In 1960, Dwight Macdonald published "Masscult and Midcult" in the Partisan Review. Here Macdonald introduced his distinction between what he called masscult—or what is more commonly labeled "lowbrow"—and midcult, which we generally refer to as "middlebrow." He identified the characteristics of both forms of culture in America, contrasting them with what used to be known as culture, full stop, but what is today called high culture.
Macdonald was a prominent cultural and social critic who published widely and was for many years a staff writer at the New Yorker. He was part of the storied group of "New York Intellectuals," the mid-twentieth century thinkers based in the city, almost all of whom started out as Trotskyites or Stalinists or communist fellow travelers and ended up anti-Communist liberals. Macdonald was a major figure in this group, which also included Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, and the wonderful Lionel Trilling. For many years Macdonald's essays were out of print and difficult to find; happily, this was remedied in 2011 when his most famous pieces were repackaged in a new collection, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain.
What I'd like to convince you is that the distinctions introduced by a dead critic in a magazine that no longer exists are extremely useful for understanding the artistic and intellectual situation in contemporary America, and how those distinctions reflect on modern American culture in general. I'm going to argue that while, culturally speaking, a lot has changed in the last half-century, Macdonald's argument, while relevant at the time of his writing, seems particularly prescient today. And finally, and alas, sadly, I'm going to argue that, with some important exceptions, the negative trajectory that Macdonald identified with the rise of masscult and midcult has continued to this day, contributing to the largely pathetic, aggressively mediocre, burned-over intellectual and cultural terrain that exists in the contemporary United States.
In Macdonald's telling, mass culture is a product of mass society, which was brought about by factors such as industrialization, enhanced literacy rates, and technological innovations that increased the means of communication. Masscult is in some ways the inevitable product of an egalitarian society. When the purchasing power of the average citizen increases, taste becomes democratized. There are certainly very good things to be said for, say, increased literacy, and I'm not trying to make an unfettered argument for cultural elitism, although I think to some extent Macdonald surely was. We just have to acknowledge that, for better and surely for worse, the history of mass culture is inseparable from the history of the modern, industrialized state.
As Macdonald notes, before the rise of mass society the only real culture was high culture, which was in fact an elite venture, if not simply because it was very difficult to have time to become learned in a pre-industrial society. Culture was the privilege of the aristocratic classes. But high culture then, and the best high culture now, was identifiable by one common quality, whether the cultural object we're referring to is a piece of art, or literature, or theatre: it defied easy interpretive explanation, it was individualized. That's not to say the goal of high culture is obscurantism—although this charge has been leveled, with some fairness, at modernist figures like James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Instead, at their best, objects of high culture produce sophisticated emotional and intellectual reactions in the reader or observer. In fact, since the reactions it produces are so varied, and so intensely personal, it's probably better to say that one is not merely a passive spectator of a work of high culture but also an active participant in it, shaping its meaning as it shapes you. This can be a beautiful and sublime experience and I'd like to imagine that everyone knows exactly what I'm talking about.
Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982) © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Moreover, and somewhat paradoxically, this individual relationship to works of high culture actually allows for the creation of a cultural community or communities, as the openness of these works of art to interpretation encourages discussion and debate, to the enjoyment of them as individuals and as participants in a shared cultural experience.
Above all, works of high culture don't tell you how to feel—they produce a number of overlapping and sometimes contradictory intellectual and emotional responses. They defy easy characterization, which is why no one ever comes away describing The Brothers Karamozov as intense or Catch-22 as funny !!!! or American Pastoral as depressing :'(. This is a debased form of explanation and never does justice to a real work of art.
But Masscult does the opposite. It comes readymade, prepackaged for your consumption. And make no mistake, when you read Game of Thrones or Eat Pray Love or watch Dancing with the Stars, that's all you're doing: consuming. The key difference between the two forms of culture, according to Macdonald, is that masscult builds its responses in for you. It tells you how to feel. How perverse and insidious is that? What's worse: We like it. We like knowing, for instance, that in a "rom-com" the protagonist—lovely but under-loved, stifled, yearning for emotional and/or sexual fulfillment—will, after a series of lightly humorous missteps, find the life (or man, let's be honest here) she always wanted, but didn't know she needed. Or that in an "action" movie, a badass motherfucker of a cop/soldier/secret service agent/superhero will overcome some physically (and emotionally) painful tribulation to vanquish his foes, who are, depending on the release date, Nazis or communists or terrorists of a vaguely middle-eastern stripe. I'll say it again, because it bears repeating: we like being told how to feel. How emotionally lazy is that? And more worryingly, how can we possibly subject ourselves repeatedly to such a narcotized cultural environment without becoming debased in the process? Anyone who tells you he enjoys masscult from a purely anthropological perspective, or that he only reads or watches masscult because he gets off on ironically slumming it with the common man, is lying. I love Die Hard, and some of you do too.
So in summary, 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...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." Masscult is "indifferent to standards" and creates no "communication between individuals." It is, ultimately, not "really culture at all."
What are some examples of masscult that Macdonald gives? Among other objects of scorn, he mentions Norman Rockwell, O. Henry, and "rock and roll" music. While I'm with him on Rockwell and not familiar enough with O. Henry to make any judgments about his work, I'm not convinced by Macdonald that all rock music is in fact all masscult. But I do understand his overall point about it. Contrast, for instance, one of the best and most sophisticated rock records of the last 15 years, Radiohead's OK Computer, with, say, Coltrane's (admittedly much older) A Love Supreme. The best rock albums are undoubtedly works of art, but even these depend on preselected templates that cause corresponding emotional reactions to arise in the listener. Radiohead had a template that it used in The Bends, to good effect. Then they decided to change that template pretty drastically for OK Computer and what followed, but both are a species within the same recognizable genus.
Listening to such music, our emotional response is pretty well mapped out ahead of time. There is a kind of "tone" that we expect out of our experience, a foreknowledge of it. Not so with the Coltrane album; not at all. By the time the listener gets to the end of the first part of the suite and the words "a love supreme" are repeated in a hypnotic, incantatory cycle, the listener doesn't know if the love is carnal or spiritual or familial or fraternal. It could be any of them, or all at once, a contradiction in terms. And it's this contradiction, this intellectual and emotional openness, that makes every listen to an album like A Love Supreme an experience of a potentially higher order than that of OK Computer or, to hit myself where it hurts, of an Exile on Main Street.
If rock or pop music, at least the best of it, isn't masscult (for the worst surely is), what is it? I think that most of it is better characterized as midcult. For Macdonald, midcult is more difficult to describe than masscult, because unlike the latter, it puts on airs of sophistication. It is the mixing of high culture and low, which, unlike masscult, is a danger to actual high culture. Even though midcult can be very popular with the educated classes, it is dangerous precisely because it makes spectators believe they are participating in high culture, in an active community of discerning tastemakers. But this is fantasy: for midcult, just like masscult, builds its responses in for you. This is the promise and peril of midcult, as it creates a simulacrum of high culture, and not the real thing. This doesn't mean midcult can't be highly aesthetically enjoyable, or innovative in its own way—just that it can't fulfill the promise of a work of high culture, or serve as a replacement for it.
Macdonald considers The Atlantic, Harper's, the works of John Steinbeck, the book of the month club, and The Old Man and the Sea as examples of midcult. I think some of these examples are dated, obviously, since The Atlantic and Harper's are so different today than they were in 1960—moreover, I'd go to bat for Harper's as a magazine of high culture. In truth, Macdonald's idea of midcult has its problems—it is imprecise, subjective, and more than a touch elitist (in a bad way)—and is thus the weaker prong of his argument. But the middlebrow undoubtedly thrives in the United States, like a common pest that's rarely seen, probably because we've become so inured to it. And while some middlebrow work may possess artistic, aesthetic, or critical value, most of it doesn't. So when I think of middlebrow literature, I think of Raymond Carver, whose work is so tendentious, so self-consciously miserable, that it reads like a parody of what "serious" literature is supposed to be. When I think of middlebrow criticism or reportage, I think of Thomas Friedman, who manages to be extremely respectable and utterly vacuous at every turn, never upsetting the elite consensus while pretending to advocate for brave solutions to social and political problems. When I think of middlebrow music, I think of any number of Pitchfork-approved farts-in-the-wind like Best Coast, whose work is fun and alternately moody and altogether one-dimensional. And, finally, when I think of middlebrow television—even at its best—I think of Friday Night Lights, which, although it has much to recommend it, is still essentially a soap opera. Coach Taylor told them he needed them to do better, and we knew they would.
When it comes to the cultural and intellectual situation, the question is never just where we've come from, but also where we're headed. 1960 might as well be a century ago, given the chasm between our time and when Macdonald first published his essay. But for all the distance we've traveled, what have we learned? Very little, I think.
Where there has been the most marked improvement, ironically, is in television. While there is more bad American television than there was fifty years ago, there is also a kind of television that would have been unimaginable in the past. Macdonald speculated that pay TV might help improve the quality of the programming, because it would empower editors to take chances, and remove the de facto veto power that advertisers wield over the networks. This was extremely incisive. Shows like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Wire have pushed the boundaries of what many thought was possible for television. Some of it may even transcend midcult altogether. The Wire, in particular, rivals the best kind of films in the emotional complexity of its characters, and the way its storylines poetically—and brutally—unfold. Our best living novelists would struggle to create a character as compelling, morally ambiguous, and multidimensional as, for instance, Omar Little.
But looked at in terms of sheer quantity, it's clear that the United States produces more worthless cultural garbage than it did 50 years ago; in fact, I'd say that the United States produces more worthless cultural garbage than any other country in any other period in the history of civilization. I know this sounds totally overblown, but consider the facts: the United States is the largest purveyor of cultural goods for the world in an era of unprecedented technological development and interconnection, where more means of entertainment are available than ever before. Big culture is big business. And the globalization of cultural goods has meant the globalization of masscult—but of a particularly American character.
This is cause for alarm. For one, ensuring the diversity of forms of aesthetic and intellectual expression across national, regional, and linguistic cultures is valuable in its own right. The predominance of Americanized modes of expression and "entertainment," especially in their most vulgar forms, is an attack on cultural pluralism. And because it is a guerilla campaign being waged, where the culture warriors are not even aware of the consequences of their behavior, it is doubly effective.
But equally, if not more worrying, are the political consequences of masscult today. Just as in Macdonald's day, masscult now is not so much apolitical as anti-political. In deadening us intellectually and emotionally, it threatens the real work of politics. We need our faculties to act as independent, moral creatures; to work through areas of common social concern; and, most fundamentally, to create a political space that allows for human flourishing under conditions of tremendous diversity. In ignoring our differences, in treating us as consuming objects and not thinking subjects, masscult attacks all that.
So if masscult seems frivolous and banal, it is actually quite serious. And we ignore its effects at our own peril, for they ripple out far beyond the cultural sphere, far beyond masscult's intended audience. Without masscult, wars that we wage could not be seen as objects of entertainment, removed from real life, flattened and prepackaged for our consumption, bite-sized. If our judgment is compromised from the inside-out, basic truths will elude us, as we always process events from a predefined field of vision. "To see what is in front of one's nose," said George Orwell, "needs a constant struggle." Masscult is the denial of this struggle.