Being popular means getting noticed by many. Popularity is measured as well as staged. Rankings and charts provide information on what is popular while vying for popularity themselves. They do not speak to the quality or originality of the popular, only to its evident success across different scales of evaluation. Even the ‘unpopular’ can be popular. The popular modifies whatever it affords with attention. Its quantitatively and hierarchically comparative terms generate valences that do not inhere in the objects themselves. Conversely, the non-popular, which does not find any measurable resonance in these terms, risks being dismissed as irrelevant or worthless simply because it does not appear in any rankings or ratings.
The CRC proposes the following central hypothesis: The transformations of the popular, which began in Europe around 1800 and introduced the powerful distinction between low culture and high culture, establish a competing distinction between the popular and the non-popular becoming dominant over the course of the 20th century. As a result, the popular is no longer either culture of the ‘lower classes’ or the inclusion of the ‘people’ in the interest of higher aims. The popular today is hardly the object of desired transgressions or an expression of felt or feared “massification” or “flattening”. It has, in fact, become an inescapable condition of cultural self-understanding in the globalised present. High culture has come under increasing pressure to justify its nonpopularity or to popularise its alleged elitism. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly difficult to explain why something that is popular should not deserve attention.
The CRC identifies two decisive transformations that have led to this condition:
The popularisation of quantifying methods to measure attention in popular culture around 1950;
The popularization of the Internet around 2000, which partially limited the ability of established media institutions to act as gatekeepers for what could and could not become popular; this is now increasingly decided via social media.
The CRC examines these transformations of the popular in three research areas:
A) Pop: Aesthetic forms and practices that distance themselves from the meanings and customs of high culture and need no justification beyond the attention they attract.
B) Popularisation: Strategies for the dissemination of expertise and high culture, whose aim is to be noticed by many and whose justification after 1950 consists predominantly in their successful attraction of attention, which is verified by ratings that are themselves staged and popularised.
C) Populisms: Conflict communication within the dissemination of the popular that arises when institutions assert resilience, resistance, or accommodation to unwanted but popular critique.