The Frankfurt School was born during a delicate period. In between the two great wars as well as a consolidation of capitalism as the main economic model in western society. Nevertheless, the school introduced some of the most traditional ideas within sociology. One of their greatest inspirations was Marx’s critique of economy and society, therefore, we can say their philosophy is neo-Marxist.
Critical theory is the method of social study developed by the school. It presents important differences from traditional theory, as clarified by Horkheimer himself. Traditional theory is made of observation, experimentation, analysis and construction of a hypothesis. Critical theory, on the other hand, works in order “to create the world which satisfies the needs and power” of human beings, it means the idea of human emancipation. (Horkheimer, 1972) This can be obtained by observing society, noting what is wrong, identify factors which need to be changed and therefore creating social transformation.
At the time, critical theorists saw in the cultural forces of society – such as media and art – facilitators of domination and manipulation and barriers to true freedom. Critical theorists are essentially progressivists. They firmly believe society will always be in need of changes and restructuring. The critique back then was one which media and culture were going through what Frankfurt scholars defined as ‘commodification’ process; i.e. a piece of art would be nothing more than a tool to expand capitalist systems.
Albeit being founded almost a hundred years ago, the fundaments of critical theory are still present – and are just as relevant. Important examples to be pointed out are feminist approaches to social issues, gender/queer theory, vegetarian/vegan theory, post-colonial criticism. Interpreting these causes, we can note they tend to be the motivation of ‘left’and progressives political parties.
Yet, the lack of optimism in their analysis might consist a flaw when discussing the Frankfurt school approach to media and culture nowadays. It is clear and evident the point the theorists tried to make at the time: the absolute domination of capitalism, especially in the cultural and artistic sector. Still, it might have been the case the ‘standardisation’ and recurrence of cultural elements brought opportunities for different talents to shine and create a counter movement. If anything, it seems to me that the generalised culture created a new market – the independent industry itself. It presents as an alternative to the mainstream, giving the audience a different perspective of art and entertainment. And to be fair, the ‘indie’ art has been very successful and influent as well.
Adorno, Th. & Horkheimer, M. (1997) Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso
Adorno, T. (1991) The Culture Industry: Selected essays on Mass Culture. London: Routledge
Horkheimer, M. Traditional and Critical Theory