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Dwight Macdonald. Chant the name three times in an academic setting and watch the paint run off the walls. This is not so gross an exaggeration: When the academy conjures its tutelary deity of the high-brow, low-brow distinction, it squirms with self-doubt and self-defense at the possibility that the canon is still that walled garden cultivated only by elites. A cultural critic of the midcentury New York intellectual breed, Dwight Macdonald levelled many a fabulous polemic against so-called “sham art.” The cultural products Macdonald went to war against included the low-brow trash filling the bins of mass culture, anti-art manufactured so plainly for the purpose of turning a profit that Macdonald nicknamed it Masscult, careful not to grant it the status of “culture" at all. And then there is Macdonald’s archenemy, Midcult, or middle-brow culture. Like Masscult, Midcult is also a manufactured, profit-seeking pseudoculture, but, unlike the baseborn, unassuming low-brow, Midcult is convinced of its own sophistication. It is shallow, formulaic, usually enjoyable, and sometimes quite smart entertainment that attempts to copy the depth and value of high culture. Keyword: attempts. Macdonald, the good doctor, famously diagnosed Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” H.G. Wells, and Andy Warhol with stage four Midcult.
Macdonald’s cultural criticism has been presumed dead for decades. After all, his admittedly snobbish views are in some senses antithetical to the project of the liberal arts. However, even as the literary canon disagrees with Macdonald on the point of “The Old Man and the Sea,” its discriminatory tastes still uphold a kind of high-brow, low-brow distinction. In fact, we, as individual cultural consumers, are somewhat brow-bent. When I declare the majesty of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” and denounce Michael Bay’s “6 Underground” as a garbage fire, am I not signaling my own high-minded refinement? Surely, Macdonald would find it splendidly ironic that today, the high-low dichotomy is taken up by popular culture warriors: people like you and me, like everyone who, in daily life, recommends slates of “visionary” indie films to our friends. We might throw in the occasional action-packed thrill ride, but only with the self-edifying caveat that it is, of course, a big-budget lobotomy, but if you’re in the mood, who knows? Filling out our Oscar ballots, we render the world of film our playground for trying out that Macdonald-esque pomposity. It’s fun and freeing and provides perhaps the most democratic thing any one cultural consumer could hope for — the right to be an absolute snob. Or movie buff. Whatever the euphemism.
Case in point: the current Star Wars crisis. I know of no other cinema-cultural firestorm in our lifetime so powerful as to prompt petitions, so traumatic as to retroactively ruin childhoods, and so gloriously relevant to old Macdonald’s body of work. With a slightly disastrous sequel trilogy behind us, there is clear consensus among Star Wars fans that Disney’s dominion over Lucasfilm is generally a bad thing — that the box office behemoth (and now, streaming giant) has destroyed Lucas’s beloved brainchild, tearing the heart from the Skywalker saga and replacing it with trite dialogue, hollow characters designed to sell toys, and anticanonical plot points that reject the decades of lore which made Star Wars a living mythos. The Star Wars crisis has come to a head, but perhaps there’s more to the issue than poor leadership or creative bankruptcy. Perhaps the crisis of Star Wars is not one of territorial dispute or even of legitimacy, but of taste. When a franchise is so integrated into a culture’s collective consciousness, has its lore left the realm of folk in which it began? Was the watering down of Star Wars inevitable precisely because of its mass cultural appeal?
Well, consider Macdonald’s Masscult and Midcult a dyad in the force — for, to honor the incomparable Prequel Memes subreddit, this is where the fun begins. Masscult is culture imposed from above by money-making machines like Disney, with the goal of reaching the widest possible audience. It is, as its name suggests, an “expression of the masses,” not of the people. This is a crucial distinction that typifies the difference between Masscult and “people’s art.” The latter is folk art. Essentially low-brow but with humanistic authenticity, folk art grows from below as a “spontaneous expression of the people.” When Macdonald was writing, he declared jazz to be the only major folk art remaining in the U.S. What makes Disney’s Masscultic rendition of Star Wars so disheartening to so many is the (highly disputable) fact that Star Wars began as folk art.
Once upon a time, George Lucas’s vision, with the help of a charismatic cast and storied team of passionate film artisans, became 20th century American mythology. The folk hero, Luke Skywalker, was of the people, for the people, and by the people. So enmeshed in our cultural fabric, Star Wars lore spun out of the hands of the mythmaker himself, Lucas, and was expounded upon in a profusion of comic books and graphic novels authored by devotees. Oh, the halcyon days of yore. Then, Disney bought it for four billion dollars and declared much of the expanded universe noncanonical. (Insert photo of George Lucas standing next to Mickey Mouse with a lightsaber here.) The tragedy of Star Wars is that the very universality that allowed it to evolve from folk art to bona fide mythology is the same homogenizing quality that turned it to the dark side of Masscult.
The backlash prompted by this last installment in the Disney sequel trilogy proves that “Star Wars: The Fall of Folk Art” does not end at mere Masscult, for the franchise has slipped into something even less comfortable. Let’s just say that if Masscult is Senator Palpatine, then Midcult is the cloaked Darth Sidious. Like its alter ego, Midcult is formulaic, endlessly enjoyable, and beholden to but a single standard: popularity. (One billion dollars at the global box office, anyone?) But what makes Midcult so much more insidious than Masscult, according to Macdonald, is its ability to fool both its producers and its consumers. It believes itself to be a democratizing force for good in the world, spewing themes of unity and human betterment, while it virtually destroys difference. It operates by the Law of the Built-In Reaction, telling its audience how to feel instead of inspiring those feelings (think of sentimentality versus genuine sentiment).
One of the hallmarks of Midcult is the use of love as a deus ex machina, resolving any problem the plot is too lazy to approach full force. If none of these terms and conditions seem to apply to Disney’s Star Wars, there is an additional zinger from Macdonald that I believe undoubtedly applies — namely, that Midcult both fears and panders to the masses. It is wary of their sheer numbers insofar as those multitudes are able to make a box office flop at the same time that it patronizes popular tastes. Midcult is the feel-good popcorn flick that’s fun for the whole family (even to the point of infantilizing adults, Macdonald aptly notes), and that bears an enticing message of unity and group harmony. The catch? It’s a marketing phenomenon more than it is an art. And yet, as Macdonald wrote, “There is something damnably American about Midcult.”
— Staff writer Gabriella M. Lombardo ’20’s column, “Movies in Midcult,” is an exploration of today’s American cinema in terms of Dwight Macdonald’s theories of Masscult and Midcult.
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