warm and comforting sensation in itself more relevant than the actual product or work.

Think of the James Bond movie franchise disrupted only by a periodic change in lead actor or the advancement of film production technologies resulting in an end product itself a virtual duplicate of the previous movie produced.

The whole world is seen through the lens of the culture industry and life has become indistinguishable from the movies which are so action packed we have no time (or need) to think. As we have built up such a vast shared index of these cultural images we can react automatically and, “Just like the career of a successful man into which everything is made to fit as an illustration or proof, whereas it is nothing more than a sum of all idiotic events. The so-called dominant idea is like a file which ensures order but no coherence. “ (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1997:42) But we feel gratified and content, that we got the ending of the film right.

Mechanical reproduction has created a new religion as it is now mass culture taking us from work to home and back to work again. This total system is based upon repetition satisfying manufactured needs, tastes and fashions called culture.

Culture has become the entertainments industry and as the main and only leisure on offer it must be easy to consume in order to offer sufficient rest to allow the worker to undertake another hard day’s repetitive office or factory labour. So pleasure becomes easy becomes boring requiring no thought or effort from the audience who become subservient or worse still repressed.

“The culture industry perpetually cheats it’s customers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged; the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusionary: all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu. In front of the appetite stimulated by all those brilliant names and images there is finally set up no more than a commendation of the depressing everyday world it sought to escape.” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1997:44)

Even fun and laughter are artificially induced as entertainment is designed to be fun and social power dictates that you have to enjoy yourself. Think of the studio canned laughter or a day at an amusement park. But at least we still have the freedom to choose, “from what is always the same,” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1997: 44/45)


Horkheimer, M and Adorno, T (1944) ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ In: Spillman, L (ed.) Cultural Sociology (1997). London: Wiley-Blackwell. pp 39-46.