Dwight Macdonald Takes a Machete to the Culture of the 1950s

Forget Elia Kazan. When it comes to naming names in 1950s America no one was more ruthless than Dwight Macdonald, and he was at his most hostile in “Masscult & Midcult” (1960). This essay — jeremiad, really — is Macdonald’s crusade against what he deems “Midcult,” or middlebrow culture. As Louis Menand puts it in his Introduction to the New York Review Books collection of Macdonald’s essays out this month, in this essay and others Macdonald “

established himself as the Lord High Executioner of middlebrow culture.” What was so awful about middlebrow culture? Menand writes, “It threatened to replace high culture as the art and literature of educated people, and, over the next ten years, Macdonald turned much of his critical might to the job of identifying it, exposing its calculating banalities, and, often with genuine success, persuading readers of its meretriciousness.” Despite that claim, neither Menand nor Macdonald ever articulate what this success looks like, for Midcult marches on far beyond the boundaries of the 1950s. Furthermore, this might not be the utter travesty that Macdonald augurs, for some of the most vibrant culture since his day he would dismiss and disparage as more fodder for the Midcult mill.

First, some examples of the three kinds of culture Macdonald anatomizes in his essay. High Culture is not just opera and ballet and things that require pipe-smoking or tuxedos: “A work of High Culture is an expression of feelings, ideas, tastes, visions that are idiosyncratic and the audience similarly responds to them as individuals.” Some of these individuals are Picasso, Stravinsky, Poe, and Joyce. In fact, there are very few examples of High Culture given; even Byron and Dickens, who might seem to deserve better, turn out to be Midcult figures because they responded to the pressures of the marketplace. In Macdonald’s essay — and indeed, in his world view — even though Masscult would seem to be the villain, as it is “non-art,” or even “anti-art,” it is Midcult which is the target of his worry and woe.

Midcult on a grand scale is a recent phenomenon, a combination of High and Masscult “that threatens to absorb both its parents.“ What seems to earn Macdonald’s ire most is the ambiguity of Midcult, that it masquerades as and “presents itself as part of High Culture.” Midcult is magazines like the Atlantic (but not, controversally, the New Yorker, his current employer, whom he defends in a long, self-conscious footnote), writers like H.G. Wells, the MOMA film department paying homage to Samuel Goldwyn, the Book-of-the-Month Club, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (winner of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize), Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and other works that incorporate techniques of the avant- garde while trafficking in the banal. In fact “the tepid ooze of Midcult is spreading everywhere,” from psychoanalysis to the ACLU to Hollywood Movies (whither the great directors like Chaplin and Keaton?) to the big idea books (David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders) to the trickling down of Bauhaus modernism. Where can a gentleman go to escape this blob-like phenomena of oozing Bauhaus?

This may seem like flat-out snobbery, and there is certainly an argument that what Macdonald is so eager to protect is an ideal of art which will ultimately have a smaller and smaller niche in a market-driven society (Macdonald’s quit the debate by the time he wrote “Midcult,” but at the beginning of his career he was active in the fierce Trotskyist versus Stalinist cockfights of the New York intelligensia). Yet there is a counter-argument that art which is “an expression of feelings, ideas, tastes, visions that are idiosyncratic and the audience similarly responds to them as individuals” is the specialty of subcultures, though the buttoned-down Macdonald is haughtily dismissive of the countercultural movements of his time, the “beatnik academy of letters” and the “action painters.” Macdonald claims they went Midcult because they had “too much publicity too soon; the more they try to shock the Midcult’s audience, the more they are written up in the Lucepapers [magazines owned by Macdonald’s former boss Henry Luce, like Time, etc.]; they are ‘different,’ that potent advertising word whose charm reveals how monotonous the landscape of Midcult has become.” To summarize, if you give the people something a little edgy, they ooh and aah at the dirty poems and the splatter paintings, yet still ultimately incorporate it into a safe, Midcult kind of space, especially once they see it in their regular newsmagazines.

But niches become more and more the norm of culture as we move from Macdonald’s time into our own. The pattern of cooptation of subcultures — shorthanded as the sellout — continues to be a leitmotif, and plenty of people from Basquiat boosters to Nirvana fans will recognize that “too much publicity too soon,” marks the slip into Midcult phenomenon. Though Macdonald claims of the beats and the action painters that they were never Highcult, I.e. never had their Bleach moment, a long list of artists, bands, and movements did and have in the last 50 years, some falling in (or leaping in?) to Midcult, some not. And not all have lost their ability to connect with individuals as a result of their Midcult, or even Masscult, success. From death metal to language poetry to performance art, there is a variegated landscape of sub- or even microcultures proliferating whose practitioners would be Highcult in Macdonald’s scheme yet resemble nothing he originally conceived of when hatching it.

What would Macdonald make of this? Maybe he would be impressed with our ability to escape Midcult and Masscult and create so many idiosyncratic art forms and ways to express ourselves outside a much more insidious and encroaching media than the world of the Lucepapers. Or maybe it would have had the Lord High Executioner sharpening his knives.

Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain by Dwight Macdonald