By William Deresiewicz
“Masscult and Midcult,” Dwight Macdonald’s famous essay in cultural taxonomy, distinguished three levels in modern culture: High Culture, represented most recently by the modernist avant-garde but already moribund in Macdonald’s day; Mass Culture (“or Masscult, since it really isn’t culture at all”), also known as pop culture or kitsch (or, more recently, entertainment); and the insidious new form Macdonald labeled Midcult. Midcult is Masscult masquerading as art: slick and predictable but varnished with ersatz seriousness. For Macdonald, Midcult was Our Town, The Old Man and the Sea, South Pacific, Life magazine, the Book-of-the-Month Club: all of them marked by a high-minded sentimentality that congratulated the audience for its fine feelings.
“Masscult and Midcult” was published in 1960. In his introduction to a recent collection of Macdonald’s essays, Louis Menand wrote that the culture that was about to emerge in the ensuing decade, a hybrid of pop demotics and high-art sophistication—Dylan, the Beatles, Bonnie and Clyde, Andy Warhol, Portnoy’s Complaint—rendered Macdonald’s categories obsolete. Perhaps, but Masscult and Midcult are certainly still with us, even if there are other forms of culture, too. Masscult today is Justin Bieber, the Kardashians, Fifty Shades of Grey, George Lucas, and a million other things. Midcult, still peddling uplift in the guise of big ideas, is Tree of Life, Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Safran Foer, Middlesex, Freedom—the things that win the Oscars and the Pulitzer Prizes, just like in Macdonald’s day.
But now I wonder if there’s also something new. Not middlebrow, not highbrow (we still don’t have an avant-garde to speak of), but halfway in between. Call it upper middle brow. The new form is infinitely subtler than Midcult. It is post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies).
The upper middle brow possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity. It is genuinely good work (as well as being most of what I read or look at myself). The problem is it always lets us off the hook. Like Midcult, it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb—the definition of a true avant-garde—our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world. (Think, by contrast, of some truly disruptive works: The Wire, Blood Meridian, almost anything by J. M. Coetzee.)
There is a sociology to all of this. As Clement Greenberg pointed out in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939), the predecessor to Macdonald’s essay, high culture flourished under the aristocracy. Mass culture came in with mass literacy, while Midcult is a product of the postwar college boom, a way of catering to the cultural aspirations of the exploding middle class. Now, since the ’70s, we’ve gone a step further, into an era of mass elite and postgraduate education. This is the root of the so-called creative class, the Bobos, the liberal elite as it exists today. The upper middle brow is the cultural expression of this demographic. Its purpose is to make consciousness safe for the upper middle class. The salient characteristic of that class, as a moral entity, is a kind of Victorian engorgement with its own virtue. Its need is for an art that will disturb its self-delight.