I was recently asked: “But doesn’t mass society make even the atypical dress of [previous eras] unavailable to anyone? Haven’t we had a kind of widespread proletarianization?“
The question presupposed a particular phase of mass production – one that has largely elapsed. When an extreme scarcity of resources still exists, as it did during the early Industrial era, only a few very basic products can be created, and the incentive for businesses is to make them in as high of a volume as possible, to market to as many people as possible without much concern for product differentiation, or esthetic considerations. (Think of the output of the early cotton mills, or the Ford Model T as examples of this.) The early industrial stage massively raises the living standards of most, simply because they can now have goods such as durable clothing, furniture, and (eventually) transportation and appliances – which were simply not available in any form to the majority of people previously. The same can be said of mass culture during the early days of recorded media. The complaint regarding the crudity and proletarization of mass media is not new. In fact, even Ludwig von Mises brought it up in 1954.
People of erudition and exquisite taste were the minority in every age – but what was new in the early 20th century was that, once the basic material sustenance of most in the Western world was achieved, the early mass-production stage became focused on culture (or “culture” – as you will) instead. At the same time, there came about a massively greater differentiation of physical products in the late 20th century, so that people can much more readily customize their living spaces, for instance. With the advent of electronic media, the prospects for cultural differentiation at relatively low cost have also become much more realistic. Consider that, back when I was a poor college student, the Internet enabled me to locate and afford numerous aspects of my quite extensive and unconventional attire.
We are just now coming into a new era of decentralized production of culture, aided by new electronic technologies that make creation much more convenient, as well as funding platforms (e.g., Kickstarter) that enable new forms of distributed patronage. As an example, I recently conducted a successful experiment where I was able to create a new musical composition and obtain some modest funding via Kickstarter, while releasing the work to my audience for free under a Creative Commons License. I am also technically able to create more such works for no compensation, so it is just a matter of having enough leisure time and inclination (of which I have more than a person in my economic situation would have had in earlier eras). I think many other people will increasingly come to be a in a similar position, triggering a new Renaissance of high culture.
The questioner also asked: “This [ability to use technology to compose more easily] is all true, of course, but do we have any Bachs or Mozarts? Is there anything even approaching late nineteenth-century Vienna, where there were multiple great composers within miles of each other?”
Perhaps such an era is soon to come – except the proximity of the composers will not need to be physical. The Internet and electronic composition programs will enable composers throughout the world to become aware of one another and to communicate and collaborate. The biggest barrier to such collaborations in recent years has been the copyright system and its draconian enforcement by American media/entertainment-industry interests. The advent of the Creative Commons License and similar alternatives to traditional copyright can largely solve this problem and create a far more refined culture that does not rely on the mass-distribution system of the large recording and film studios.
I hesitate to make any comparisons to Bach or Mozart – but there are certainly some promising composers out there. For just two examples, I refer you to the work of Maxwell Janis and Simone Stella. (Look for his original compositions, such as this one.)