What constitutes popular culture is debated, and the definition that one chooses influences the interpretations one makes about popular culture. Popular culture may be said to be represented by those objects and icons that are recognizable to a large number of people but that have not yet passed into the social canon. When something becomes part of the social canon, it becomes part of the norms, rules, and expectations of the members of a society. For example, one may argue that a famous basketball player is part of popular culture, because he is widely recognized, but that the player is not part of the social canon, because he is not a model of conduct or historical example, as are such figures as Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., or a living president. The borders between popular culture and canonical culture are clearly quite fluid, and precise definition is impossible. Some art, in fact, has as its theme the ease with which images and cultural references can shuttle between canonical culture and popular culture.
Many critics make a distinction between popular culture and mass culture. When this distinction is made, “mass culture” is used to describe popular culture materials that have been appropriated by commercial interests. This is often a circular process, with commercial interests producing objects and images that are adopted by groups as cultural icons, which in turn are further exploited by commercial interests. An example is the artist Andy Warhol’s using a commercial image, the Campbell’s soup can, in his art, and then the art’s being printed on shirts,...
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