Popular Culture. Visual Arts

Published 23 Dec 2016


The term popular culture is beset with various degrees of complexities. This basically stems from that popular denotes a variety of meaning, interpretations and representations. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that culture is also characterized by the same degree of complexities. If one has to take a closer look, it can be seen that scholars and members of the academe would often go on a heated debate on how to contextualize popular culture in terms of its impacts and consequences. Thus, popular culture, generally speaking becomes a vague, if not too ambivalent concept. The fusion of the two terms seem to create (chaos) not only within the academic field, but also with the manner in which it is consumed and used by the public. What is popular cannot be described as something that is popular and vice versa. Oftentimes, the conflicts occur when something that is widely acknowledged and consumed is questioned regarding its cultural contributions and how it affects the inpidual’s concept of reality.

Popular culture is manifested in our everyday lives. It continues to infiltrate each and every household. From films, music, wardrobe and visual arts, popular culture is evident. Popular culture is like oxygen that consistently permeates the four walls of our respective community. Because of the seemingly pervasive characteristic of popular culture, images, texts and symbols that are created within this domain often clashed to objects that are regarded as “high art.” The products of popular culture continues to question and transform the canons and norms that high art has established. Thus, it would not come as a surprise if popular culture are described as manifestations of “low art.” Coupled with mass appeal and glamor, this further subjects popular culture into a derogatory stance.

The authenticity and legitimacy of popular culture is frequently criticized and questioned. This is most especially as for the case of visual arts. The notion that popular culture has to submit to mass appeal and mass productions seem to delimits the capability of an object to be considered as an authentic work of art. In the Middle East, there is a constant struggle to further improve and present more creativity when it comes to visual arts. This is something that is rather expected since visual arts, or any forms of art for that matter are expression of ones culture and identity. In relation to this essay, the central themes of the discussion aims at contextualizing how popular culture has affected visual arts in the Middle East.

It is also the goal of this essay to tackle issues that are related to class and how they are seen in the Middle East’s popular art. The manner in which these work of arts are delivered and consumed by the public shall be taken into consideration. But most importantly, the essay wishes to elucidate how western orientations of both popular culture and popular art affects the visual art territory of the Middle East.

Popular Culture and Popular Art

The moment that popular images were used as central themes of art, it has never failed to (shock) or (amaze) both skeptics, critics, art afficionados and art scholars (“Popular Culture”). Once and for all, (ordinary) images now have a place in museums and galleries. It is quite an unlikely phenomenon since never did anyone imagine that Warhol’s Campbell Soups would be intricately analyzed as if someone is trying to decode the hidden messages and concepts of the Monalisa (“Popular Culture”). Indeed, popular culture has evaded from what is already established and tried to make a name for itself (“Popular Culture”). Although, there are instances wherein canonical views of art are still manifested and expressed, these are rather modified and transformed, so that the only thing that remains is high art’s influence, yet a new masterpiece is created.

Popular culture or popular art for that matter contains several distinct features. These are mainly characterized by the manner in which these works of art are produced and delivered to the audience. Popular art, is readily targeted for wide audiences (“Popular Culture”). As the term popular suggests, it must be widely recognized and acknowledged by the selective public. Something which is intrinsically unique and artistically defined may not necessarily fall under popular art’s category unless it catches the attention of the majority (“Popular Culture”). Take note, that the term “majority” rather than “all” is used. Popular art is also “transient” (“Popular Culture”).

By transient this means that it (temporarily) provides solutions to persisting demands and needs (“Popular Culture”). Since it is transient, it would not come as a surprise if popular art is also “expendable (“Popular Culture”). It is easily replaced by other emerging forms of art and therefore experiences difficulty of attaining some sort of “immortality” that are present in classic works (“Popular Culture”). In order to be popular, popular art is “mass produced (“Popular Culture”).” If the public would continue to have an insatiable demand for such work of art and if the number of consumers steadily increases, popular art should be readily available for access and consumption (“Popular Culture”).

Generally speaking, popular art is delivered to the youth (“Popular Culture”). This basically explains why popular culture and youth culture are interdependent to each other. The purchasing power of young audiences and its voracious appetite for popular art remains unmatched (“Popular Culture”). Lastly, popular art should be readily flavored by glitter and glamour in order to sustain and maintain audience acknowledgement (“Popular Culture”).

Popular Art in the Middle East

Benin and Stork argued that popular culture in the Middle East extends beyond presenting famous icons and celebrities, renowned music and folklore (253). According to the two, popular culture has prompted both religious and political leaders to create their own art and express their views and sentiments. This is most especially true in times wherein the region is beset with political upheavals and stability. More often than not, religious assertions become political and vice versa (Benin & Stork 253). Benin and Stork used the incident in Iran wherein visual images and artworks that go against war and imperialism proliferated.

Art works that show protest and readily contests the upcoming struggles scattered like falling leaves in the said region. It can be fairly seen that in this case popular art is basically utilized for propaganda purposes. This argument is also supported by Jankowski and Gershoni, who asserted that popular art in the Middle East is basically a promotion of ones identity and culture which were readily lost primarily because of the arrival of western ideologies (xxv). The neocolonial perception that has been adopted by Middle East citizens continue to hamper the later from discovering and rediscovering their roots and origins (Nguyen & Tu 222).

The Politics of Popular Art

Based from the above-given explanations, popular art within the context of popular culture in the Middle East does not really succumb to the stereotypical view of being a product of low art. Popular art, in this aspect, becomes a representation and expression of nationalistic ideals and opinions. Popular art then symbolizes the need for a national reconstruction which is overtly manifested in times of social injustice and other related dilemmas. There is the intention to share, to reconnect to every Middle East citizen to be involved. Although, these art forms are used by certain religious groups and organizations, their themes and meanings do not fall short for one to consider its legitimacy and authenticity as an art form.

The religious notions and aims maybe coupled with romanticism, but then again, the political side of the matter is still very apparent. Something that is personal is also political. Therefore, if religion is seen as embodiments of personal convictions, then, the politics that is embedded on it, which in return is manifested through popular art are still very visible. Except that during social crises, these convictions become more felt and manifested.

On the other hand, the nationalistic side of popular art does not simply stop on asserting freedom from plain imperialism and injustice. It cannot be denied that such has been also used as a tool to bring back the life and vigor of their very own culture and identity. More often than not, the western thoughts tend to kill ones notion of tradition and identiy by constantly offering western themes and ideas. These aspects are rather imposed and reinforced through the use of mass media. While these scenarios are often manifested in various kinds of media content, these are also presented in popular art. Thus popular art, in the Middle East context presents new meanings which neither reflects the Middle East scope of truth and reality.


Popular art in the Middle East is a reflection of ones search for truth, identity and freedom. At the same time, whether it is used for propaganda purposes, this does not contest its validity as an art form. Rather, what happens is that the issues of the community, which readily matters to Middle East citizens, are articulated and expressed. Popular art, needs to be popular, so that the barriers created by social classes and status, in relation to analyzing popular art are abolished. Popular art producers needed to connect to majority of the audience in order to let their convictions be known and at the same time, promote a common good.

Works Cited

  • Benin, Joe and Joe Stork.Political Islam: Essays from the Middle East Report. IB Tauris: London, 1997
  • Jankowski, James and I. Gershoni. Rethinking Nationalism in the Arab Middle East. New York :Columbia University Press, 1997
  • Nguyen, Mimi and Thuy Linh Tu. Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian America. USA: Duke University Press, 2007
  • “Popular Culture” University of Calgary. Retrieved 26 March 2008
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