The old avant-garde has passed and left no successors (Dwight Macdonald)

The old avant-garde has passed and left no successors. We continue to live off its capital but the community has broken up and the standards are no longer respected. The crisis in America is especially severe. Our creators are too isolated or too integrated. Most of them merge gracefully into Midcult, feeling they must be part of “the life of our time,” whatever that means (I should think it would be ambitious enough to try to be part of one’s own life), and fearful of being accused of snobbishness, cliqueism, negativism, or worst of all, practicing “art for art’s sake” (though for what better sake?) Some revolt, but their work tends toward eccentricity since it lacks contact with the past and doesn’t get support from a broad enough intelligentsia in the present. The two currently most prominent groups, the “action painters” and the beatnik academy of letters, differ from the old avant-garde in two interesting ways They are cut off from the tradition: the works of Joyce and Picasso, for instance, show an extraordinary knowledge of (and feeling for) the achievements of the past, while those of the beats and the actionists, for instance, do not. And they have had too much publicity too soon; the more they try to shock the Midcult’s audience, the more they are written up in the Lucepapers; they are “different,” that potent advertising word whose charm reveals how monotonous the landscape of Midcult has become.

From Dwight Macdonald’s essay “Masscult and Midcult” (1960).

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