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David and Art - "MacDonald and the Mass"

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In the 1950s, worries about an increasingly impersonal society led some critics to see a connection with a new kind of culture.

You’ve probably heard me talk a fair amount about “high culture” and “pop culture” and the differences between them. But I tend to toss around these labels without really exploring what I mean by them. In my classes we can take a day or two and talk about the rise of pop culture and the differentiation it brings, but here time is at a premium.

Just last week I got a new copy of an essay about all this that I hadn’t looked at for many, many years. It was written back in 1960 by a critic named Dwight MacDonald and it—more than any other source—really gets to the heart of what is different between high culture and what he called mass culture. I first came across it while writing my book on the roots of the NEA and it was influential in terms of how I think about this stuff.

In it, MacDonald points out mass culture isn’t the same as bad art. There’s been bad art produced in every epoch of human history. Great talent is rare. Through the centuries, most high culture wasn’t even that good. We just know the good leftovers. Mass culture though, he says, is “bad in a new way: it doesn’t even have the theoretical possibility of being good.” Up until the beginning of industrialization, “bad art was of the same nature as good art, produced for the same audience, accepting the same standards. The difference was simply one of individual talent.”

Before the industrial revolution and the urbanization that came with it, there was basically just high culture and folk art. Those were the two categories. Folk art grew from the people, not from artists. It was something that people created that fit their needs and had in it some of their own idiosyncratic personalities. As such, it was capable of being a true expression of the people. By contrast, MacDonald notes that mass culture “comes from above. It is fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen.” And it treats the people as an undifferentiated mass, not of art lovers, but as consumers buying a product.

This was the point at which culture and history intersected in a particular way and started to create what we now contend with every day almost without noticing it. “There could obviously be no mass culture until there were masses,” MacDonald writes. “The industrial revolution produced the masses. It uprooted people from their agrarian communities and packed them into factory cities.” Mass culture is a product of that age and is a weird amalgam of advertising and art aimed at as many people as possible with the concomitant stipulation that it had to be instantly comprehensible to everyone. Real art doesn’t work quite like that.