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What is the main argument in Dwight Macdonald's "A Theory of Mass Culture"?

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Dwight Macdonald was an American social critic born into an upper-class family in Brooklyn, New York.

One of his prominent essays, “A Theory of Mass Culture” (1957), bemoans the decline of highbrow art. Before the twentieth century, highbrow art was inaccessible to the majority of the population, as art was expressed as the singular vision of one artist. Additionally, only the educated could fully understand highbrow art: literacy and knowledge of artistic movements was necessary.

As the twentieth century proceeded, art became more accessible to the masses as more people were able to gain an education. The style of art also moved from projecting a vision to highlighting common items. Macdonald hated this change in subject matter, as he believed art was becoming a product of an industry or a society, and this almost mechanical nature of creating art made it “kitsch.”

In order to become a “successful” artist, one might simply need to create a product to be sold for the masses. Macdonald would consider this a product of capitalism and not a true piece of art, which requires difficult, intellectual discourse in order to understand. Macdonald also wrote about the “infantilization” of American adults, who allowed their laziness to erode their intellectual curiosity.

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MacDonald argues that “high culture” (e.g., serious art) has been effectively replaced with “mass culture,” which he defines as kitsch. Painting with what, in hindsight, seems a very broad brush (MacDonald is writing in 1953), he consigns to “kitsch“ television, radio, cinema (except for Griffith and Stroheim), magazines (Life magazine, and even the New Yorker), and popular art (Norman Rockwell, not mentioned, would fit the bill; MacDonald does mention the pin up artist Petty). 

This “dumbing down” of art is associated with a decline in ”real” intellectual discourse. Even within the elite, kitsch is present in the form of the academician movement (he mentions Somerset Maugham and Sir Edward Elgar as purveyors of a kind of phony intellectualism). Artists are transformed by mass culture into cultural workers, cogs in a culture industry that mass produces art for general consumption (Hollywood is again singled out). This leads to what MacDonald calls the “infantilization” of adults, and a kind of laziness or intellectual disengagement, which has eroded American society.

MacDonald concludes by saying that “mass culture can never be any good” because in his view it is essentially “nonhuman,” in that it is the product of an industry rather than the singular vision of an individual, the artist. 

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In this essay, which was originally published in 1953, McDonald examines the rise of mass culture, which he believes borrows in a parasitical fashion from high culture without giving anything in return. Unlike folk art, mass culture, or kitsch, does not arise from the traditions of ordinary people but is manufactured by business interests and imposed on masses of people.

McDonald's central argument is that mass culture competes with high culture and wins every time because it is easy to manufacture and consume. Unlike high art, mass culture does not demand much from its audience because it tells people how to react to it. In an attempt to borrow from high culture, there is also what McDonald refers to as a "tepid, flaccid Middlebrow Culture" starting to emerge. This culture, which attempts to merge elements of high and mass culture, does not succeed in producing anything of artistic value.

Mass culture, McDonald believes, must always cater to the lowest common denominator. He writes, "its morality sinks to that of its most brutal and primitive members, its taste to that of the least sensitive and most ignorant." Therefore, in a mass society like the United States, culture is doomed to be of low morals and without sensitivity, and high culture must suffer as a result.

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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.

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