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David and Art - Dwight MacDonald pt. 2

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The work of an insightful critic shows that political and social questions often lead right into concerns about the arts and culture.

Last week I brought up the writings of a critic named Dwight MacDonald. He was born in New York City in 1906 and died in 1982, so he saw a lot of changes over the course of his life. His keen observations about art and its place within the broader society came not from the standpoint of an artist but from his role as a public intellectual and social critic. His story shows how people who are seriously engaged with social questions will eventually find themselves touching down on the role art plays in our lives, both individually and communally.

After graduating from Yale in 1928, MacDonald worked at Time magazine, and shortly thereafter became an associate editor at the new magazine Fortune, which, ironically, began publishing the year the Great Depression began. He left there in 1936 after a bitter editorial dispute and started working as an editor at Partisan Review—a leftist, even communist, magazine that understood literature, politics, and culture all to be intertwined in modern America. By the late ’30s, the editors were breaking with the Communist Party over Stalin’s purges.

He began writing for The New Yorker in the 1950s and by then was more interested in the role art and culture played in American life and alarmed at the rise of what he called mass culture.

His review in The New Yorker of the 1952 Revised Standard Version of the Bible was representative of his fear that artistic endeavors were being radically cheapened in the era of mass culture. He wrote that the new translation amounted to “stepping down the voltage of the King James Version so that it won’t blow any fuses.” The motive to produce the new translation was stylistic, he said, rather than scholarly. MacDonald wasn’t concerned about the theology or anything like that; he was concerned that a bedrock of the English language was being diluted in its stylistic and poetic impact. That its artistry, to use that word, was being cheapened.

So, what is the point of us, in 2022, getting to know Dwight MacDonald?

Well, we still must be able to differentiate between mass culture and real art. As he said, mass culture isn’t just bad art, it’s a totally different thing masquerading as art. Being able to see this is one of the keys to understanding art itself, since we are bombarded incessantly with mass culture and very little high culture—very little art—gets through. What does, is often reduced to mere cliché— the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, for example.

Next week let me tell you the story of MacDonald and Charlton Heston almost getting in a fight at the White House in 1965. That’s a good one. You won’t want to miss that.