the advent of the printing press, broadcast technology and the digital era in general. We
interact with popular culture daily through radio, WiFi, television and personal digital media
devices like MP3 players, iPads, Blackberries and cellular phones. Images and art are
everywhere we look from billboards to clothes to computer screens to the products on our
It wasn’t always this way; for most of human existence, popular culture was not a part of
everyday life. For instance, Europeans, until the renaissance, had none of this. The spaces they
lived and worked in were virtually image-free. That is, unless they were part of the aristocracy
who, in their palaces and assembly halls, hung tapestries, paintings and sculptures. This was the
era before public art, museums and galleries. Even public murals were not common.
It was not until the 15th century, with the invention of woodblock prints and the ability to
reproduce images that art became “portable” and this led to its proliferation in public spaces.
But the propagation of public images did not fully occur until the eighteenth century thanks in
part to the revolutions across Europe which resulted in the public ownership of royal art
collections and the introduction of offset lithography printing which increased the precision of
printing at the same time as lowering the cost.
Previous to these technological advancements and social shifts the only place the public came
into contact with visual art was in places of worship:
The church or temple was not only the most notable piece of architecture around; it also
concentrated in a single place all the sculpture, painting, mosaic work, tapestry and metallurgy
available to the public eye. Churches and temples were in effect the first museums. Consider,
for example, the Gothic cathedral, with its array of side chapels, each containing some
combination of statues, paintings, carvings, reredoses, tombs, baptismal fonts and sacristies.
(From Luc Sante, “Triumph of Images,” New York Times Magazine (September 19, 1999), 66)
Similarly, before Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 the only “recorded” music
available was in the form of mechanical musical instruments such as the player piano, music
box, barrel organ or musical clock.
To hear music in a public space was to hear it performed live and in Europe and North America
most Christian church services would have served as one of the dominant locations of musical
contact for the masses.
While the European case was pretty much the norm around the world concerning popular
culture, there were notable differences. For instance, enslaved Africans who were brought to
the Americas during the colonial period carried musical traditions with them that began in
Africa; for West Africans music was ever-present and accompanied daily life. While enslaved
Africans in the New World were initially denied entry into Euro-American houses of worship,
their songs hinted at the deep connection between expressive culture and spirituality that is
found in African diasporic music such as spirituals, gospel, reggae, and R & B.