Friday, August 06, 2010

Where Is Your Brow? Midcult? Middlebrow?

'Nobody talks about “midcult” anymore. I wonder how many people are even aware of this nifty coinage. I like the clipped sound of those two syllables locked together, the efficiency with which “middle” and “culture” have been shortened, abbreviated, then spliced together. Dwight Macdonald tossed midcult into the intellectual playground with his 1961 essay, “Masscult and Midcult,” originally published as a pamphlet by Partisan Review. And whatever the strengths and the weaknesses of that long, elaborate essay, the word has its own kind of mid-twentieth-century fascination. The grandeur of the ideas encompassed by those two syllables echo the sweeping philosophic visions—of Hegel, of Marx, and of Nietzsche—that had dominated thought in the 1930s, when Macdonald was a young man. And the compression of the word itself—its snap, its ready-for-primetime precision—suggests the quickening pace of mid-century Manhattan, the sleek efficiency of a corporate logo designed by Paul Rand.

Macdonald—an anti-Communist Leftist who had been turning his energies from politics to culture in the 1950s—was worried about the place of the arts in a modern, democratic society. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to worry about. Macdonald was appalled by the cheapening of art and literature in a big, complex, contemporary culture, about the extent to which people were being fed—and, sometimes it seemed, force-fed—a preprocessed, easy-to-digest version of art, literature, theater, and music. This was what he called “masscult,” which was “at best a vulgarized reflection of High Culture and at worst a cultural nightmare.” Instead of Old Master paintings, people were getting Norman Rockwell. Instead of Bach and Mozart, they were getting the Boston Pops. And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was also midcult to contend with. Midcult was a newer idea, a mid-century variation on the phenomenon of mass culture. Midcult, Macdonald argued, “pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.” Midcult was Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—works, so Macdonald argued, that mimicked the profundity and complexity and unconventional language and structure we expect from original works of art. Midcult was imitation high culture—a cheapening of the deepest artistic experiences that was passed off as deep experience.

There is a great deal to admire in Macdonald’s argument. He can sound almost prophetic when he writes—and this was a long time ago, in 1961—that “the special threat of Midcult is that it exploits the discoveries of the avant-garde.” That could easily double as a description of a lot of what goes on in the art world today. A case in point was the Matthew Barney show a few years back at the Guggenheim. That was midcult on a massive scale. Barney embraced all the discoveries of modern art—the willful obscurity marshaled for psychological power, the juxtaposing and collaging of diverse elements. But all those discoveries were cheapened and simplified, turned into mass spectacle. This was Surrealism reimagined as Disneyland—a perfect example of the problem that Macdonald had identified in 1961.'

...from a thoughtful article in TNR and to keep reading...

Related Links:

1) "When did people become so unwilling to get in a little over their heads?" Jed Perl
2) Wiki page on "middlebrow"

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