U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Masscult and Midcult: Were Dwight Macdonald’s anxieties prescient or misplaced?

Need a break from the monotony of grading? Read Jennifer Szalai’s provocative review of the new collection of Dwight Macdonald’s essays, edited by John Summers, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain. The essay raises a number of important questions, such as the following few: Is it a worthwhile endeavor to create hierarchies of cultural taste? Now or ever? Can high culture be democratized without losing its Avant-Garde critical edge?

This last question is particularly important in the work of our very own Tim Lacy, who is writing a book on the history of the Great Books project championed by Mortimer Adler (Macdonald was a harsh critic of the Great Books, made clear in Szalai’s review). As Tim argues, Adler and his cohort believed democracy and high culture, or scholasticism, should go well together. This was their intellectual rationale for the Great Books. But Tim also makes clear that, despite such noble impulses, the Great Books must be understood in terms of commerce. As such, he analyzes the ways in which the Great Books operated not only as an intellectual and democratizing project, but also as a moneymaking venture. Great Books salespeople frightened their customers into buying their product, playing on the status anxieties of parents who sought to raise successful children in a society that increasingly valued education as necessary cultural capital. So it seems Tim both agrees and disagrees with Macdonald, who saw the Great Books as hopelessly midcult. For those interested, Tim makes the case for Great Books Liberalism in one of his more memorable posts.

Szalai is ultimately very critical of Macdonald’s analysis of taste. Here’s a “taste” of her analysis:

So much of Macdonald’s critical system relies on distinctions of “taste” that it’s curious how uncritically he trusted the term, using it as shorthand whenever he made a tenuous claim he couldn’t argue his way out of. But taste is a slippery concept, one that is informed, arguably or inevitably, by wealth, birth and education. Taste is cultural capital, and making distinctions of what is in good taste and bad is a way for social classes to distinguish themselves from and compete with one another. Macdonald took his Marxist critique only so far; he could see how culture could be commodified and manufactured, and how the masses were buying cultural products they believed could hoist them up into the rarefied ranks of the elite, but he assumed that tastes were a given, which meant he sometimes wrote as if his own good taste were the inevitable result of, well, good taste. This circular reasoning is less a problem in his reviews of specific books or movies, where it was incumbent on him to explain why exactly he liked or disliked the work in question, but in a big essay like “Masscult and Midcult,” he could get swept away by the swell of generalization, as presumptuous of mass taste as he was of his own.

If, as he believed, taste was inviolable, then so much middlebrow striving was bound to be a sad little exercise in futility. Any attempt by the masses to edify themselves was like a children’s game—they were playing dress-up with clothes ten sizes too big. The Great Books project, midlist fiction, publications from the “Lucepapers” to Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly: if it was aimed at a general audience, it was a candidate for his derision

19 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. The intersection between erudition, commodification, and class has been troubling me for a while — troubling in the sense that I would like to understand it.

    This will sound oh so bourgeois, but I wish my family had been paid a visit by one of the Great Books salesmen. We did, however, get a visit from an encyclopaedia salesman, and I am glad for that.

    It may seem quaint and a little sad to think that working-class people hoped to purchase “culture” or “respectability” or “knowledge” on installments. But in a way I guess it sometimes works. It did for me. (Or maybe it didn’t, which might explain my obsession with class issues in the academy.)

    Anyway, I wrote about encyclopaedia sets and class issues way back in January. One of my first — and best — blog entries. I don’t know if you or TIM were reading way back then, but it might be worth a look now. I would be interested to know if Tim is doing any kind of “reception history” in terms of talking to people who purchased the sets and figuring out if they were “worth it.”

    Here is a link to my old post:

    The Encyclopedia

  2. LD: I had a feeling the paradoxes of taste, class, and commerce raised in this post would garner interest from you. Thanks for linking to your Encyclopedia post–I’ll give it a read tonight (when I plan to be done with grading). I know Tim will have a lot to say about this post, and regarding your comments. But he is fairly busy attending to his 3-day old baby girl Agnes so he might not get to it right away! (Congrats again, Tim!)

  3. Wow, I didn’t mean to all-cap Tim’s name — thanks, autocorrect! — but now that I know about his great news, maybe a little jubilant shouting is warranted.

    Yeah, this post is in your bailiwick, but it has ricocheted around in my bell tower and set everything clanging. Thanks for the wake-up call to my brain.

  4. Macdonald’s critique of what he later called “Masscult” had its roots in essays that appeared in the Partisan Review in the late 1930s critiquing Soviet cultural policies as indicative of much deeper problems with Stalinism. The most famous of these essays is probably Clement Greenberg’s “Avant Garde and Kitsch” (1939), which was itself deeply influenced by Macdonald’s own essays on the decline of Soviet cinema that were also published in the PR. I mention this because I think it’s important to remember the origins of Macdonald’s cultural critique in a still-Marxist attempt to explain what had gone wrong with the Soviet experiment under Stalin.

    (Great picture of Macdonald, btw!)

  5. Now we’re in territory where I used to tread. If you haven’t look at Paul Gorman’s book from 1996, it is a useful discussion of Macdonald:http://books.google.com/books/about/Left_intellectuals_popular_culture_in_tw.html?id=P3JhHjHIUcQC

    I argued against Gorman, more or less, in It’s Only a Movie. I loved writing about Macdonald and his war against the auteur critics (especially Sarris). In his landmark 1960 on masscult and midcult he had a few devastating statements that it seems Szalai might have underestimated. Macdonald contended that the commercialization of art had changed not simply the standards for judging art but the process of creating it as well. For example, “before a proper Hollywood film can be made,” Macdonald contended, “the work of art has to be defeated.” A searing comment on the moment. He considered Masscult “not just unsuccessful art. It is non-art. It is anti-art.”

    “Masscult is very, very democratic,” Macdonald roared, “it refuses to discriminate against or between anything or anybody. All is grist for the mill and all comes out finely ground indeed.”

    “Midcult has it both way,” he asserted, “it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.”

    The development that captured my attention in writing two books that basically looked at the decline in the authority of cultural critics was how Macdonald and then Susan Sontag both moved from being radical cultural critics tearing at the terrible old, moralist order in criticism to authorities condemning the slip and slide of cultural standards. What they seemed to pine for was a precision of language in describing the significance of art. He had no problem with kitsch or middlebrow culture as long as no one pretended it had anything serious to say.

  6. Where to begin? Hmm…

    So much has been written about Macdonald that, at times, it’s hard to know where to begin.

    @Andrew: Thanks for the shout out. This comment is only the beginning of my thoughts on the topics you present. I can chime in for a bit now because the baby is sleeping. 🙂

    @Ben: I had no idea that Greenberg and Macdonald used the idea of midcult to critique _both_ communist and capitalist mass culture. Talk about your adversary culture. Anything within the realm of culture that was mass-produced was an anathema.

    @LD: Thanks for the Sennett-Cobb book reference. Somehow I hadn’t seen it before today. I’ve concentrated too much on Paul Fussel, I suppose.

    I think that Macdonald, in his evaluation of cultural production, confused the means with the end, or quantity with quality—which is a point I think is implied by, or related to, Szalai’s comments about the circularity of taste in Macdonald’s writings (I speculate not having, yet, read her review). Macdonald gave capitalism too much power, I think. He believed that anything mass-produced was part and parcel of the capitalist process of creative destruction; quantity destroyed quality, always. Evil capitalist destroyed the creativity they mimicked—Macdonald believed.

    Macdonald appears to me to be more of a misanthrope, at times, than insightful critic—or rather his misanthropy lay at the core of his critical spirit. Anything that man does, or creates, too many times was game for his pen. I’ll bet he also hated exercise and cities (despite being a cosmopolitan NY intellectual). But I bet he loved mass-produced cigarettes and whiskey.

    As LD noted in his query about whether I account for reader response (yes, I do), Macdonald assumed he knew, or could predict, every possible appropriation of cultural productions. As a kind of misanthrope, or adherent to the lemming theory of human reception, he underestimated the human ability to adept everyday things to her/his own unique, contextual ends. This is what LD and his family did with their set of encyclopedias. It’s what I did with my own Britannica Great Books set. We are each holders of a powerfully creative apparatus—the human mind. We are not bound by the intentions of creators, whether of high, middle, or low art.

    …More to come. – TL

  7. @Andrew: Can you tell me more about what you meant with this sentence: “As Tim argues, Adler and his cohort believed democracy and high culture, or scholasticism, should go well together.” …I need a clarification before I answer—mostly because I don’t really believe that democracy and scholasticism _should_ go well together—at least _not in an unqualified way_. Scholasticism implies an intellectual system that is no way friendly to mass access.

    @All: You might be amazed, or not in light of Szalai’s review and her assessment of Macdonald’s use of “taste,” to learn that I’m studiously avoiding terms like “taste” and the various “brows” (low, middle, and high) in my study of the history of the great books idea and Adler—except insofar as I have to address those terms/ideas in light of critics or reader responses to the great books idea.

    To use those terms, from my end and in relation to my thesis about the great books idea being wrapped up in visions of a “democratic culture,” would be to play a game that, in fact, I seek to deny. Adler and other great books promoters did not seek to denigrate the masses as much as provide access to historically acknowledged excellence. They weren’t trying to manipulate the masses, as Macdonald feared. They were trying to bring people in touch with history (while denying the subjectivity of the historical processes of selection—but I’ll save that for another day). Both Macdonald and the great books promoters were trying (more and less, depending on their consciousness) to reconcile the problems of democracy, human difference, and cultural excellence.

    Macdonald’s mistake, in my view, was to double-down on excellence to the point that it became impossible for others to even access or mimic the best—even when access and mimicry were completely possible, and perhaps even advantageous in relation to democratization. Don’t children learn by imitation? Macdonald, however, only saw capitalist cultural production (meaning indoctrination) or, as I’ve learned from Ben, Stalinist communist drab conformism. Macdonald couldn’t see agency, nor could he trust his fellow man to distinguish between real and reproduction.

    – TL

  8. On Andrew’s questions:

    AH #1: “Is it a worthwhile endeavor to create hierarchies of cultural taste? Now or ever?”

    If you mean is it worthwhile for intellectuals or those of so-called “discriminating taste” to create hierachies, well, I don’t know. It happens. It’s in our genes, I think, as competitive animals. We are driven to distinction.

    But, speaking philosophically, I don’t believe it’s worthwhile in terms of creating a society that respects its diverse citizenry to create hard ceilings and floors in terms of high, middle, and lowbrow taste. It fosters animosities that, as I said above, are inherent. But those taste discriminations don’t aid us in creating a just, democratic, or cosmopolitan society. I see these kinds of discriminations as inherent animalistic tendencies that we have to struggle against. To me there is complexity worthy of study and appreciation in all sorts of cultural productions: TV wrestlemania, ultimate fighting, popular paperback series, syndicated TV, graphic novels (e.g. Marvel comics), the Star Wars cottage industry, etc.

    My preference is for cultural productions that advance peace, justice, and equality. So I’m a bit didactic in that way—that I want the ends-worth-pursuing to permeate my cultural productions. I’m a bit “middlebrow” and Victorian in that I like civilization to progress via cultural production. That said, I still appreciate cultural productions that fill up some idle time. Those of you who know me well know that I love baseball, football, basketball, etc. I guess it goes back to temperance; work and play must be balanced.

    AH #2: “Can high culture be democratized without losing its Avant-Garde critical edge?”

    I think it’s almost inevitable that avant-garde cultural productions lose their edge over time. It is in the nature of avant-garde productions to lose their shock value due to repetition or familiarity. In other words, all things that were avant-garde eventually become either lost due to perceived irrelevance or reproduced to due perceived profundity. To call these avant-garde productions high culture is simply to acknowledge their depth and intellectuality. They are complex, and therefore worthy of study and reproduction (if possible). So the high culture that is in, for instance, Britannica’s Great Books (e.g. Melville’s Moby Dick), is no less high for its reproduction. If it becomes middlebrow, whether by virtue of its paperback-ness, or inclusion in the GB set, or because of a bad hardback book design, that’s a function of some person’s (or peoples’) lack of ability to appreciate the complexity of the text, or some producer’s unwillingness to match the beauty in the text with a beautiful cover/binding.

    …Baby’s waking up! – TL

  9. Tim, excellent comments! Is there something in the form or industrial nature of reproduction that also undermines the “avant grade” nature of cutting edge art? And is there something inherently inaccurate in using terms attached to the idea of taste?

  10. What are the criteria by which these “hierarchies of taste” are established? Or, to put it another way, what makes something masscult, what makes something midcult, and what makes something highcult? Kant said no aesthetic criteria for making such determinations exist, or can exist, as all aesthetic judgments, that is judgments of taste, are purely subjective. That never stops anyone, of course, as we attach to our aesthetic judgments a universal validity nonetheless. Since the subject did come up, what canons of taste, what aesthetics, are being used here?

  11. Shorter Szalai: If only Macdonald had read Bourdieu like I have!

    One of the ways in which modernist aesthetic and cultural hierarchies have been undone is in the recognition that modernist avante-gardeism and capitalist commercial innovation serve the same God: “make it new”. After all, the formal innovations of the avant garde are a recipe for manufactured obsolescence in the realm of art. When the very idea of being cutting edge seems to have become stale, we are left with the self conscious artist who knows that her own work can only end up as kitsch, so why not erase the distinction altogether, and sell directly to Target to begin with?

    Macdonald looks an awful lot like Elvis Costello in that photo!

  12. @Ray: Thanks! I don’t have an answer to your question—certainly not one based empirical evidence. Speaking experientially, I’d say that industrial reproduction flattens art. I mean this literally. From a reproduction, you’d never know that a Van Gogh jumps out of the canvass at you—that the oil is three-dimensional and the painting has a texture that makes viewing the original a singular event. I’m sure that many of us can speak of that fill-in-the-blank band that was so awesome live as opposed to the CD experience. And of course theater is different with an audience and live versus on DVD or recorded by some other media. Each of these seem to require a third dimension.

    But, on books and avant-garde presentations, I just don’t see how industrial reproduction _necessarily_ kills the experience. Unless there’s special art in the text (i.e. medieval stuff, the Book of Kells, etc.), contrarian arguments about reproducing avant-garde books, well, fall flat to me.

    What do you think?

    On your earlier points about cultural critics, I don’t feel qualified to comment on any comparative basis. Macdonald is sort of _the one_ with whom I have any experience (since he was the main “high cultural” NY intellectual critic of the great books idea).

    @Varad: Michael Kammen made some interesting arguments about the relationship between folk art and popular culture in relation to low, middle, and high culture in his 1999 book American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the 20th Century. You might find it interesting.

    @Dan: Agreed on novelty. But the minute something is manufactured its shelf life as “new” decreases faster than the thing not manufactured. So the performer does retain some authenticity as a part of the avant garde. As for selling to Target directly, more and more artists seem willing to sell their art to the highest bidder, for commercials for instance, or to promote a singular product that Target takes advantage of. But isn’t it interesting that the American cultural scene is so concerned with selling out when its cultural institutions are perennially underfunded. And capitalism, furthermore, seems to perpetuate a kind of winner-take-all scenario in relation to the instant translation of art to mass cultural production. The capitalist cultural establishment _must_ discern “hits” quickly and efficiently in order to save capital in ramping up the singular “hit” to mass success. Artists are, of course, caught in the vice. No “middle class” is allowed between the avant-garde performer and the commercial success (the latter of course perpetuates itself due to capitalist efficiency).

    – TL

  13. I love it when posts that take all of 15 minutes to put up generate great conversations. I had a feeling this would happen with Macdonald. I’ll probably weigh in more later, but in the meantime…

    Tim, you want me to clarify this sentence: “As Tim argues, Adler and his cohort believed democracy and high culture, or scholasticism, should go well together.” It seems like Adler thought that the high culture or universal wisdom found in the Great Books could be democratized and, in turn, make democracy better in terms of quality. But please correct me if I’m wrong. You would know best.

    I’ll share one sources on this matter as well:

    Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Ray, is this what you had in mind when you wrote: “Is there something in the form or industrial nature of reproduction that also undermines the “avant grade” nature of cutting edge art?”)

  14. Yes and while Benjamin’s insight is vital, I think Macdonald was on a mission in the late 1950s and early 1960s to counter both the loosening grip on debates regarding taste, and the spiraling discourses on avant garde.

  15. @Andrew: Okay, I understand your sentence a bit better. This is something of a digression from the preceding comment thread, but here goes:

    Adler did indeed believe that the wisdom _behind_ scholasticism could be democratized, but he wasn’t working hard at it as of the early 1940s. In that period he had two strains of thought going—strains with some crossover but large chunks on separate spheres.

    On the one hand he was of course a neo-Thomist adherent. In that stream of activity he wasn’t as concerned about whether that philosophical _work_ connected with democratic sensibilities. Even so, he did try to demonstrate that democracy was not incompatible with Thomistic thought. But he knew that scholasticism required knowledge of medieval terminology.

    On the other hand, Adler had a great books-based philosophy of education that, from the beginning, he saw as democratic and that was mostly separate from his scholastic mode of work. This non-scholastic mode is evident in How to Read a Book—a book that displays little special terminology. Adler’s philosophy of education in the 1940s did traffic some in scholasticism. For instance, he co-wrote a book on the Trivium for modern audiences. But that line of thought didn’t dominate his mind, either then or later. From his days in New York, working with the People’s Institute, he had developed a belief in the accessibility of knowledge that didn’t connect with his scholastic philosophical work. This is why I say he believed that the wisdom behind scholasticism was accessible, even if he believed that practicing neo-scholasticism wasn’t commonly accessible (i.e. in its terminology).

    By the late 1940s and early 1950s Adler had quit neo-Thomism/neo-Scholasticism. He eventually fully felt the obvious—that the terminology was out of touch with common parlance. Weird as it sounds to modern ears, Adler felt that Aristotle was closer to common sense than the neoscholastics. He’d spend the rest of his life popularizing Aristotle—trying to show that Aristotle was accessible to common sense and that his philosophy should be utilized. – TL

  16. @Tim: The only one I’ve tried is the Rhuby, which is a very nice, not too sweet, rhubarb liqueur that they just started making. The two older ones–Root and Snap–seem to have found a foothold in the high-end cocktail bar circuit, since they apparently mix well. “Root” as in rootbeer. “Snap” as in gingersnap. Apparently the Root is like a slightly sweeter and milder amaro (an easier going Fernet Branca, perhaps?). They’re actually available in Oklahoma and aren’t too spendy.

    Very cool and simple packaging, too (sort of artisinale / apothecary shop look). Is this what the Angel of History would drink?

    Art in the Age says its liqueurs are based on centuries-old Pennsylvania recipes…though I always take such claims with a grain of salt. This sort of thing seems to be a big selling point for craft-y American alcoholic beverages these days, though actual historians of booze point out that ye olde tyme liquor usually tasted pretty terrible.

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