New technologies and media
Art, politics, and culture have been with us almost as long as death and taxes, but it is the media which determines the “means of production” and dictates, in large part, what it will be possible to create. There were actors before the advent of film and television; musicians before the recording studio; classical “realist” portrait painters before photography; and writers before the computer or even the humble typewriter. But a cave artist had a more limited toolbox than a Renaissance master with a rich palette of paints and canvas did, or a pop artist like Warhol who used silkscreen technologies to more striking effect than the mere wielding of a brush.
A medieval scribe would have a more rarefied and elitist readership than the modern novelist or screenwriter, and his creations would take much more time to produce or reproduce for a “mass” audience to boot.
“The (mass) media is the message”
One of the hallmarks of modernism was the freedom the artist had to explore and even help invent the rapidly emerging mass media, along with the fact that our media, in turn, became more and more of a “mass” and democratic one. The classical university education of centuries past included a knowledge of Latin topped off with a post-grad European grand tour, but this was available to only a select, privileged few. A modern university education became available to thousands, and then millions more; Latin now exists mostly as a curiosity save for the words that derived from its ancient roots into our modern lexicon; and modern air travel makes the European tour accessible to those of even modest means and frequent flyer miles.
Modern art of the century past was nevertheless relatively elitist, particularly in its earlier years, as “high” art was often not yet marketable to the “average,” untutored and "uncultured" citizen of the day. The poetry of Ezra Pound, with its arcane references to classical mythology and Latin phraseology; the stream of consciousness of Virginia Woolf; the subtle intricacies in instrumentation and composition of Mahler; and the first ventures into cubism by Picasso were much more the product of an artistic elite class, and “needed” interpretation by critics who could decipher its intricacies “properly.”
But as new technologies developed, media became more available to those of all classes, and thus popular culture took full flower with the advent of radio, film, and television. Some classicists and high modernists might have looked askance at the “low,” more democratic art forms of television and popular film, but technology soon rendered it an unstoppable force, and the public rapidly evolved into the most powerful “critics” in the lucrative new mass media “marketplace,” where millions could now readily “consume,” interpret, and evaluate a new or old cultural “product” with the click of a remote. No university degree or mastery of foreign languages or knowledge of art history was necessary; one need only have eyes and ears (and later, only a p.c. and a modicum of manual dexterity) to access and “thumbs up/down” the attractively packaged, heavily advertised offerings of the brave new cultural world in one’s own individual way.