What is Dwight Macdonald essentially saying in his essay entitled "A Theory of Mass Culture"?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Macdonald argues that mass culture is culture that is produced by a process resembling industry, and marketed to people in mass society, which he regards as atomistic and lacking in traditional notions of community. Mass culture is generally unsophisticated, homogenized, and standardized, as opposed to high culture, which was more sophisticated and nuanced. It should be noted that high culture could be popular as well, like, for example, Beethoven or Mozart.

The biggest difference between the two, other than the sophistication that Macdonald viewed as self-evident in high culture, was the fact that mass culture was deliberately crafted to appeal to mass society. It was, he said, "solely and directly an article for mass consumption, like chewing gum." He also differentiates between mass culture and "folk culture," which he characterizes as "a spontaneous, autochthonous expression, shaped by themselves."

Mass culture, on the other hand, was "imposed from above."

It was fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen; its audiences are passive consumers, their participation limited to the choice between buying and not buying. The Lords of kitsch, in short, exploit the cultural needs of the masses in order to make a profit and/or to maintain their class rule...

Mass culture could be a tool of capitalist societies, as the above quote suggests, but it was also used by dictators, including communist dictators, to perpetuate their power, or "class rule." His critique is best understood in its context. Macdonald wrote in the midst of the expansion of television, radio, popular music, fast food, and other cultural changes that caused much anxiety for intellectuals.