The following is a summary of A Theory of Mass Culture by Dwight Macdonald. He was a mid-20th century cultural critic.
High culture and mass culture are properly separated. Mass culture is the proper term as opposed to popular culture. Why? Because something can be popular without having been calibrated to a mass audience.
Political democracy and popular education broke the elite hold on culture. Business took advantage by using new techniques of cheap production to serve a fresh crowd of consumers. Modern technology like movies and television are particularly well suited to distribution at scale.
Kitsch—the German word for mass culture—extracts from high culture. Eventually kitsch begins to draw on itself. Folk Art preceded mass culture as the common peoples culture and was “from below.” In contrast, mass culture is dictated from above and geared to passive consumers. Mass culture demolished the wall separating high from low and integrated the masses into a degraded form of high culture.
High and low culture now compete intellectually which is absurd and chaotic. High culture is threatened by the brutal overwhelming quantity of kitsch. Kitsch “predigests art for the spectator.” Everything is mixed and scrambled together, destroying value judgement. After all, judgement would imply “discrimination” and mass culture refuses to discriminate. “All is grist to the mill.”
Academicism was an institutional artistic movement that attempted to compete with mass culture “by imitation.” In contrast, the Avant Garde refuses to compete. The height of Avant Gardism was 1890-1930 when “bourgeois values” were challenged both politically and culturally. The “chronic state of war”—including “Cold”—does not encourage rebellion in art or politics. Since its 1890-1930 high point the Avant Garde has been watered down with mass elements.
There is nothing more vulgar than sophisticated kitsch. The advent of sound film blurred the lines between Hollywood and Broadway to the detriment of both. Chaplin was Folk Art. Technological division of labour ended genuine artistic authorship as it fragmented aesthetic unity. A deep and shared cultural tradition can maintain aesthetic unity but the USA does not have one. The culture worker is just as alienated as the labourer.
In the age of mass culture children access grownup media and adults consume kid’s media. “Momism”—sentimental worship of mother—is all too common in this context. Peter Pans result from the cult of youth.
The mid-20th century saw the rise of entertainers as “idols of consumption” in contrast to an earlier era personified by “idols of production.” Detective stories went form starring “scientific” characters like Sherlock Holmes to featuring bumbling incompetents. The masses don’t understand science and interpret the superficial aesthetics of science—laboratories and white coats—as Frankenstein-style “horror.”
Critics of mass culture don’t realize that it is not consumed by “people” but rather “masses.” Organization as a mass means loss of identity and atomization. Sheer scale is a challenge as there are simply too many people. In genuine communities there is a mutually beneficial relationship between the individual and the wider group. Not so with mass man, he doesn’t have a community at all.
Click here for another summary essay criticizing mass culture.