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Is There a “Lowest Common Denominator” of Aesthetic Preference?

September 25th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

We often hear the phrase “lowest common denominator” used in a pop culture context, particularly in a pejorative or derisory way. Television programming, for example, often is said to appeal to the lowest common denominator, particularly since the advent of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” and unscripted “reality” shows such as “Survivor,” e.g., Maynard, J., “Like Life, but More Interesting,” New York Times (Feb. 29, 2000); Salamon, J., “Evolving Reality TV Tests The Audience’s Endurance,” New York Times (Jul. 7, 2001). While generally it is possible to discern what is meant, the repeated and superficial use of this concept conceals several assumptions. In particular, is it possible to devise a theory of the lowest common denominator, especially as applied to “cultural” phenomena such as aesthetic preference?

I previously have attempted to analyze the convoluted thinking of a now-all-but-forgotten Victorian art critic on this subject, see my post, “Wrestling with Ruskin.” I also have devoted similar attention to the astonishing remarks of a New Frontier regulator who should have known better, see my post, “The Minow and the Whale.” If you’re really interested in this stuff, then please read those posts, too.

A. A Colorful History

“Lowest common denominator” has a colorful social and economic history. The saying “You’ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American Public” generally is attributed to the circus entrepreneur P. T. Barnum (or to Will Rogers, or J. P. Morgan, or H. L. Mencken, or G. B. Shaw, or George S. Kauffman), but in fact the concept dates back to the Roman emperor Augustus. It was the satirist Juvenal, who wrote: “The people who have conquered the world now only have two interests – bread and circus games,” Juvenal, Satire 10.

These circuses were not the same as those promoted by Mr. Barnum. Rather, at the time, they comprised primarily animal fights and gladiatorial combat. Thus, while Juvenal was expressing a normative preference of individuals to gather in stadia such as the Coliseum, he also was commenting on the base or banal nature of the entertainment there provided, implying this was as important and common a factor in uniting the populace as conflict and sustenance.

B. Lowest Common Denominator Algebra

We even can express this proposition in faux set-theory style. Let us postulate that a social group (“SG”) comprises a set of individuals (“I”), each of whom in turn comprises a set of attributes or ascriptive predicates (“AP”). These can be of any nature, be it physical or mental, and they can be determined by any means, be they behavioral observation or self-reporting.

I don’t want to get bogged down with complicated questions like how we know when to apply an ascriptive predicate to another person, or the nuances of self-reporting, particularly when states of consciousness are involved. Rather, with Strawson, I simply want to acknowledge the concept of a person as primitive, Strawson, P. F., Individuals 103 (1959).

The ascriptive predicates of interest to us are those about, regarding or otherwise pertaining to aesthetic preferences (I suppose it is convenient that they both can be abbreviated “AP,” though, of course, aesthetic preferences comprise just one of many different types of ascriptive predicates). Thus,

{AP1, …, APn}∈ I1


{I1, …, In}∈ SG1.

C. Juvenal Parsed

If we let “I” in this instance stand for persons or individuals who are contemporaneous with Juvenal, and if “LCAD” stands for “lowest common aesthetic denominator,” then,

LCAD {“people who have conquered the world”} = I1 ∩ In = {“bread”“bread” ∈ I1, …, “bread” ∈ In] ∩ {“circus games”“circus games” ∈ I1, …, “circus games” ∈ In}.

What is even more interesting about the Juvenal quote, though, is the derogatory or derisory top-spin he puts on the ∩ of these preferences. It is not enough that they are shared by the “people who have conquered the world” (the notion of “sharing” itself epitomizing the concept of ∩). Rather, Juvenal as much as states that some alternative set of ascriptive predicates would be far “preferable,” in a normative sense that he does not identify further.

In this respect, Juvenal may be the first historical instance of the naturalistic fallacy occurring, in a case of aesthetic judgment. We do not know, for example, if this alternative preference set comprises attributes drawn from his own experience (what we might term his own “personal” preferences, or J{AP1, …, APn} where “J” stands for Juvenal); a different sort through I1 ∩ In; or some ethereal (“E”) preference set E{AP1, …, APn}that might not actually be inculcated or instantiated in any real I, i.e., E{AP1, …, APn}∉ {I1, …, In}, but to which we nonetheless should aspire.

If the latter, then we surely have a couple of questions. First, how should this “hypothetical” LCAD be discerned, particularly if it is not expressed in any individual I? Second, what about it is compelling, and why is it worthy of emulation? In short, why should we care?

D. Aesthetic Preferences and Referential Opacity

The set of ascriptive predicates we’re interested in is “aesthetic preference.” Aesthetic preferences (along with several other species of cultural values) have a distinguishing characteristic, which is that sentences expressing them are referentially opaque. For example, in the phrase “I believes that {AP},” it generally is not possible to supplant {AP} with a co-designative term (i.e., one referring to the same thing), because I can believe whatever I wants. Because of this “opacity,” statements about aesthetic preferences are intransitive.

Consider the following propositions:

1. John likes rap music, i.e., a liking of rap music is an ascriptive predicate of John. We might diagram this as {rap music} ∈ {John}.

2. Tupac Shakur is a rap artist, i.e., a member of the set comprised of those artists who perform rap music. {Tupac Shakur} ∈ {rap music}.

3. We therefore might be tempted to conclude that John likes Tupac Shakur, i.e., a liking of rap music performed by Tupac Shakur is an ascriptive predicate of John, or {Tupac Shakur} ∈ {John}.

What if, though – completely unbeknownst to us – John lives in New York, and eschews the “west coast rap” sound of Tupac, in preference to the “east coast rap” sound of the Notorious B.I.G. If this is true, then, most likely, it cannot correctly be inferred that John likes Tupac.

This sort of reference “failure” is a distinguishing characteristic of all statements involving aesthetic preferences. Put slightly differently, your aesthetic preferences may not be mine. Furthermore, even if we are discussing what we think are the same aesthetic issues, we may be talking about different things.

This fundamentally is unlike the following:

1. All of the members of the band “Poison” are hirsute, i.e., if I is a member of the band Poison, then I is hirsute, for all possible values of I; I1 … In {I ∈ Poison} → {hirsuteness} ∈ I.

2. Brett Michaels is a member of the band “Poison,” i.e., {Brett Michaels} ∈ {Poison}.

3. Therefore, we validly may conclude Brett Michaels is hirsute, i.e. hirsuteness is an ascriptive predicate of Brett Michaels, or {hirsuteness} ∈ {Brett Michaels}.

It thus can be seen that substitutivity of identity is the sine qua non of referential transparency. For more on this, see Quine, W., Word and Object 141 (1960); and, Russell, B., An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth 261 (1950).

E. So Just What Is the “Lowest Common Aesthetic Denominator”?

Having thus digressed, we now are in a position to ask, exactly what is the “lowest common aesthetic denominator?” We won’t be using this phrase in its algebraic sense of “highest common factor.” Rather, our concern is its use in the context of social organizations – a problem that, despite our quasi-doodling around, supra, does not admit of an algebraic solution.

I think we can define LCAD as the extent to which, with reference to a particular AP, individuals {I1 … In} are “alike,” or it can be said that they “agree,” or some similar term of correspondence (which itself may have various degrees of precision). Thus,

LCAD(SG1) = I1 ∩ In = {APAP ∈ I1, …, AP ∈ In}.

If such is not the case with respect to any AP, then

I1 ∩ In = Ø.

Next: to what extent does a lowest common denominator aesthetic prevail in today’s cultural milieu; and, what is involved in making that claim?