The Cranky Brilliance of Dwight Macdonald | Masscult and Midcult Reviewed

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Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain
 (NYRB) collects ten pieces by cultural critic Dwight Macdonald. First published between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, the essays here feature varied subjects, always attacked through the same critical lens. Whether he’s excoriating late-period Hemingway, deriding structural linguistics, lamenting the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, or chewing up a now-forgotten bestseller, Macdonald centers the brunt of his attack on the creeping “impostures and vulgarizations” of what he called Masscult and Midcult.

In “Masscult and Midcult,” the longest and perhaps most effective essay in the collection, Macdonald defines, illustrates, and analyzes his neologisms against the historical backdrop of a rising commercial culture. “Masscult is bad in a new way,” he tells us,” it doesn’t even have the theoretical possibility of being good . . . It is not just unsuccessful art. It is non-art. It is even anti-art.” He continues:

Masscult offers its customers neither an emotional catharsis nor an aesthetic experience, for these demand effort. The production line grinds out a uniform product whose humble aim is not even entertainment, for this too implies life and hence effort, but merely distraction. It may be stimulating or narcotic, but it must be easy to assimilate. It asks nothing of its audience, for it is “totally subjected to the spectator. And it gives nothing.

Macdonald views Masscult as the unfortunate inevitability of capitalism and the burgeoning middle class—or, more appropriately, Middlebrow class. Macdonald is deeply concerned with the location of brows, referring to himself as Highbrow throughout the collection (even once casually dropping We highbrows, a little bone to the reader, perhaps). He repeatedly points out that the virtue of Lowbrowness is that the Lowbrow know where their brows are in relation to higher brows. Folk art is not just acceptable, it’s good stuff, important in its hierarchical relationship to High Art. It’s those damn Middlebrows that cause confusion. For Macdonald, Midcult is thus the real threat:

…the danger to High Culture is not so much from Masscult as from a peculiar hybrid bred from the latter’s unnatural intercourse with the former. A whole middle culture has come into existence and it threatens to absorb both its parents. This intermediate form—let us call it Midcult—has the essential qualities of Masscult—the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity—but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf. In Masscult the trick is plain—to please the crowd by any means. But Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them. 

Macdonald uses case samples from Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Archibald MacLeish, and Stephen Vincent Benet to demonstrate the creeping vulgarity of Midcult posing as High Art.  

Indeed, Macdonald almost always focuses on negative examples, perhaps taking for granted that his audience will be guided to a better understanding of High Culture through…I don’t know? Osmosis? He clearly shows a strong affection for the Modernists (up through Faulkner, with a special love for Joyce and Picasso), but the essays in the collection rarely explore in detail exactly why the good stuff is so good. He comes closest in “Updating the Bible” when he points out that the Revised Standard Version strips too much of the King James Version’s poetic strangeness, poetic strangeness that startles, engages, and demands the attention—the work—of the reader. Elsewhere, he connects the avant-garde of the Modernists to an aesthetic tradition going back to the Renaissance (and Periclean Greece before it), and while these moments are satisfying, they are hardly explored with the same vigor Macdonald applies to pulling away Midcult’s figleaf.

Neither does Macdonald prescribe medicine to go along with his devastating diagnoses. To a reader who felt his criticism should be more constructive, Dwight Macdonald replies: “I’ve always specialized in negative criticism—literary, political, cinematic, cultural—because I’ve found so few contemporary products about which I could be ‘constructive’ without hating myself in the morning.” A succinct summary of the entire book, that.

Something of the force of Macdonald’s personality evinces in that reply, a combative, cranky, brilliant personality that asserts the nuances of its own subjectivity as if they were Aesthetic Law. And Macdonald is so, so, so perceptive, building each case thoroughly on textual grounds—citation, history, context—that make me blush here for not attempting his thoroughness in kind. But that would take more space and time than We Postmoderns should like to allot, no? (Maybe this review would gain more rhetorical force were I to simply make it a list of cat gifs).

Macdonald’s diagnoses remain prescient. His 1958 annihilation of James Gould Cozzens’s novel By Loved Possessed takes to task not just the author, but also the Masscult audience that made the book a best seller and the Midcult critics who sanctified the book’s artistic merits. With a few simple substitutions, the essay might be updated to critique Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. In “The String Untuned,” ostensibly a review of the Third Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Macdonald complains that the influence of structuralism, whatever merits it may have, has crumbled the authority of lexicography to the point that they “have untuned the string, made a sop of the solid structure of English, and encouraged the language to eat up” previous authorities. Essays like “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club” and “The Triumph of Fact” critique the increasing American tendency to look only for self-improvement in Art—to look for not just the digested form, but the predigested form. A footnote to “Masscult and Midcult” puts it plainly: “the Midcult audience always wants to be Told.” Ours is a time of explainer sites, listicles, speed-reading apps, and “curators” who boil entire works of philosophy down to feel-good quotes aimed at the reader’s desire for self-improvement and self-satisfaction.

Some gaps and miscalculations mar Masscult and Midcult. There’s no reckoning with the approach of postmodernism—or if there is, such a reckoning only evinces in the denial that an artful synthesis of the High and Low might be possible. (It’s worth noting here that Macdonald views Ulysses as a critique of vulgar culture, not a synthesis of vulgar culture. What would he make of Pynchon?). And while Macdonald beats up on poor Norman Rockwell, there’s nothing in the collection that deals with the nascent Pop Art movement. (Perhaps Warhol was too Midcult to merit mention; perhaps Macdonald did write about Pop Art somewhere else). His hatred for rock and roll feels purely reactionary, and his insistence that rock’s superior jazz is a folk art (and not a High Art) is just plain wrong. Also, Macdonald, for all his talk of the avant-garde and challenging comfortable conventions, writes exclusively about white men. There are few mentions of persons of color or women in the collection. I wonder what Macdonald thought of Flannery O’Connor, say, who succinctly echoed his own views when she wrote: “Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.”

At the core of these essays though is a cranky brilliance, a burning, engaging intelligence that seeks to upend simple, comfortable assumptions about how we view, interact with, and think about art. Are we to be mere consumers—and not just consumers, but infantilized consumers, baby birds gulping down material that’s already been predigested for us? Or are we willing to put in the work, to dare strong strangeness—to be confused, to not know, to feel discomfort, alienation, newnessMasscult and Midcult doesn’t just evoke these questions, it formally answers them by challenging and provoking, offering a critical rubric for winnowing the wheat from the chaff, or, to use Macdonald’s metaphor, escaping “not only from the Masscult depths but also from the agreeable ooze of the Midcult swamp.” For all the apparent bitterness, there’s something nourishing here. Macdonald’s essays retain a critical power that transcends their ostensible subjects, a power that rips the poseur’s figleaf away. Great stuff.    

 

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).

Masscult and Midcult (Book Acquired Some Time in May)

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Hadn’t heard of Dwight Macdonald or his cranky essay “Masscult and Midcult” until I saw the NYRB edition in my local bookshop. Picked it up, didn’t put it down. The title essay here is on middlebrow culture, on how mass culture is not culture at all but a manufactured, predigested product. It was written in a prepostmodern era (if such a thing exists)—no Warhol, no reckoning with Pop Art, etc. Despite its elitist tone, it’s fantastic stuff, very insightful, and if I disagree with a lot of Macdonald’s criticism (his picking on Norman Rockwell is especially mean), I love his methods.

Haven’t gotten to any of the other essays yet, with the exception of his short skewering of Ernest Hemingway. It begins with a parody (below), and ends with a thoughtful rebuttal by George Plimpton. Macdonald doing Hemingway:

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The public is a huge nothing (Kierkegaard)

In order for leveling really to occur, first it is necessary to bring a phantom into existence, a spirit of leveling, a huge abstraction, an all-embracing something that is nothing, an illusion–the phantom of the public. . . . The public is the real Leveling-Master, rather than the leveler itself, for leveling is done by something, and the public is a huge nothing.

The public is an idea, which would never have occurred to people in ancient times, for the people themselves en masse in corpora took steps in any active situation, and bore responsibility for each individual among them, and each individual had to personally, without fail, present himself and submit his decision immediately to approval or disapproval. When first a clever society makes concrete reality into nothing, then the Media creates that abstraction, “the public,” which is filled with unreal individuals, who are never united nor can they ever unite simultaneously in a single situation or organization, yet still stick together as a whole. The public is a body, more numerous than the people which compose it, but this body can never be shown, indeed it can never have only a single representation, because it is an abstraction. Yet this public becomes larger, the more the times become passionless and reflective and destroy concrete reality; this whole, the public, soon embraces everything. . . .

The public is not a people, it is not a generation, it is not a simultaneity, it is not a community, it is not a society, it is not an association, it is not those particular men over there, because all these exist because they are concrete and real; however, no single individual who belongs to the public has any real commitment; some times during the day he belongs to the public, namely, in those times in which he is nothing; in those times that he is a particular person, he does not belong to the public. Consisting of such individuals, who as individuals are nothing, the public becomes a huge something, a nothing, an abstract desert and emptiness, which is everything and nothing. . . .

The Media is an abstraction (because a newspaper is not concrete and only in an abstract sense can be considered an individual), which in association with the passionlessness and reflection of the times creates that abstract phantom, the public, which is the actual leveler. . . . More and more individuals will, because of their indolent bloodlessness, aspire to become nothing, in order to become the public, this abstract whole, which forms in this ridiculous manner: the public comes into existence because all its participants become third parties. This lazy mass, which understands nothing and does nothing, this public gallery seeks some distraction, and soon gives itself over to the idea that everything which someone does, or achieves, has been done to provide the public something to gossip about. . . . The public has a dog for its amusement. That dog is the Media. If there is someone better than the public, someone who distinguishes himself, the public sets the dog on him and all the amusement begins. This biting dog tears up his coat-tails, and takes all sort of vulgar liberties with his leg–until the public bores of it all and calls the dog off. That is how the public levels.

From Soren Kierkegaard’s essay “The Present Age.”

I read the passage first in Dwight Macdonald’s essay “Masscult and Midcult” — it’s the final section of Macdonald’s essay, followed simply by “This is the essence of what I have tried to say.” (The translation in Macdonald’s essay is a bit different than the one I’ve cited/linked to here, which is by Alexander Dru).