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Masscult and Midcult
Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain
NYRB Classics, 2011
The reissue of Dwight Macdonald’s 1962 collection, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, coupled with his recent centenary, has led to a revival of interest in the New York cultural critic’s work. “Masscult and Midcult”, Macdonald’s best-known essay, was first published in The Partisan Review in 1960. Influenced by Clement Greenberg’s work on kitsch and the avant-garde (which had appeared in the same publication), it reads like an elegy for the blurring of the high-culture/folk-culture boundary.
This traditional cultural binary has dissolved, Macdonald argues, and been replaced by the product of industrialization: a manufactured masscult, indifferent to standards and lacking personality. Masscult offers neither emotional catharsis, nor an aesthetic experience: achieving either of these ends requires an effort that the production line cannot provide. Instead, masscult “grinds out a uniform product whose humble aim is not even entertainment, for this too implies life and hence effort, but merely distraction.” The fear underlying Macdonald’s discussion on masscult is the predigestion of culture, where the spectator is spared the effort required in making judgments for oneself. This predigestion, Macdonald argues, is everywhere: in a culture that turns to Hallmark cards for prefab sentiments, our feelings are felt for us—even the least attuned reader realizes what is being expressed.
Just as worrisome as masscult, which has the sole aim of distraction and providing pleasure, is midcult, which Macdonald defines as pretending to respect high culture while diluting and vulgarizing it. He implicates Hemingway and Wilder as producers of midcult, alongside publications like The Atlantic and cultural institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art. Macdonald’s concerns, then, do not allow the apparently well-educated to get off scot-free. In fact, graduates of Macdonald’s alma mater, Yale, and its peer institutions might be more than averagely vulnerable to midcult. Again, his greatest concern in discussing midcult is a fear of predigestion: the creation of an educated class that is capable of consuming culture only when it has been stamped as good, bereft of the sophistication that would allow us to appreciate and discriminate between ‘good’ works of art without guidance.
Macdonald’s work is most compelling in his skillful critique of midcult and masscult, and his perceptive account of the current state of culture, though he is sometimes hasty in determining what falls into each of these categories. More serious, though, is a tension in “Masscult and Midcult” between democratic and elite values. While Macdonald rallies the support of the cultural elite and suggests the importance of cultural critics as gatekeepers, he simultaneously relies on our intuitions about the democratic value of personal judgments about culture, in order to buttress his attack on pre-digestion. Though the creation of a cultural elite disconnected from the rest of society seems ultimately too great a cost to repair the problem that Macdonald identifies, “Masscult and Midcult”’s observations nonetheless render it well worth a read.
Shivani Radhakrishnan is reading for a BPhil in Philosophy at Linacre College, Oxford.