MTV killed the Radio Star?

David Brooks laments the decline and fall of middle class culture in his NYT column.
I was emptying some boxes in my basement the other day and I came across an essay somebody had clipped on Ernest Hemingway from the July 14, 1961, issue of Time magazine. The essay was outstanding. Over three pages of tightly packed prose, with just a few photos, the anonymous author performed the sort of high-toned but accessible literary analysis that would be much harder to find in a mass market magazine today.
Brooks sees the disappearance of a "middlebrow culture."
Back in the late 1950's and early 1960's, middlebrow culture, which is really high-toned popular culture, was thriving in America. There was still a sense that culture is good for your character, and that a respectable person should spend time absorbing the best that has been thought and said.
So what happened?
Middlebrow culture was killed in the late 50's and 60's, and the mortal blows came from opposite directions. The intellectuals launched assaults on what they took to be middlebrow institutions, attacks that are so vicious they take your breath away.

Clement Greenberg called the middlebrow an "insidious" force that was "devaluing the precious, infecting the healthy, corrupting the honest and stultifying the wise." Dwight Macdonald lambasted the "tepid ooze" of the Museum of Modern Art and the plays of Thornton Wilder. Basically, these intellectuals objected to the earnest and optimistic middle-class arrivistes who were tromping over everything and dumbing down their turf.
I was a college student in the 1960's, and I vividly remember the impression Macdonald's essay on "midcult" made on me - not the essay -just the impression. The pretentious snobbery of it both enraged and offended me. Somehow he managed to combine the upper class and Marxist distains for the middle class into one nasty sneer. Brooks also blames a change in popular culture for a blow from the other direction, though I can't really follow him there.

It seems to me that what really changed was that control of the artistic enterprise moved beyond an East Coast elite. American literature has never been an upper class Eastern preserve, and theaters, symphonies and opera companies have sprung up around the country. At the same time, easier travel means that people living in the sticks (like your humble correspondent) can travel to New York and Paris, erasing the pretentious distinction between the culture of the middle class and the wealthy. Macdonald would no doubt be horrified to see Mozart and Jeff Foxworthy on the same IPOD, but that's progress baby.

Time and Newsweek are definitely dumber, though.


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