Thursday, April 18, 2013

Midcult and the 21st century

 Post-war USA saw the predominance of mass culture with the rise of television, rock and roll, bestselling books, self-conscious consumerism, pop heroes, pop art, and pop stars.  Mass culture, designed as a one size fits all entertainment to reach the widest possible audience.  Elite culture went into retreat.  I read Dwight MacDonald's seminal essay, "Masscult and Midcult." The essay, which appeared in 1960 in the New Yorker, lashed out at middlebrow art. While low art always existed throughout Western history in the form of folk art; the new midcults took high art and transmogrified it in a way to reach the masses.  Basically, MacDonald argued midcult cheated its audience.  For example instead of reading Romeo and Juliet, one could watch a massively popular Broadway show like West Side Story.  For MacDonald, such artistic endeavors cheapened literature because it had the pretension to masquerade as high culture.  Yes, I suppose it's fair to call to MacDonald a snobbish elitist, but his ideas are are an intriguing mix of stodginess and prophecy.

Building upon the work of the Frankfurt School's Marxist critque of the show business industry, MacDonald used Ernest Hemingway's career as a case study.  In his early writings, Hemingway mastered the short story while living as an ex-patriot in Paris under the strong influence of modernists Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.  MacDonald cited "The Defeated" as a masterful examination of mortality with the story's painstaking attention to character development through detailed descriptions of mood.  In 1953, Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea and later the Nobel Prize.  MacDonald crticized the novel as a sellout to the middlebrows with its "pseudo-biblical" language and overtly broad characterizations.  The nuance of Hemingway's early work gave way to a need to write something the "masses" would read and consider literature.  Thornton Wilder's Our Town is another target.  Wilder, who's play is about the passing of time in small town America with all its folksy wisdom.  Once again, instead taking on issues of mortality and the real problem of economic equality, Our Town, side steps the issues in favor of bland sentimentality.
High and Low Culture Merge

Ideas raised in "Midcult" seem partly from another era, but strangely prophetic.  By the late 1960s, the whole "middlebrow" system broke down.  Intellectuals started taking rock music seriously. The London Times declared the release of Sgt. Pepper Lonely Heart's Club Band  a decisive moment in Western Civilization. College kids couldn't get enough of Marvel Comics brand of complex superheroes the Fantastic Four and Spiderman (one fan was Italian filmmaker Fellini once visited Marvel headquarters).  Pop culture began to envelop high culture.  MacDonald insisted a democracy must insist on the highest standards of art and never settle for quick, easy solutions.  By essay's end he envisions a revolt of the artists who aspire to high art will find their esprit de corps and set themselves off from society.

 Mad Men, which many consider the finest fiction writing anywhere these days, shows the possibilities of good TV.  Long running dramas like The Sopranos unfolded like a novel with complex character developments, subplots, and ambitious themes.  Mad Men is set in the 1960s; a time when mass media exploded on television.  In a brilliant fifth season episode, ad man Don Draper and colleague attend a Rolling Stones concert and witness the powerful combination of rock and roll and youth culture; a young fan tells Draper, "you guys are jealous because you never had any fun."  Both are enthralled with the energy or the Stones, but also see them as a marketing tool.  The irony, however, is Madison Avenue now uses anything considered hip and revolutionary as a marketing tool.  Outbursts of personal expression fall under the spell of mass media.  One time revolutionary bands of the past now sell their songs to monolithic corporations. A recurring theme in Mad Men is the struggle for individual identity in an increasingly homogenized world. I would speculate that Macdonald would be a fan of Mad Men because of its realistic engagement with 20th century America.

MacDonald predicted the fragmentation of culture in his essay. As audience tastes become more and more diverse he hoped the middlebrow impulse would go away, and he predicted, "perhaps one would rather pay for bread than get stones for nothing."  But today, with so much entertainment out there; consumers know some of is good for them and some serves as time filler.  Currently, I'm in the process of reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. The addictive nature of mass media is central to the novel.  In the bleak 21st century of of Infinite Jest, the West is controlled by corporations (corporate sponsorship replaces the Gregorian calendar), people thirst for non-stop entertainment available at a moment's notice.  The catchphrase, "getting the entertainment"  takes on many meanings in the Jest.  Personal relationships are dissonant.  Is isolation the price we pay? Champions of middlebrow maintain art aimed at the masses can have a transcending (or cosmic) effect.  MacDonald scoffed at the notion; he imagines great art usually comes from alienation and isolation.  Are such distinctions still necessary?  Does the question still matter?  


The passing of Roger Ebert is significant here as well.  Ebert wrote about every type of movie. Campy classics or obscure b-movies had a place beside the films of Antonioni or Bergman.  Ebert's Midwestern background had a strain of anti-elitism combined with an open mindedness towards art films made to challenge or even provoke its audience.  MacDonald himself wrote film criticism in a recognition of film's ability to weave between levels of expression.  Nevertheless, over 50 years later the idea of Midcult still has an edge and a point of view to ponder.