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Free Content From cultural populism to cool capitalism

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During the 1980s, cultural studies in Britain – and elsewhere – took an uncritical populist turn. The field of study had hitherto focused, with a distinctly oppositional orientation, upon the arts, popular and mass culture as sites of ideological contestation. Yet, increasing concern with describing and indeed celebrating processes of cultural consumption – the active audience, resistance through rituals etc. – lost sight of economic and political struggle over the circulation of culture in society. This cultural populist tendency became less concerned with questioning the status quo and unwittingly, in effect, endorsed neo-liberal development over the past thirty years. Mainstream cultural studies thus ceased to be a critical means of analysing the present cultural condition and tended, instead, to identify itself with it. That was possible because the prevailing culture was incorporating the very kind of dissent that cultural studies as a field of research and education had sought to support and foster. The prevailing culture today is characterized in this article as cool capitalism. Tracing the historical transmogrification of the meaning of ‘cool’, the article presents the concept of cool capitalism – the incorporation of disaffection into capitalism itself – and examines its origins in African-American culture, and its incorporation and neutralization over time, in order to characterize the most pronounced features of mainstream culture around the world today. In conclusion, the article calls for a renewal of critique in the public interest that applies multidimensional analysis to a wide range of issues. The analytical purpose is to account adequately for the ontological complexity of cultural circulation in various symbolic, economic, political and ecological contexts under neo-liberal capitalism. In this respect it aims to clarify the object of contestation for critical cultural intervention in the public sphere.

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Keywords: cool; cool capitalism; cultural populism; multidimensional analysis; neo-liberalism; public interest

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Loughborough University

Publication date: 01 January 2011

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  • Art & the Public Sphere provides a new platform for academics, artists, curators, art historians and theorists whose working practices are broadly concerned with contemporary art's relation to the public sphere. The journal presents a crucial examination of contemporary art's link to the public realm, offering an engaged and responsive forum in which to debate the newly emerging series of developments within contemporary thinking, society and international art practice.
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