Culture Mashing

“Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

Attributed to Pablo Picasso – stolen by Steve Jobs
In this sociology primer by Crash Course, presenter Nicole Sweeney explores the concepts of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and makes the important distinction that these terms are not synonymous with ‘good’ and ‘bad.’

Sampling, mash-ups, redubs and collages are more popular than ever in today’s digital world – but they are hardly a ‘new’ phenomenon. In the 1960’s, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin popularised the use of decoupage or cut-ups as a creative technique that played with words, sounds and images. And in the 1966 movie “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” Woody Allen re-dubbed a Japanese spy film, turning it into a story about a quest to make the greatest egg salad in the world.

In the 1980s, hip-hop musicians often employed sampling, which is the use of someone else’s musical hooks or refrains in your own original tracks. This might lead to legal battles – one of which went all the way to America’s Supreme Court, which ruled in 1994 that sampling may not always count as copyright infringement. Ten years later, artist Danger Mouse mixed together the work of two other artists; Jay Z’s Black Album with samples from The Beatles’ White album. He called his creation The Grey Album. More recently, the DJ Girl Talk has become well known for the ‘musical collages’ he creates from snippets of other people’s songs. These days, new developments in technology, easily available material and ubiquitous internet access have made sampling and cutting-and-pasting easy enough for any amateur to do. The internet is full of mash-ups, remixes, homages, parodies, fan-edits and fan-made films starring beloved IPs (intellectual properties).

In the literary world, fan fiction is a genre of writing which takes as its basis a canon of original material – most often popular books, films, or TV series – and expands the story according to the reader’s desire of what might, could, or should happen inside the fictional world. Fans who are invested in the source material seek to expand the narrative universe and share their personal creations with other fans through online forums, websites or blogs.

Although a lot of this material can be inane, childish or sloppily done, there are also lots of fascinating mash-ups, remixes, parodies and fan-fictions on the internet that are not only clever and inventive, but meticulously created. However high the quality, though, they do raise important ethical questions about art and appropriation. To understand the twin phenomena of culture mashing and fan fiction, choose one or two articles from the lists below and have a go at the activities in this section:

Reading Challenge

This is a longer and more challenging piece of reading, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:

Class Activity 1 : Isn’t this just copying?

‘Caution: Canyon Ahead’ is a piece of mash-up art by David Nestler featuring icons and characters from two sources blended together to create something fresh and new.

Adaptation and intertextuality can take many forms. Do you recognise and can you define: repurposing, imitation, parody, pastiche, spoof, allusion, plagiarism, homage or mash-up? Look at these paired texts and identify which is which.

Class Activity 2: Culture mashing

High culture refers to the amusement, leisure activities, reading habits, tastes and preferences of a society’s elite, defined by advanced education, personal power and economic success. Popular culture is the same thing – but for the majority of people in society (standard education, limited power and less economic success). Think about food as an example. Do you like to eat burgers, pizza, curries, kebabs, noodles and other ‘popular’ dishes? Or do you prefer foie gras, escargot, oysters, marrow, or foods with exotic sounding names and unusual origins? The second list tends to be more expensive – so people with more economic success tend to consume these in order to project their success through the restaurants they choose. Now, think about the live music events that you might attend. Do you go to a small gig, listen to folk, pop or rock ‘n’ roll? These events tend to be open, friendly, welcoming – and cheap (often folk music events are free). Or do you like to listen to classical, opera, or jazz? These events tend to be highly produced, involved larger numbers of performers, are almost always performed in large theatres or exclusive clubs – and are expensive to attend. High culture can be defined as culture that excludes the mass of people, because in order to participate one needs to have a certain amount of economic ‘clout’.

The study of high and popular culture involves the study of the things people say and do – how they use culture – in order to open doors or set up barriers with other people in order to say things about themselves: this is who I am, this is who I am not. When things get really interesting is when people try to break down barriers by mixing elements of high culture and popular culture together in a meeting of different art forms. This mixing often involves taking a piece of culture that is exclusive – reserved for the few to enjoy, whether because of price, location, sophistication or taste – and mixing it up in some way so that it becomes more popular.

Examine and identify the elements of these texts (settings, colours, characters, postures, symbols, words and so on) that come from high culture sources and those that come from popular culture. Do you recognise the ‘high-brow’ elements and the ‘low-brow’ elements?

Discussion Points

After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:

  1. What are the ethical and legal implications of fan fiction? Should people be allowed to write stories using someone else’s characters and set them in an existing fictional world? If you were a musician, how would you react to another musician or DJ using your licensed hooks as a sample? How about an artist who’s creative motifs appear in another artist’s work? What are the arguments for and against? Where do you stand?
  2. Is it true that many cultural experiences are locked behind ‘paywalls’ of different kinds? What is your personal experience of trying to access art or culture? What examples exist of culture being shared for free? Should the general public be expected to pay for certain cultural or artistic experiences? Why or why not?
  3. Supporters of fan fiction argue that it is an important creative outlet for diverse and counter-culture representation. Do you think there is enough alternative representation in popular culture? Does modern mainstream media feature enough eg black heroes, parts for disabled actors, stories about older people, same-sex relationships and so on?

Learner Portfolio: write a fan-fic

This is one for all you budding writers out there. Create your own fan fiction story. Choose a character from a popular book, movie or TV show and write your own story about the further adventure of this character. Share your story with your classmates, enter it into your Learner Portfolio – and, if you’re really brave, publish it online or in a fan fiction forum and see what other readers make of your work.

Alternatively, you could create your own mash-up in any form that mixes elements of high and popular culture. This could be a mixed media piece, a collage, a work of art, a piece of writing, photography – even a song that you have written or covered. Share your creation with your classmates and write a reflection which you can enter in your Learner Portfolio.

Body of Work: Mr Brainwash

“Art is freedom and you can do it any way you want. I can take a bottle and put it on top of this table and say this is art. If I believe it, it’s art for me, and it can be art for other people.”

Thierry Guetta (aka Mr Brainwash)
Follow Your Dreams: composite of some of Mr Brainwash’s famous pieces. How many pop culture allusions can you find and identify in this piece?

Mr. Brainwash is the alias of enigmatic French street artist Thierry Guetta. He rose to fame in 2010 after his collaboration with Banksy, a British street artist, on the award-winning documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop (which I highly recommend you watch as part of the study of this body of work). His debut exhibition was in 2008. Called Life is Beautiful, it was a critical and commercial success. On the back of his rising popularity, eminent singer Madonna asked him to create the cover for her new album, Celebration. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

Mr. Brainwash creates pieces of art that collide the genres of street art and pop art. His work resembles famous pop artist Andy Warhol, who is one of his major influences. One of his signature themes is the replication of famous faces and contemporary icons: for example Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin or iconic symbols from other street artists like Banksy. Through recycling images and repeating motifs, Mr Brainwash aims to create art for everybody that can be experienced anywhere.

However. not everybody is convinced of the value of Mr. Brainwash’s art. His artwork uses copyrighted images from popular culture, history, and art history. Subtly altering the context of the image or the original source material, the artist mischievously undermines its tone, sometimes through juxtaposition, allusion, mash-ups or other technique – but often through barely concealed imitation. Just check out his ‘homage’ to Andy Warhol’s 1984 artwork Flowers (Mr. Brainwash calls his piece Flowarh$ ) to make up your own mind about this. Here is a selection of pieces by Mr Brainwash that you can use as a Body of Work.

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

A piece of art by Thierry Guetta (aka Mr Brainwash) would be a creative choice to bring into this activity. Here are two suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks:

  • Field of Inquiry: Culture, Community and Identity
  • Global Issue: The Accessibility of Art and Culture
  • Rationale:

In this unit you have learned that art has an economic as well as aesthetic dimension. What kind of art and culture one ‘consumes’ depends to some extent on what one can afford, especially if works of art or cultural experiences are placed in venues that are not accessible without purchasing an entrance ticket. And while Mr Brainwash began his career as a street artist, meaning his work could be viewed for free, it’s ironic that after his show Life is Beautiful in 2008, his work began to sell for tens of thousands of dollars a piece.

  • Field of Inquiry: Art, Creativity and Imagination
  • Global Issue: The Creative Impulse
  • Rationale:

If you watched Exit Through the Gift Shop, you will have seen and heard Mr Brainwash, as well as other street artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey, try to explain the impulses behind their guerilla art. While each artist has their own creative drives and impulses, common themes include sending a counter-culture or anti-capitalist message and the simple desire to ‘make a mark’ and express oneself. Mr Brainwash began his journey by simply following street artists with a camera – even he struggled to explain the reasons for his actions. You could use this body of work to explore this issue in an interesting individual oral talk.

possible Literary pairings
  • George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion – when Liza first approaches Henry Higgins to ask for elocution lessons, Mrs Pearce’s first reaction is to shoo her away. What interest could Liza possibly hold for a man of Higgins’ talents and social position. Shaw goes on to show that, despite her poverty, Liza is a quick as any member of the upper class – and, with Higgins’ help, she is able to infiltrate an upper class social event where we see she’s a lot smarter than any of the ladies and gentlemen there.
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sjie – in this short novel, the Little Seamstress is brought up in a remote village in the mountains of Sichuan. Under Mao’s regime, works of art, Western books and classic Chinese literature are all prohibited. However, when she is able to access the novels of Balzac, Sijie shows how the seamstress grows and changes beyond anybody’s expectations.
  • Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife – in the first poem of her collection, a young girl ventures into the lair of the big bad wolf. Her motive? The treasure trove of golden books he keeps hidden there. In this poem, these works of literature are the key to Little Red Cap’s intellectual coming-of-age.
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – in this famous play, the island of Belmont is synonymous with art, culture and music – so much so that Portia is able to use music to influence her suitors’ choice of casket. If they choose correctly, they will win her hand in marriage. The play also presents a widely believed stereotype of the time: that those who cannot appreciate music have minds fit only for cruelty and stratagems.
  • J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians – the unnamed magistrate who is the protagonist of this novel has a strong desire to write the history of his remote settlement on the edge of a mighty empire. You can explore his impulse to write down the truth in a talk about the creative impulse of street artists like Mr Brainwash.

Wider Reading and Research


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