“Every man has the right to be stupid, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege. (attrib to Leon. Trotsky when talking about Dwight MacDonald and often quoted thereafter by MacDonald.)”

Mascult and Midcult in “Essays Against the American Grain, Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture” is a classic essay by the American philosopher and political radical Dwight MacDonald, which had a profound effect on American culture and was first published in New York in 1962. Its relevance is astounding as the currents he identified – building upon Edward Bernays, Clement Greenberg and Theodor Adorno – have become the centre of the postmodern cultural landscape.

First published in Partisan Review, a magazine to which the leading New York progressive thinkers of the 30s, who were the intellects who effected the transfer of the avant garde from France to New York, contributed. This article revisits some of MacDonald’s key arguments. The issue of mass culture in the 20th Century has politically attempted to define the entirety of western culture. But looking at the Communist ideal or the Fascist dream, we would do ourselves a huge intellectual disservice if we assumed that mass-thinking was only developed in the western world by Marxists, Leninists or the demented National Socialists of Austria and Germany. The power of rulers to impose their thinking upon followers has always been with us and the willingness of people do as generals tell them has always been part of our societies. It is this willingness to be led that makes leadership possible.

MacDonald introduces the modern intellectual to the reductionism of industry and media-organised political debate. Redolent with artistic answers this speaks directly of human experience, the processes of keeping power and the present blind-spot in an art world given over to control and management which pays lip-service to the deeper needs of society accessed by artists. Behind much of Dwight MacDonald’s essay, like a second skin growing over his quest to give the ‘common man’ access to high culture, is the transposition of a narrow band of opinions into popular culture.
MacDonald writes:

“The past cultures I admire – Periclean Greece, the city states of the Italian Renaissance, Elizabethan England, are examples – have mostly been produced by communities, and remarkably small ones at that. Also remarkably heterogeneous ones, riven by faction, stormy with passionate antagonisms. But this diversity, fatal to that achievement of power over other countries that is the great aim of modern statecraft, seems to have been stimulating to talent. “

Many artists have stood apart, died, suffered penury and been castigated, imprisoned, tortured and ignored to serve their art. A feature of the industrial revolution when they ceased to be valued as artists unlike more ancient cultures. But the artist has never been a part of the crowd. In Masscult and Midcult: Essay Against the American Grain, Macdonald points to the ways in which modern societies – across the western world – reduce and corrupt the boundaries of creative thinking and tend toward a common denominator that can be sold to everyone. Politics is the sugar factory of popularism. Movies and TV, its marketing wing. Flags and statues its symbols. Patriotism its whip, Nationalism its oratory. In putting everything up for grabs we, monkeys that we are, grab everything with no discernment and little knowledge. And that exercise of grabbing requires no skill whatsoever. Popularism – masscult – wishes it could sell itself as high culture because it uses similar procedures – it paints, sculpts, writes, composes – but it has no skills other than selling. Postmodernism argues art needs no skill. The residue of Duchamp’s challenge is that ‘everything is art’ and so everyone is now an artist. Equality is achieved by the illusion well-managed publicity brings to the citizen. He points out this happened in America because the influx of millions of immigrants required an immediate solution as to how to integrate them and this was achieved through the magazine culture and appealing to the lowest common denominator of taste. This formula did not readily transfer to Europe which is less of a magazine culture, but commodity run capitalism and celebrity-as-commodity, certainly did and that now rules the art world.

Student Guide, Plymouth 2017

Although Communism fell the methods used in its tyranny have transmuted into late capitalism’s consumer ideology with consummate ease and underpin Postmodernism. Plymouth City Council in conjunction with Peninsula Arts and Plymouth University recently promoted a cultural festival using the clenched fist and star to publicize its activities – an allusion that needs no comment. Marx and Engels described in The Communist Manifesto (1848) , “Masscult (as) a dynamic, revolutionary force, breaking down the old barriers of class, tradition, and taste, dissolving all cultural distinctions. It mixes, scrambles everything together, producing what might be called homogenized culture, …”

This breakdown has fed into the late capitalist system and filtered through marketing (about the only thing that does require skill any more) becomes the selling of decorative commodities back to the masses as high culture. Or perhaps we should be more prosaic and say it is sold as the only culture one needs, the only culture that is important because it is the culture that makes money and, in theory, satisfaction is guaranteed. The lack of cultural argument, the silencing of the artist, the dominance of the few museums and galleries over the tax payers investments in exhibition spaces and projects, the limiting of chances and imposing of glass ceilings – are all communist ideas appropriated by the art world of late capitalism/postmodernism. Add to this the jargon used to expound the agenda, loosely called a liberal agenda though it is anything but – and you have the perfect description of 1984 in which artists now live. They may not all be getting sex on Thursdays but they have a system to masturbate, before they can achieve anything in the eyes of that system. There is no fame without the shame of compliance. They have completely forgotten that recognition in one’s own lifetime is not a mark of one’s artistic achievement – many names held in esteem in the days of the Academies are not even known today. But the feel good factor inherent in winning a competition, or being chosen for an exhibition in a blue-chip gallery, or even about selling a work to the local doctor, is so heady an experience it has come to be seen as commentary on one’s artistic merit.

Macdonald refers to Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century literary giant, and places him centre stage as the progenitor of Masscult. Followed by the Grub Street journalists. It is better to look not at a time, but a process. The process of urbanisation. The artist was severed from the patron by city life and entered into a situation of consensus with the public. The same happened in ancient Rome – the selling of a culture to the known world was what it meant to be a Roman Citizen, and the pinnacle of achievement was to become a Roman Citizen, the ancient equivalent of the Green Card today. Cicero came to loathe the Games, the birthplace of fascism, though much loved by the mass Roman populace 2,000 years ago. His invocation chimes like a bell for us, “Are you terrified of not being applauded?” Folk Art, the expression of rural culture made by rural workers for their own kind without any middle-man, cannot survive in the city and new, mass culture develops as artists have to ‘sell’ work to people to add to the income from patrons. In short, Masscult only appears when you have a market place of anonymous buyers.

Good and original artists fight back. That is the reason we write for the New Art Examiner. For MacDonald these good and original artists were the avant garde and were the finest opposition to Masscult  “… by the end of the nineteenth century the movement from which most of the enduring work of our time has come had separated itself from the market and was in systematic opposition to it. This movement, was, of course, the “avant-garde” whose precursors were Stendhal and Baudelaire and the impressionist painters, … What they had in common was that they preferred to work for a small audience that sympathized with their experiments because it was sophisticated enough to understand them. “

MacDonald did not experience today’s mass culture. Our Postmodern world has an element of shared symbols and therefore we cannot escape that both religion and morality are Masscult as they both change with the changing generations. There is an ebb and flow to and from the high culture to and from the mass culture. That is not to say we will have high culture again – in fact it hasn’t gone anywhere it is still the preserve of the few – but it is to say that giving high culture to uneducated people will not educate them. They are happy in their season; they would rather be fed than cook for themselves, they would rather be told they are free and believe it than see their chains. This is the shape of the child’s mind masquerading as the modern citizen with money in its pocket which they refuse to give up. The security that parents do the work and they can just play outside. In late capitalism this is where we are. No one can see the blood we wade through everyday to have the comforts we have with the billions of animals slaughtered every year to underpin our economic powerhouse, and no one genuinely wants to exchange central heating for a love of nature or banking for a more fully thought out ethics. Business and the Inland Revenue (IRS) will never give freedoms to the individual and so lose profit. This is why they say everything must be done so as not to upset the status quo. So people are sold a green energy that benefits land owners, serves the system and deprives them of independence solar panels in every home would do away with power stations). Art is sold as meaning. What it means to be British or American, or some other comfortable illusion. Art has become a flag waved to keep liberals busy thinking they have engineered a homogeneous society.

The same process works its way out in the blue-chip art world where tax payers build museums and galleries and fund artists giving government institutions the right to be patrons, and then those institutions decide what to sell back to the people as art. Taste was once the discernment of the well informed critical eye, now it is a form stamped and dated and filed in four different places: the government grant-aiding office, the lawyer’s office, the exhibition gallery and the accountant’s office. And those forms tell us what art is. As Greenberg writes in ‘Avant-garde and Kitsch” (1939) , an article MacDonald commissioned:

“Kitsch … predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a shortcut to the pleasures of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in the genuine art”

Masscult is often, by its very nature, kitsch. Institutions that start off avant garde, revolutionary, meaningful quickly get swallowed up in it as the institution’s name comes to mean more than the art. This is what has happened to St.Ives in Cornwall, once the leading light of the avant garde, now nothing more than a banal tourist trap. Why does this happen? MacDonald suggests:

“… for success in Masscult is that the writer, artist, editor, director or entertainer must have a good deal of the mass man in himself, as was. the case with Zane Grey, Howard Chandler Christy, Mr. Lorimer of the Post Cecil B DeMille, and Elvis Presley. This is closely related to sincerity – how can he take his work seriously if he doesn’t have this instinctive, this built-in vulgar touch? … But a significant part of our population is chronically confronted with a choice between looking at TV or old masters, between reading Tolstoy or a detective story; i.e., the pattern of their cultural lives is “open” to the point of being porous. For a lucky few, this openness of choice is stimulating. But for most, it is confusing and leads at best to that middlebrow compromise called Midcult.”

From An Illustrated Guide to Guy Debord’s ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, Hyperallergice 2016. © Laura Purje

Postmodernism is a strange hybrid using masscult and midcult techniques and arguments to portray what it is not: an advanced aesthetic worthy of a thinking, rational animal that has pretensions to travel across the stars. “In these more advanced 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 vulgarize them.”

For an example of Midcult let us look at Garrison Keeler with his long running Prairie Home Companion on Minnesota Public Radio. Like the stage manager in Thorntom Wilder’s ‘Our Town’ described by MacDonald:

“He is the perfect American pragmatist, folksy and relaxed because that’s jest the way things are and if any buddy hankers to change ’em that’s their right only (pause, business of drawing reflectively on pipe) chances are ‘t won’t make a sight of difference (pipe business again) things don’t change much…”

MacDonald treats of books and plays – he is a literary man – but plays are a stage of their own – a fiction of time and make-up, set design and audiences are there to be entertained. That doesn’t deny they can be thought-provoking but plays must never be boring. People leave. To entertain for its own sake is to be purely Midcult. To entertain the culturally literate is to be diverting. Plays can lose their polish – how many Bernard Shaw plays have lasted? Major Barbara is about it. Who puts on a Shellye play today or even knows the poet wrote them? A little like asking someone to quote a Michelangelo sonnet. If you don’t study you won’t know he wrote any but his brother, a religious zealot, told Michelango that although his talent must have come from god he would never be an artist until he could write a sonnet. I wonder how many of the celebrity artists today could so something in another arty form half as well.

“The danger is that the values of Midcult, instead of being transitional – “the price of progress” – may now themselves become a debased, permanent standard …The crisis in America is especially severe. Our creators are too isolated or too integrated. Most of them merge gracefully into Midcult, feeling they must be part of “the life of our time,” whatever that means (I should think it would be ambitious enough to_try to be part of one’s own life), and fearful of being accused of snobbishness, cliqμeism, negativism or, worst of all, practicing “art for art’s sake” (though for what better sake?). One might also cite Ortega y Gasset’s observation, apropos of “the barbarization of specialization”: “Today, when there are more scientists than ever, there are fewer cultured men than, for example, in 1750.”

He asks what can be done. Some want a return to the aristocratic class as patrons dictating taste. Others suggest a culture that only offers high culture. MacDonald continues:

“The masses-and don’t let’s forget that this term includes the well-educated fans of The Old Man and the Sea, Our Town, J.B., and John Brown’s Body-who have been debauched by several generations of this sort of thing, in turn have come to demand such trivial and comfortable cultural products. Which came first, the chicken or the egg, the mass demand or its satisfaction (and further stimulation), is a question as academic as it is unanswerable. The engine is reciprocating and shows no signs of running down.”

In much the same way as when this writer talks about money having to go and a new way of thinking be taught to create high functioning society without it, I point out that the sophisticated thinking needed in each individual for such a society to function does not yet exist. We have 7 billion answers to the problems and the same number to the problems of Midcult. First and foremost to get people to even accept there is a problem. What’s wrong with millionaire brand name artists? What’s wrong with glass ceilings if we can let artists retreat into their precious self-reliance of personal creativity and sense of purity. Many are. None of them are fighting the prevalence of Midcult.

The problem is after two generations of midcult and masscult we have produced Brexit, Trump, Nazi flags flying on the streets of the USA, one third of Jewish people feeling they may leave the UK, Blacks being targeted for execution by police, a strong reaction against diversity within countries, a hatred of political correctness and magnificent artists in every media ignored just as they were in the past. The trite has ruled for so long we believe the lies that politicians feed us, debate has vanished in favour of opinion, and magazines that burn with fervour are little read. The old Bohemia is dead, artists might moan but they do little because they have been neutered by their own vanity. They are artists. Their art matters to them therefore it matters. There doesn’t have to be anything else. I beg to differ. Once a work of art is finished it belongs to the world, and what you say to the world is who you are as a human being. Say the same thing endlessly and you are boring, be obscure and you are pointless, but put yourself on the ‘thorns of life’ and bleed and you will become an artist.

“The conservatives are right when they say there has never been a broadly democratic culture on a high level. This is not because the ruling class forcibly excluded the masses this is Marxist melodrama-but quite simply because the great majority of people at any given time (including most of the ruling class for the matter) have never cared enough about such things to make them an important part of their lives.”

It has been said that a great statesmen takes the people where they wanted to go anyway but makes them think they have been led there. We have to face the fact that many people like Mass- and Midcult and do not want high culture. How many they are we cannot count, but our struggle is to find those who want high culture and let it shine through to them and to do that Mass- and Midcult must also be allowed to shine, and individual taste evolved within the structures of thinking of the individual. Our struggle is from within the art establishment, with those who have brought consumerism to the doors of talent and kicked talent out. With those who actually think the common man necessarily means a lowbrow sensibility. With vanity and ego and the turning of art into some form of monopoly where you can actually have ‘the 100 most powerful people in the art world’ listed in a magazine and not one of them be a critic, or a writer and but 10 or so actually practising artists.

Postmodernism is the contemporary fulfilment of Midcult. Postmodernism and cultural failure are equivalents. Postmodernism pinned its colours to money making and capitalism is dying as we lurch from one crash to another. Whatever is going to emerge from this ruination of culture, from the mad-grab to wear the clothes of Van Gogh while living in a bungalow in Cornwall or a loft in New York, the New Art Examiner will talk and write about it as we care. The language of the image is the oldest of all languages. We are defined by the images we create as individuals and as a society. There is no place for complacency. As Louis Menand wrote in the New Yorker in 2011,

“… it suggests the remorse-lessness of Macdonald’s commitment to exposing the self-promotion, self-satisfaction, and self-delusion that are always wrapped up in the business of making and appreciating art. That exposure is one of the foundational tasks of criticism, and Macdonald is one of its great exemplars.


Daniel runs his own blog at daniel.footstepsbooks.com, entitled One Man’s Mind

Volume 32 no.2 November/December 2017 pp 7-11

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