Dwight Macdonald’s Masscult And Midcult

Literary reputations seem to rise and fall with the tides. Consider the fate of Dwight Macdonald, former staple of Time, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, and once a force in America’s mid-century intellectual scene. He fought a losing battle against television, popular entertainment, and the New Journalism, exemplified by the writings of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, and as history is always written by the victors, Macdonald’s name was scrubbed from popular consciousness. The good folks of NYRB publishing house, in one of their many feats of revival, have brought together some of his best and most memorable essays in a single volume, titled after two of his own coinages: Masscult And Midcult. The subtitle “Essays Against the American Grain” conveys something of their meaning, and of the hopelessness of Macdonald’s war against mediocrity, for to take on television and popular entertainment in the post-war era was surely as vain an undertaking as is humanly imaginable. Nonetheless, even in defeat, Macdonald scored some important points, landed some undeniable blows, and those of us who think a culture should encompass more than mere entertainments have a lot to gain from his insights.

First, spare a moment to pity his position. It doesn’t pay to be the man at the party condemning popular entertainments as vacuous and unfulfilling. Epithets like elitist, snob and boor immediately attach themselves to such a person, the faux aristocrat surrounded by noble democrats. But Macdonald is too funny and too humane to be so easily dismissed, and if you can put aside your prejudice against his position long enough to listen to his argument, you stand to benefit. Here he is, introducing his concept masscult:

Masscult is bad in a new way: it doesn’t even have the theoretical possibility of being good. Up to the eighteenth century, bad art was of the same nature as good art, produced for the same audience, accepting the same standards. The difference was simply one of individual talent. But Masscult is something else. It is not just unsuccessful art. It is non-art. It is even anti-art. […] 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.

Martin Scorsese, one of the last authentic artists working in Hollywood, channeled Macdonald’s spirit when he criticized the faddish “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” which has produced a dozen or so movies and raked in billions at the box office, as “not cinema” but something more akin to theme parks: “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Marvel Studios might have patterned itself on Macdonald’s definition, with its production line approach to filmmaking and easy-to-assimilate plots. Its defenders have even taken up Macdonald’s anticipated defence of their work: that the high box office sales are proof that this is what the people want. Here’s Macdonald: “Masscult is very, very democratic; it refuses to discriminate against or between anything or anybody. All is grist to its mill and all comes out finely ground indeed.” But here we might light upon a fundamental difference between authentic art and its Masscult knockoffs: art doesn’t crowdsource its positions, doesn’t aim itself at the general; authentic art aims itself at the particular, at the individual, and what universality it achieves is a byproduct of that singular focus. Consider:

Since in a mass society people are related not to each other but to some abstract organizing principle, they are often in a state of exhaustion, for this lack of contact is unnatural. So Masscult attempts to provide distraction for the tired businessman – or the tired proletarian. This kind of art is necessarily at a distance from the individual since it is specifically designed to affect not what differentiates him from everybody else – that is what is of liveliest interest to him – but rather to work on the reflexes he shares with everybody else. So he is at a distance.

The superhero genre, whose resurgent popularity in our time tells us all we need to know about the juvenile state of our society, plays off of exactly this dynamic: what young person doesn’t wish to be a hero?

But it is perhaps the second of Macdonald’s coinages that is most applicable to our times: Midcult.

In these more advances times, 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.

In Macdonald’s time, his Midcult targets were a series of magazines focused on cultural commentary and current affairs that sought to give their readers a sense of upper-class respectability with the minimum of effort. What would Macdonald make of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, or Stephen King being awarded a National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters? Or the fact that the closet thing to a shared “high culture” we now have is whatever television show produced by HBO or Netflix attracts the attentions of a large enough audience?

Reading Macdonald’s criticisms put me in mind of José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt Of The Masses, which anticipated all of Macdonald’s arguments by a half-century. That book’s thesis was that widening prosperity and demographic increase were going to produce a gravitational effect on culture itself, which would be forced to orient itself to the masses. Macdonald’s own life – he was born in 1906 and died in 1982 – almost perfectly encompasses that cultural transformation. In his youth, for example, T.S. Eliot could command international recognition and influence; by the time of his death, poetry had long receded from the world’s consciousness, displaced by popular music and the burgeoning youth culture. Macdonald lost his battle against these irresistible trends, but losing in a noble and worthy cause seems to me infinitely preferable to victory in an ignominious one.