Ed Driscoll

The Demise of Middlebrow America

A new post by Andrew Ferguson on postwar essayist Dwight Macdonald and “The demise of middlebrow America” describes the shift in elite liberal thinking that transformed that ideology from nurturing to punitive during the course of the 1960s:

In the original introduction to Against the American Grain (1962), from which Summers selected most of the pieces in the new book, Macdonald saw two solutions to the “problem” of “everyone getting into the act,” culturally speaking: We could make “(a) an attempt to integrate the masses into high culture; or (b) a contrary attempt to define two cultures, one for the masses and the other for the classes.” He favored the second option, thinking the first was a fool’s errand. But a third option never occurred to him: that high culture would cease to exist, or at least disappear almost entirely from the general scene.

And that’s what happened. High culture and the middlebrow died one after the other. Both were victims of relativism—the quasi-religious faith of post-sixties eggheads, who abandoned any notions of objective excellence as culturally determined, or as mere artifacts of exploitation, or as mechanisms of social control, or as all of the above. When the idea of objective merit—one thing is better than another, and here’s why—went away, the aspiration to seek it went away, too.

The embrace of relativism meant that the second-rate would be conflated with the sublime. In the years after Macdonald’s essay, Menand writes approvingly, “a great river of pop, camp, soulful, performative [?], outrageous, over-the-top cultural products flooded the scene, and Macdonald’s system of cultural judgment was left stranded on the far shore.” As premier examples of this “culture of sophisticated entertainment,” he mentions  such unwatchable movies and TV shows as Bonnie and Clyde and All in the Family and the vastly overpraised music of Motown and Bob Dylan. In an amazing coincidence, all this sophistication matched the taste of Baby Boomers like Louis Menand and his peers. (Funny how that works.) Soon enough, being overschooled and undereducated themselves, they could take up their tenured professorships and apply tools of criticism that had been built for Henry James and Maurice Ravel and apply them to Alice Walker and Lou Reed, until the latter seemed as worthy as the former. I mean, who’s to say?

Relativism has the effect of Gresham’s law: The bad sooner or later drives out the good, and the low the high. Its triumph would have horrified Dwight Macdonald, to judge by the essays, while it bothers the Harvard professor not at all. Macdonald’s chief complaint about Midcult was that it would fudge distinctions between the genuinely beautiful and profound and its slipshod imitators. Macdonald always considered himself a man of the left, but in this collection you’ll find passages of surpassing right-wingery. In 1962 he published a furious protest against the just-published Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, in which the lexicographers officially abandoned the attempt to distinguish between the correct and incorrect usage of words.

There are several reasons that it is important to maintain standards in the use of a language. English, like other languages, is beautiful when properly used, and beauty can be achieved only by attention to form, which means setting limits. .  .  . The kind of permissiveness that permeates [Webster’s Third] results, oddly, in less rather than more individuality, since the only way an individual can “express himself” is in relation to a social norm—in the case of language, to standard usage. .  .  . If the very idea of form, or standards, is lacking, then how can one violate it?

I doubt that Macdonald knew the destructive power of his mockery of the middlebrow. He wasn’t a nihilist, as passages like this one prove. But he was a trendsetter, and when he and the other left-wing highbrows of his generation assailed bourgeois aspiration so devastatingly, so amusingly, the fashion-conscious intellectuals who followed him were bound to find all that striving for excellence infra dig—just too terribly middle class.

Read the whole thing. I was going to include this in the California post that just went up, but it seemed like it would be forcing it. But the demise of middlebrow culture in the mid-to-late 1960s did tremendous damage to America’s overculture — when all culture is pop culture, there’s little need to strive for greatness. One who championed the demise of middlebrow in the late 1960s was Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s film critic. As Canadian journalist Robert Fulford wrote a few years ago:

Kael, whose critical reputation was in its early stages, used Bonnie and Clyde as the opening shot in what turned out to be a war against middlebrow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road taste. Her New Yorker piece began: “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on? Bonnie and Clyde is the most excitingly American American movie since The Manchurian Candidate. The audience is alive to it.”

She announced no less than a revolution in taste that she sensed in the air. Movie audiences, she said, were going beyond “good taste,” moving into a period of greater freedom and openness. Was it a violent film?

Well, Bonnie and Clyde needed violence. “Violence is its meaning.”

She hated earnest liberalism and critical snobbery. She liked the raw energy in the work of adventurous directors such as Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. She trusted her visceral reactions to movies.

When hired as a regular New Yorker movie critic, she took that doctrine to an audience that proved enthusiastic and loyal. She became the great star among New Yorker critics, then the most influential figure among critics in any field. Books of her reviews, bearing titles such as I Lost it at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and When the Lights Go Down, sold in impressive numbers. Critics across the continent became her followers. Through the 1970s and ’80s, no one in films, except the actual moviemakers, was more often discussed.

It was only in the late stages of her New Yorker career (from which she retired in 1991) that some of her admirers began saying she had sold her point of view too effectively. A year after her death (in 2001) one formerly enthusiastic reader, Paul Schrader, a screenwriter of films such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, wrote: “Cultural history has not been kind to Pauline.”

Kael assumed she was safe to defend the choices of mass audiences because the old standards of taste would always be there. They were, after all, built into the culture. But those standards were swiftly eroding. Schrader argued that she and her admirers won the battle but lost the war. Acceptable taste became mass-audience taste, box-office receipts the ultimate measure of a film’s worth, sometimes the only measure. Traditional, well-written movies without violence or special effects were pushed to the margins. “It was fun watching the applecart being upset,” Schrader said, “but now where do we go for apples?”

Where indeed?