Is imitation high art—like ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ or the work of Matthew Barney—cheapening the real thing?

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.

Like so many pieces of dazzling cultural analysis, “Masscult and Midcult” was longer on analysis than it was on solutions. That’s perfectly fine. A writer has achieved a great deal when he has identified some large movement within the culture, some force that is changing the way we understand the arts. Macdonald explained—magnificently—how the intensity, the difficulty, the strangeness that should characterize the experience of art had been compromised and traduced by this curious phenomenon that he called midcult. What may have been missing from Macdonald’s argument (and here he was perhaps more of a product of the ideologies of the 1930s than he imagined) was a faith in the flexibility and independence of the individual mind—a belief that the taste of the individual could trump the taste of the group. Or perhaps I should say that this aspect of the argument was not missing from Macdonald’s essay so much as it was not emphasized enough. I say this not to criticize Dwight Macdonald, but to remind all of us that the problems we are facing can overwhelm, or at least can threaten to overwhelm, our capacity to find the way forward.

MacDonald’s reluctance to believe that people can think independently cropped up early in “Masscult and Midcult,” when he wrote about an issue of Life magazine in which there were “nine color pages of Renoir paintings followed by a picture of a roller-skating horse.” Macdonald’s feeling was that “somehow these scramblings together seem to work all one way, degrading the serious rather than elevating the frivolous”—leaving the impression that “both Renoir and the horse were talented.” I understand Macdonald’s reaction. I’ve had similar reactions. But I am not so sure that Macdonald is right. Why does he assume that there aren’t some readers who will look at the Renoirs and the roller-skating horse and conclude that the Renoirs are an achievement of an altogether different order, something about which they want to know more? What Macdonald is writing about is the dumbing-down of culture. I would be the last person to deny that this is a problem—an enormous problem. Arguably, it is a far bigger problem today than it was a half a century ago. Strange to say, it may be that our ever-darkening situation makes it all the more imperative to believe that people can, one by one, find their way through the confusions of contemporary culture. This is something that Dwight Macdonald, whatever his anxieties about consumer culture, ought to have understood. He was, after all, the author of a book entitled The Root is Man, in which he dismissed the faith in impersonal historical processes that had obsessed the Marxists of the 1930s.

Couldn’t it be that a few young readers who first encounter Hemingway as the bombastic author of The Old Man and the Sea will sense something there, some spark of inspiration or authenticity, that pushes them to look elsewhere—and to encounter Hemingway in his earlier, more intensely felt work? Even in an audience that has become inured to the dissimulations of midcult, there must be a few people who find their way back (or is it forward?) to the real thing. Macdonald closed his essay with at least a spark of hope. He introduced a dazzling passage from Kierkegaard about the dangers of seeing the public as a monolith, “a monstrous abstraction, an all-embracing something which is nothing, a mirage.” In the midst of this dark vision, Kierkegaard speaks of the possibility that some individual can announce that he is the public—and can, perhaps, shift the public’s attention. And so we are left hoping that an individual can take an independent stand. I am convinced that there were at least a few people who went to the Guggenheim to see the Matthew Barney show and knew immediately, instinctively that his work was a fraud. And among those few visitors, there have to have been an even smaller group, half a dozen would be enough, who found their attention turning to Frank Lloyd Wright’s astonishing building. They may not have even known Wright’s name, or his place in the history of architecture, but they were capable of beginning to sense his subtleties of form and feeling—and in doing so they were rejecting midcult and embracing artistic experience, pure and simple. For them, midcult was an introduction to culture—the wrong introduction, no doubt, but an introduction, nonetheless.

Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.