Masscult and Midcult, by Dwight McDonald

coverAuthors like to bash critics by saying, “Oh, what has this jerk ever created? He’s just tearing down something he could never equal.” And even if we ignore the main problem with that (the thing that the critic has created is a work of prose–literary criticism–that can be evaluated according to the aesthetic criteria that we use to evaluate all prose nonfiction), I think the reason that critics are often able to say interesting and provocative things simply because they stand outside the system of artistic production.

For me, the most interesting aspect of Dwight McDonald’s volume of literary criticism, Masscult and Midcult, is his examination of Midcult, or middle-culture. For starters, McDonald defines the Masscult as the cultural product that simultaneously fulfills the mass audience’s need to be distracted without expending energy. Unlike true art, which makes some demand on the part of the viewer or reader or listener, the Masscult is mere anesthetic: it’s something that the audience turns to so that they don’t have to think:

For about two centuries Western culture has in fact been two cultures: the traditional kind—let us call it High Culture—that is chronicled in the textbooks, and a novel kind that is manufactured for the market. This latter may be called Mass Culture, or better Masscult, since it really isn’t culture at all. Masscult is a parody of High Culture. In the older forms, its artisans have long been at work. In the novel, the line stretches from the eighteenth-century “servant-girl romances” to Edna Ferber, Fannie Hurst and such current ephemera as Burdick, Drury, Michener, Ruark and Uris; in music, from Hearts and Flowers to Rock ’n Roll; in art, from the chromo to Norman Rockwell; in architecture, from Victorian Gothic to ranch-house moderne; in thought, from Martin Tupper’s Proverbial Philosophy (“Marry not without means, for so shouldst thou tempt Providence;/But wait not for more than enough, for marriage is the DUTY of most men.”) to Norman Vincent Peale. (Thinkers like H.G. Wells, Stuart Chase, and Max Lerner come under the head of Midcult rather than Masscult.) And the enormous output of such new media as the radio, television and the movies is almost entirely Masscult.

Anyway, I don’t expect most of my readership to agree with McDonald’s assertions above. But, to me, the more interesting part of the title essay was the notion of Midcult, which is work that’s just as soulless and formulaic as Masscult, but which also satisfies the reader’s need to think of him or herself as a cultured person. While Masscult can often be perfectly popular even if everyone thinks that it’s schlock (think Marvel movies or Dan Brown novels), the Midcult is something that can only be successful if its consumers perceive it as having artistic value.

And I think that’s a fascinating and valuable distinction to make.

We all know that the middlebrow exists, but we’re reluctant to try to define it or to think about which books might belong within it. There’s something about game which seems very dangerous. The ‘middlebrow’ label is such a dangerous weapon, and it would be so easy for someone else to turn it back upon us.

But McDonald doesn’t share that reluctance. He’s very quick to name and analyze several Midcult novels (his most famous example is Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea).

McDonald goes off on a long riff about how education levels have increased without a corresponding increase in culture. Because of the rise of college education, we have increasing numbers of intelligent and skilled people who are, in some ways, the heirs to the old gentry, but who have none of the gentry’s taste or discernment.

The result is a class of people who are educated enough to want culture, but not educated enough to know it for themselves. And they are the ones who latch onto works that display external markers of culture and then try to elevate them into art. For instance, McDonald writes that novels which show concern for the working class and attention to social problems are more likely to be seen as ‘art’ (even though these themes really have no bearing on its aesthetic qualities), because middlebrow readers are able to perceive a novel’s theme, but they’re not able to perceive its aesthetic qualities.

All very fascinating stuff.

That being said, McDonald does come off as a bit haughty. There’s plenty of aesthetic worth in many of the things that he defines as Masscult or Midcult (for instance, H.G. Wells is a distinctive, inventive and interesting writer).

8 thoughts on “Masscult and Midcult, by Dwight McDonald

  1. Wm Henry Morris (@WmHenryMorris)

    1. Morlock Publishing (@MorlockP)

      > It is best characterized by the tones of an NPR host. Serious. Concerned. Calm. Reasonable. Not angry. Not crass. Not too thinky.

      Heh. As someone who’s writing a book with a NPR analog (“DC Minute”), this EXACTLY captures the tone that I parody. Well phrased.

  2. Morlock Publishing (@MorlockP)

    > There’s something about game which seems very dangerous.

    Oh, sure! I might start out trying to yank the rug out from under my neighbor – to show that I’m more clever than he is and thus in a slightly more rarified bin – and succeed in yanking the rug out from BOTH of us.

    And then where do I go from there? Just say !@#$ it and turn on the “oww, my balls!” channel? Or decide to climb the ladder and read more challenging work which is often – wait for it – challenging and not as fun?

    Better to step back from the precipice.

    (Not that I’m painting myself as an etheral consumer of rarified art; I’m not. I’m comfortable living somewhere in the masscult / midcult world. I prefer China Mieville over Ringo, sure, but I’m not off reading Proust).

  3. Tristan Gans

    The following things are midcult:

    1. Fiction-based books, movies, and tv shows set in the U.K. and marketed to the U.S.
    2. Animated films and tv shows marketed to children (and adults!)
    3. Sports that are not baseball, basketball, football, or hockey
    4. News outlets that are not explicitly celebrity-based
    5. Furniture more expensive than stuff from Target, but not custom-made
    6. Tapas
    7. Being spiritual but not religious
    8. Sexual Intercourse
    9. Dasein

  4. Becca

    Can I rec you a book as part of this discussion? Let’s Talk About Love is probably I think the best work of criticism I’ve read on the topic of taste and low/high culture. (I mean, bear in mind that my own personal kneejerk reaction to anyone complaining about how HIGH TASTE AND ART IS DYING because OH NO THE MIDDLE CLASS is to dismiss them as elitist and pretentious, but.)

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