Culture as Crime

The notion of "culture as crime" denotes the reconstruction of cultural enterprise as criminal endeavor–through, for example, the public labeling of popular culture products as criminogenic, or the criminalization of cultural producers through media or legal channels. In contemporary society, such reconstructions pervade popular culture and transcend traditional "high" and "low" cultural boundaries.

Art photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Jock Sturges, for example, have faced highly orchestrated campaigns accusing them of producing obscene or pornographic images; in addition, an art center exhibiting Mapplethorpe's photographs was indicted on charges of "pandering obscenity," and Sturges's studio was raided by local police and the FBI (Dubin 1992). Punk and heavy metal bands, and associated record companies, distributors, and retail outlets, have encountered obscenity rulings, civil and criminal suits, high-profile police raids, and police interference with concerts.

Performers, producers, distributors, an d retailers of rap and "gangsta rap" music have likewise faced arrest and conviction on obscenity charges, legal confiscation of albums, highly publicized protests, boycotts, hearings organized by political figures and police officials, and ongoing media campaigns and legal proceedings accusing them of promoting–indeed, directly causing–crime and delinquency (Hamm & Ferrell 1994).

More broadly, a variety of television programs, films, and cartoons have been targeted by public campaigns alleging that they incite delinquency, spin off "copy-cat" crimes, and otherwise serve as criminogenic social forces (Ferrell 1998, Nyberg 1998). These many cases certainly fall within the purview of cultural criminology because the targets of criminalization–photographers, musicians, television writers, and their products–are "cultural" in nature, but equally so because their criminalization itself unfolds as a cultural process.

When contemporary culture personas and performances are criminalized, they are primarily criminalized through the mass media, through their presentation and re-presentation as criminal in the realm of sound bites, shock images, news conferences, and newspaper headlines. This mediated spiral, in which media-produced popular culture forms and figures are in turn criminalized by means of the media, leads once again into a complex hall of mirrors.

It generates not only images, but images of images–that is, attempts by lawyers, police officials, religious leaders, media workers, and others to craft criminalized images of those images previously crafted by artists, musicians, and film makers. Thus, the criminalization of popular culture is itself a popular, and cultural, enterprise, standing in opposition to popular culture less than participating in it, and helping to construct the very meanings and effects to which it allegedly responds.

Given this, cultural criminologists have begun to widen the notion of "criminalization" to include more than the simple creation and application of criminal law. Increasingly, they investigate the larger process of "cultural criminalization" (Ferrell 1998:80-82), the mediated reconstruction of meaning and perception around issues of culture and crime. In some cases, this cultural criminalization stands as an end in itself, successfully dehumanizing or delegitimating those targeted, though no formal legal charges are brought against them.

In other cases, cultural criminalization helps construct a perceptual context in which direct criminal charges can more easily follow. In either scenario, though, media dynamics drive and define the criminalization of popular culture. The mediated context of criminalization is a political one as well. The contemporary criminalization of popular culture has emerged as part of larger "culture wars" (Bolton 1992) waged by political conservatives and cultural reactionaries.

Controversies over the criminal or criminogenic characteristics of art photographers and rap musicians have resulted less from spontaneous public concern than from the sorts of well-funded and politically sophisticated campaigns that have similarly targeted the National Endowment for the Arts and its support of feminist/gay/lesbian performance artists and film festivals.

In this light it is less than surprising that contemporary cultural criminalization is aimed time and again at marginal(ized) subcultures–radical punk musicians, politically militant black rap groups, lesbian and gay visual and performance artists–whose stylized celebration of and confrontation with their marginality threaten particular patterns of moral and legal control. Cultural criminalization in thi s sense exposes yet another set of linkages between sub-cultural styles and symbols and mediated constructions and reconstructions of these as criminal or criminogenic.

In addition, as a process conducted largely in the public realm, cultural criminalization contributes to popular perceptions and panics, and thus to the further marginalization of those who are its focus. If successful, it constructs a degree of social discomfort that reflects off the face of popular culture and into the practice of everyday life. Media Constructions of Crime and Crime Control The mediated criminalization of popular culture exists, of course, as but one of many media processes that construct the meanings of crime and crime control.

As noted in earlier discussions of textual methodologies, cultural criminology incorporates a wealth of research on mediated characterizations of crime and crime control, ranging across historical and contemporary texts and investigating images generated in newspaper reporting, popular film, television news and entertainment programming, popular music, comic books, and the cyberspaces of the Internet. Further, cultural criminologists have begun to explore the complex institutional interconnections between the criminal justice system and the mass media.

Researchers like Chermak (1995, 1997, 1998) and Sanders & Lyon (1995) have documented not only the mass media's heavy reliance on criminal justice sources for imagery and information on crime, but more importantly, the reciprocal relationship that undergirds this reliance. Working within organizational imp eratives of efficiency and routinization, media institutions regularly rely on data selectively provided by policing and court agencies.

In so doing, they highlight for the public issues chosen by criminal justice institutions and framed by criminal justice imperatives, and they in turn contribute to the political agendas of the criminal justice system and to the generation of public support for these agendas. In a relatively nonconspiratorial but nonetheless powerful fashion, media and criminal justice organizations thus coordinate their day-to-day operations and cooperate in constructing circumscribed understandings of crime and crime control.