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Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the…

Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain (New York Review…

by Dwight Macdonald

Other authors: Louis Menand (Introduction), John Summers (Editor)

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This is a cantankerous set of essays, combining a Menckensian scorn and distrust for the average Joe Plumber, but also a progressive's crusty anti-consumerism.

The title essay, Masscult and Midcult, describes cultural phenomenon with Orwellian phrasing. 'Masscult' is the commercialized media and culture produced for mass consumption, and 'midcult' is 'middlebrow' art - 'masscult' with the appearance of 'Highbrow' culture, or at least attempting to imitate it.

The watertight separation between art and culture for various social groups is not new. Macdonald traces the origins of 'masscult' to Folk Art. That, at least, was something original, made by the lower classes and for them, although perhaps unconsciously imitating High Culture. High Culture was never really popular, and perhaps never will be. But such is the nature of art, he says, produced by an individual, and beloved by few other individuals who have the breadth and depth of experience to attempt to understand it. Such is Folk Art, and High Culture.

What makes this masscult so different and so insidious compared to Folk art is its mass-production, as well as its underlying purpose. In the United States, masscult is a means of distraction and self-flattery. In the Soviet Union, it is propaganda. It is a tool to make the individual into a broader, malleable mass which is a 'market', and thus targeted and satiated with new products. Even worse - masscult is easily understood as such, but midcult is not - it is manufactured art, attempting to deceive those fledging middle-classes who, with the benefits of education for the first time, into thinking it is something greater.

After such a provocative starting piece, Macdonald does not relax in his later essays. His piece on James Agee's novels is thoughtful, and laments his early death, before he could mature after the passion of [b:Let Us Now Praise Famous Men|243360|Let Us Now Praise Famous Men|James Agee|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1348861035s/243360.jpg|1204501]. He drips acid onto some long-forgotten New York Times bestseller named 'James Gould Cozzens', noting so many deficiencies in style, in dialogue, in plot and in general execution that it is no wonder he has vanished from our memories. His scorn covers Mortimer Adler and the 'Great Books' salesman of the 1960s, the new inarticulate Biblical translations, and Tom Wolfe. I quote his comments after a particularly unbearable selection:

"It seems impossible but Wolfe has managed to get wrong the only two facts underlying all that echolalia."

The only problem I have with this selection is that it's too short. Macdonald is a piercing critic. Like the very best critics, he does not just attack, he often creates something of his own art in the process. A fine read. ( )
1 vote HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Dwight Macdonaldprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Menand, LouisIntroductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Summers, JohnEditorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 159017447X, Paperback)

A New York Review Books Original

An uncompromising contrarian, a passionate polemicist, a man of quick wit and wide learning, an anarchist, a pacifist, and a virtuoso of the slashing phrase, Dwight Macdonald was an indefatigable and indomitable critic of America’s susceptibility to well-meaning cultural fakery: all those estimable, eminent, prizewinning works of art that are said to be good and good for you and are not. He dubbed this phenomenon “Midcult” and he attacked it not only on aesthetic but on political grounds. Midcult rendered people complacent and compliant, secure in their common stupidity but neither happy nor free.

This new selection of Macdonald’s finest essays, assembled by John Summers, the editor of The Baffler, reintroduces a remarkable American critic and writer. In the era of smart, sexy, and everything indie, Macdonald remains as pertinent and challenging as ever.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:18 -0400)

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