I hadn’t heard of Dwight Macdonald before, but I liked some of this review (subscribers only) by Edward Mendelson of a collection of Macdonald’s essays (US, UK) in the New York Review in March.

I was particularly taken with his word “midcult”:

The title essay, published in 1960, takes gleeful pleasure in deflating The Old Man and the Sea and other earnest, high-sounding books and plays that served an audience who aspired to be intellectual and avant-garde without being either. Unlike mass-produced popular culture, “midcult” — Macdonald’s Soviet-sounding shorthand for middlebrow culture — “pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarises them.”

Macdonald was writing less about bad art and greedy publishers than about what it means to let oneself disappear into a passive and anonymous public. Reviewers complained that Macdonald didn’t like the masses. What he didn’t like was anyone’s willingness to be submerged into a mass and the culture that profited each time someone sank into it.

A quick Google turned up this 2011 article about Macdonald by Louis Menand at the New Yorker, with plenty more on the theme:

[In the essay ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, by Clement Greenberg, edited by Macdonald] Greenberg explained that both avant-garde art and kitsch (that is, popular, or commercial, culture) were by-products of the industrial revolution. Art became avant-garde when serious artists turned inward, away from a society they felt alienated from. In the case of painting, artists moved from representation to abstraction, from attention to the world to attention to the pain. Kitsch — the word means trash, or, as Greenberg put it in his letter to Macdonald, crap — was a consequence of the fact that the industrial revolution had made universal literacy possible, and the new technology of mechanical reproduction permitted an ersatz culture to be manufacture cheaply for an audience looking for entertainment and diversion. This manufactured culture killed off folk art, which was a genuine popular culture.

And then, later, continuing with this:

“Folk Art was the people’s own institution, their private little garden,” Macdonald argued in the new essay. “But Mass Culture breaks down the wall, integrating the masses into a debased form of High Culture and thus becoming an instrument of political domination.” The most insidious development in this process was what he called l’avant-garde pompier, phony avant-gardism. As he put it, “There is nothing more vulgar than sophisticated kitsch.”

Macdonald eventually categorized this pseudo avant-gardism as the culture of middlebrow aspiration — Midcult. Real kitsch, he decided, could be left to the masses. The true enemy was bourgeois high-mindedness in literature, music, theatre, art, and criticism, and, over the next ten years, he turned much of his critical might to the job of identifying this culture, exposing its calculated banalities, and, often with genuine success, persuading readers of its meretriciousness.

He demolished several books in reviews, such as Colin Wilson’s The Outsider and James Gould Cozzens’s By Love Possessed:

Macdonald did not consider the books he was reviewing to be isolated cases of bad writing or false premises. He regarded them as representative of a formidable and dangerous historical development: the rise of a shallow and pretentious literary and intellectual culture for people who were educated but essentially uncultivated, living, as he put it, beyond their “cultural means.”

The article goes on to the point at which we arrived, the essay ‘Masscult and Midcult’, “a kind of summa of the New York highbrow’s contempt for bourgeois culture”, and a discussion of the torturous logic involved in decided whether the New Yorker itself, for which Macdonald wrote, was middlebrow or not.

In focusing on this one point I’ve made Dwight Macdonald sound rather one note and entirely snobbish, like a mid-century New York Brian Sewell when in fact he sounds more varied and contradictory, just as concerned with morality as with aesthetics.

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