Upper Middle Brow: The culture of the creative class
“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