Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Making Sense of Midcult

In his 1960 essay "Masscult and Midcult," Dwight Macdonald offered a picture of a cultural hierarchy and its evolution over time. There is the enduring tradition of High Culture and its artistic products. Beneath is there was a bottom-up Folk Culture which in modern times gave way to a top-down, commercialized, even industrialized, Mass Culture he terms "anti-art" characterized by its "includ[ing] the spectator's reactions in the work itself instead of forcing him to make his own responses," and which is good only for distraction. In between he describes the emergence of "Midcult" in the twentieth century not as some simple mix of the two--he is in fact emphatic that it is not a matter of efforts to raise the level of mass culture--but rather that it is "outwardly High Culture but really as much a manufactured article as the cheaper cultural goods produced for the masses," and just as shallow as Mass Culture in its treatment of life--a stereotyped, industrialized use of the avant-garde that makes "use of the modern idiom in the service of the banal."

"Masscult and Midcult" is, on the whole, an underwhelming read, cluttered and meandering, and mostly fumbles and muddles the issue.

I certainly do not dispute that there is such a thing as High Culture (produced by and for a cultural elite which must often be educated to appreciation of the work in question), or Mass Culture (produced for a general audience), but I do find his characterization of them problematic. Contrary to what he claims, anyone who delves into the details of literary history finds that this is not a case of soulful artistes who produce solely as their Muse calls them to do under one heading (such that, as he puts it, "a serious writer will produce art when he is trying to function as a hack"), and the grinding, pandering hacks under the other as he suggests. The truth is that even a Shakespeare or a Dostoyevsky falls somewhere along a spectrum between those poles.

And of course, his characterization of Mass Culture is obfuscated by a raging snobbery. Media executives may want to render publishing, television, film and the like nearly automated industrial enterprises cranking out a regular product churned out impersonally by writers as dispensable as the most thoroughly de-skilled factory hands. And at times they get the public to swallow something distressingly close to their ideal (as with reality shows).

However, at the time in which Macdonald was writing, and even today, they remain a long way from monopolizing the field. Accordingly there remained and remains scope to produce art here, and indeed, much that is derided as Mass Culture is in fact Art by Macdonald's own standards (engagement with the actualities of life, self-expression on the part of the creator) which was never stamped with the label because of the snobbery to which critics conform if they wish to remain reputable.1 And even where ostensible Mass Culture falls short of this mark, his broader claims about Mass Culture (the impossibility of spontaneous response to it, its incapacity to entertain) is less careful assessment than another case of his confusing an extreme pole with a whole category. (After all, even the formulaic can have its pleasures.)

I also do not dispute that label-bearing High Culture can be cranked out in shallow, stereotyped fashion, and that this really is culturally damaging.2 Still, Macdonald's preoccupation with establishing a hierarchy, and closing the ranks of the High against the Low, obscured the issue, and led to his choosing a label more confusing than clarifying (the more so because of its seeming relation to Virginia Woolf's even fuzzier and more ostentatiously snobbish "middlebrow"), or he would not have had to spend so much time explaining its meaning.

Additionally, the fuzziness of the context, the snobbery in which this is all wrapped up, Macdonald's preference of self-indulgent rhetoric over analysis, result in the fact that while the essay does give some clear pointers (the quotations above seem clear enough), they fall short of the clear standard they should have offered. How does one, for example, tell the difference between the "pseudo-art" of Midcult, and art which is sincere but simply failed? Work which makes "use of the modern idiom in the service of the banal"--which ended up shallow, hollow, trite, pretentious--not because it is a "manufactured article," but simply because a perfectly sincere artist may simply have lacked the vision to bring the work off?

Macdonald's discussion is more ambiguous than it should be in this respect, and the result is that what might have been a useful descriptor can seem merely a term of abuse critics can fling at art they happen not to like--while giving the real offenders a free pass. Indeed, to go by the sheer amount of work which uses the modern idiom in the service of the banal, one would have to conclude today that Midcult has altogether displaced genuine High Culture, while the would-be genuine artist is an endangered species apt to be hit with the label instead for all their pains.3

1. Certainly science fiction is one area where this has been the case--and indeed it seems telling that in a 1968 interview for Book World, "Portrait of a Man Reading," Macdonald remarked not once but twice within the same answer that he "never reads science fiction." (You can find it in Michael Wreszin, Interviews With Dwight Macdonald (Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2003), 83-44.)
2. Virginia Woolf, in her essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," called on her audience to "tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure" as writers searched for new ways of exploring the human condition. Alas, far from tolerating them we have wound up making a cult of them in a world where Modernism and postmodernism define High Culture--to art's cost.
3. The labeling of Mad Men Midcult by a few maverick critics is a rare, correct use of the term.

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