Down with the Elites! Or, How I Joined the Cultural Tea Party

by Michael Potemra


Franklin Foer has an excellent article on Dwight Macdonald, phrasing better than I ever have been able to the fundamental objection I have to Macdonald’s famous distinctions involving “Masscult” and “Midcult,” and highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow. Macdonald objected to what he saw as the trivialization of “high” culture by its being made available to the masses. Foer quotes a great passage from Macdonald:

The same issue [of Life magazine] will present . . . nine color pages of Renoir paintings followed by a picture of a roller-skating horse. . . . Somehow these scramblings together seem to work all one way, degrading the serious rather than elevating the frivolous. Defenders of our Masscult society like Professor Edward Shils of the University of Chicago — he is, of course, a sociologist — see phenomena like Life as inspiriting attempts at popular education — just think, nine pages of Renoirs! But that roller-skating horse comes along, and the final impression is that both Renoir and the horse were talented.

This passage is reminiscent of Mark Steyn in its coruscating wit, but that should not obscure the fact that it is basically misguided and wrong. As Foer comments:

The laugh line is so good that you initially fail to appreciate the foulness of the underlying argument. Macdonald considered Life’s readers too dunderheaded to differentiate the achievements of French impressionism from a silly pet trick. While history offers plenty of reasons to estimate ungenerously the intelligence of the common man, this seems particularly nasty, because it banished ordinary people — mid-people, we might say — to the realm of darkness.

Spot on, Mr. Foer. And Foer is also correct in diagnosing the basic problem with Foer’s taxonomy:

[Macdonald] keeps cramming the writers, artists, music, and buildings that he dislikes into his definition of midcult. By the end, midcult has expanded to include the Museum of Modern Art, the American Civil Liberties Union, The Reporter, the neoclassical architecture of the Supreme Court, Walter Lippmann, and Max Lerner. And we can watch him contort himself to exempt favorites such as Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens from his indictment, even though they posed the most damning challenge to his snobbish categories. Dickens was a genius and Dickens was popularly revered: he was “high” and “mass.” The same could be said of Shakespeare. Go figure.

The lesson I take away from this is that Macdonald’s intellectual sin was to confuse categories: He tried to splinter a scale of aesthetic merit onto a scale of social-cultural snobbery, and it simply didn’t fit. As Foer’s examples of Shakespeare and Dickens indicate — and there are many other examples that come to mind, from Alfred Hitchcock to Mad Men and The Sopranos — high aesthetic achievement is only incidentally related to popularity with a high social/cultural/intellectual class, and unpopularity with a lower class. I used to view my objection to Macdonald as basically the same thing that is often vilified as “postmodernism” — an effacement of any distinction between “high” and “low.” Foer offers a more nuanced and accurate way to think about it. The way I would phrase it now is that it is very dangerous to judge a work based more on the kind of people who like it than on the your immediate reaction to the work. If you insist on judging a work by its fans, you will end up having to engage in the “contortions” that Foer describes, and your categories will not be helpful — as, I have always felt, Macdonald’s are not.