Dwight Macdonald on film; Criticism, masscult and midcult
Well I don't know I think my time is better than most other men yet of course. But why not I mean that I've developed time to what I'm interested in then I've got that amount of talent and Sensibility I don't know why. I mean of course as people very quest might pay better than most people say yeah I think I get it. I mean never occurred to me that I wanted to. Yeah but the part of the pride in their navy that I want to know how. You are listening to Dwight McDonald on film during the past decade Mr. McDonald has been perhaps the senior critic among American film critics during this past year he was distinguished visiting professor of film history and criticism at the University of Texas. These programs were drawn from Doctor lecture series the topic for this program is criticism and part one of mass called and mid cult.
And now once again here is Dwight McDonald. This is a course in the history and criticism of cinema and I have the impression from a few conversations last week with some of you students that the only part of this that it's been able to make clear is the way history is that what that means but I don't understand criticism or sentiment out of this that I don't understand what the movie is and how you criticize it so to speak. Now on the question of criticism you know how do you just write about these things and what is a critic and what does criticism mean that's part of the subject of this court. I suppose you're not all going to become movie critics if you are I hope you don't become. Numb too soon supplant me. But anyway it seems to me that what a critic does is threefold first of all he places the white in the history of art and what sorts of influences are.
How unoriginal it is and secondly he describes it he says. What is it trying to do what's the intention of the artist and the critic evaluates the work of art. How good or how bad is it. And RA I. And as I've said before the how a point and criticism is the was I and this is something that and some of you have papers that you may have gotten low marks on and been surprised at the loudness of the mocks in a number of cases. I notice that this was the difficulty you see. It's not enough to say that this sequence was DA that sequence was interesting and so on. The why is the whole point of criticism and if you didn't explain why then you really haven't said much of anything you've just simply so to speak made a noise like the clapping I had to but that crap in our heads. Well it's a crude form of criticism but it can't be really called criticism I don't think it. The lesions are all important as I said before sometimes a critic may
be quite wrong on its conclusions but the way that he arrives at them might be very valuable. Now a critic is different from a reviewer I would say because a critic standards are first of all as I don't take the knowledge of a viewer's standards is what the public wants. Let's use loosely a reviewer is somebody that writes for The Daily Press. This is so with the exception of two drama critics in New York. I mean maybe other exceptions to a cause I don't know but the ones I have know about. Namely Karl Rove the Tribune and the new drama critic who mercifully as we type that awful at Howard Taubman of the times. Taubman was so bad that it was impossible even to imagine at times having a butt anyway. He's mostly gone and we now have a very good one called Stanley common who used to be The New Republic's movie critic. But anyway. In general leave daily commentators on movies books and so on in the press and the daily press I review it because they try to tell its readers whether they will like to think not and
think that's one and also. The range of compounding of a critic is much greater than that of a review and a critic in general compares the work with similar wakes in the past and the past should go back a few generations anyway. It be ridiculous of course to compare your viewing a book of poetry today to compared with the Alamo or even a comparison. Not just because he has great parts but because I think you have to have some regard to historical period but I critic would compare this way this book apology with at least an alley and that range I was with 20th century poetry. Well as a reviewer would compare it with the current book a party of this year this season. And you see this very clearly when you see the movie and drama of The View with the two exceptions I've mentioned in the daily press where you constantly have plays and movies reviewed in times of the production of this season. So therefore
I credit this play as lousy and a reviewer might say this pie is very good and they might both be right because the critic has a broader frame of reference the taking of absence and so on and they the viewer just thinking of the season and certainly most seasons and something that's the best might be pretty bad from the other point of view. Now the problem of critics criticism and a problem but I'm out of it. You probably have a deciding about what is good and bad in movies and so on. The problem is that. On the one hand of course any such opinion is subjective it has to begin that is not scientific There is no way of proving that anybody is right or wrong about their judgement and taste so it is subjective for every person on the other hand there are certain sort of general rules of thumb I mean for instance even though you cannot prove it. Fact is that most of you I think almost all of you. If somebody tied to audio that Abraham Cowley who used to be
considered the great poet in the seventies Adji was a better poet than let's say Milton today. I mean if somebody tried to do this today I don't think that you would agree with him I think it wouldn't hurt anybody if I don't think anybody has ever tried that. I mean there is agreement on these things in a curious way. It seems to develop over the centuries and so on. Obviously the father got away from them like the more agreement there is. But I thought therefore that must be some kind of consensus even though it isn't a scientific one. It can't be true. And also some people's judgment and viewpoint really does way more than I did. I think because they have had more experience a more intelligent sensitive to certain things I mean a critic of paintings and who is color blind would be an advantage really. So therefore you have to not be colorblind to be a critic of painting so on the one hand it is this business of nobody wants to wants agreement on the other hand there is also as I think some people's opinions worth more than others and also people do tend to have a
kind of agreement on things. Now I want to take up the very interesting comments on my mascot a med Cup. And I read and comment on some of the typical or interesting or more violent passages. I should say that the fact that I don't read any of you a particular paper doesn't mean that it's not of I get type it because some of the best papers are so closely reasoned that you can't really take anything out from them but one of the main things I got out of it was that so many of you think that your middle brow. Well I really don't. Not so sure that you are sentimental about at least on the basis of these papers you know that story about Bernard Shaw right after the face not of Pygmalion when everybody was applauding wildly and he came out to take a Titan calling one man up on the balcony was brewing and saying tablets I want to show I looked up and said Yes I agree with you but who are we against so many.
That doesn't quite apply but anyway I found that I felt that were my to disagree with you if you want to take your medal back then I suppose you obviously like the definition of a Jew what are the Jews the only real definition of a Jew is somebody who thinks he's a Jew because you can't make a racial definition. I suppose anybody who really is religious might consider himself as a religious Jew. Well now I thought the valid points were made in these critiques and one of them was that there is insufficient definition and documentation of what is really meant by high culture. And the second is that the implication that high culture is threatened with extinction by the rise of mass cult and that caught now is true there is this in this article I must confess that since then I've sort of refined my theory and you're quite right to object to that because the fact is across that high culture is not threatened. In a direct way by the rise of the mass cult amid cult because as I did say in a couple of stanzas
anyway in the essay that the fact is that we will always have serious artists composers and writers critics and so on. Philosophers were always one of those if and I one of the ways in them because it's so damn boring to do this sort of math called a cult stuff. For somebody with any well intelligence any real sense of what he's about. There will always be people like James Joyce friends and so had to wait 12 years to sell before I was published. But Joyce never for one moment doubted that he really had something great to say and he didn't trim his sails to the market either. So it's quite right that it is not threatened in any direct sense the only thing is that it is however somewhat I think a high culture. Let's stick to literature which is what I should have the most about. I think it is threatened. Affected anyway by the rise of mass government caught in the sense that unlike the situation before 1750 the artist is no
longer I not actual pot of the central current of the culture of his time. He has to really put himself apart from his society and from his culture to a large extent in order to do serious work. This was not true before 1750. And the reason why until I go into the past it was essentially because before 1750 the matter didn't come into the cultural marketplace and you had the decisions and the expertise in the hands of a few members of the ruling class who really knew something about painting or music or literature. Now the thing is that's not been a threat or there's a danger that the artist and the writer become eccentric. Well that's almost a viable third a tautology. Yes and by eccentric I mean for science they for instance. Well one example is what happened to Joyce. He did push though and fights when he did write Ulysses. And that's a great great way.
But then what happened after that he would tend to get Swank which is also like a genius in many way. But I must confess for my pot pretty much. Well I thought I could have done without Finnegans Wake I mean it's extremely interesting and you can read two or three pages with great pleasure and then after the fourth fight you have to sort of put it aside for a day or so. And anyway I think to me that he was driven into put himself into this total opposition to our culture. In fact he invented it you know in Finnegans Wake a completely new language except a new language in which there are no definitions and no grammar because that all died with him. And I think this is a kind of eccentric extreme that the serious artist is often pushed into by the fact that he is in the mainstream of culture anymore. And another example would be the light of some of the lighter Henry James novels now some of them are because I was good as he ever did but I do feel that compared to the early and middle period up let's say to the Bostonians I think all of that was later ones such as the wings of a dove and the sacred
fount and the something about it I came up with a name that then why didn't some of these ones I'm ready to elaborate that his style he pushed a style too far again in order to show a difference between him and the dominant boys Mocket mass culture. So that's the bad effect on it I would say. And another bad effect of course is that the masses and the mid cult the middle brows on the masses especially the middle bows now in a field of painting have come to accept almost anything because that's how insecure there are over you know what that taste is I don't have any idea that in the past the patrons didn't know what that taste wise and the taste was connected with tradition and therefore they were a salutary influence on August often whereas now everything is of value especially to these newcomers in the cultural marketplace. Everything is very obscure to them and therefore you have things well like the home pop on business are not the home some of the pop out of pretty good but
certainly any rock solid a real example of somebody who's been able to get away with murder because it's such a contraband worry you now I mean the idea is this is what's happening this is here. If you don't think this you now you're just not aware and you're not modern and so on. And so that I've been able to make people buy these vents boxes and wood for $200 or $300 on you because now they've gone up every year probably simply even soap boxes with the smokescreen impressions I can from the actual events of boxing and what instead of uncropped what they don't have any boxes of insults I don't even get that. But actually you se things now this is a bit on posture I think only possible but it's kind of a. Cultural marketplace so oddly the criticism was my sample times and I said even Toddy would guess that there was a too much of the game aspect if invited out that I hate this idea you know in vs. out. It doesn't mean anything and I certainly apologize for that inventing the very time caution about med card is going to be in the new dictionary they wrote me to
ask me what it meant. But you know I mean it should be taken as a game now it should not be taken seriously and of course you can't it's an out a waste of time and fry them up very snobbish and very sterile and ready to try to decide what is exactly meant color not when I made my four examples in the essay I was going to try to illustrate what the concept of mint count is I'm not. If I went about it and trying to stamp while Hemingway up to 1930 was high culture and after that it was meant got now that's going to that that much and I and it should be as taken out of the game not as something serious or just a way of sort of feeling your way around in this horrible labyrinth and people object to this I think you're quite right that there's too much of that in the article and then finally there are insufficient reasons for distinguishing product from just bad and this is so true I think I should have both defined and illustrated high culture serious stuff more. And also I think I should have gone much more out of the question. It's a very difficult question you say.
Because timing wise old man and a thief for instance why isn't this just a matter of it having lost the touch and just because it happened to at the edges. Most OT that we now is a lot of it is very mediocre and summarized in this case I mean what is the specific quality. Well I try to define it in general times as to what it was but perhaps this one successful and I was welcomed and now there were some misconceptions. Generally one of them was that I want to outlaw a mass and cult or be a sort of a King Canute you know Biddy in the tide not come in. Well actually what I was really trying to do was to describe a historical situation and far from wanting to outlaw anything I was just trying to cite while this is the way that it is and I was trying to analyze it. And another question on this question about whether high culture is threatened directly by mid caught and then I'll be honest and right is the danger now is I think that the more advanced and interesting right
is August and so on that they accepted too much. The danger has really entirely changed the nature in the last 30 years up until about 1930. Really interesting regional experimental August by which time I mean writers and composers and so on were very likely to be ignored. And B you know like the attitude towards liaison and so on. But now I think the opposite I think now that we accept I'm very much too much and this is because again of the post-war rise that culture explosion of so many times going on that now some of the comments on the hype. First of all there were a number of them that made this point how do you decide on matters of taste in that nearly priced in all and here's one. Call me a significant or insignificant part of the inapt mascot. I am one who believes this world really is a pretty good all right after all when I think about Tiger MOCK Thank God it is all a matter of
taste to my way of thinking and perhaps I'd like to goodness which were out of town and I might even like the way he says what he has to say. He might Why don't they say whether you don't like it or not I see the argument as a question of who can say what is good and what is bad. And then he says the same president who preaches mascot and that God is condescendingly saying that it's tasted better than the other man and this is what is a mess and mascot meant God. Well I don't know I think my taste is better than most other men yes of course. But why not I mean I've developed a time to it and I'm interested in it and I've got a tight amount of talent and sensibility and why. I mean of course there's people very quest my taste is better than most people think. Yeah I think I get it. I mean never occurred to me that I wanted to. Yeah but the problem of the pardon there's an avi that you know I can add to this really it's monetized by those of us and. I guess now this type of illustrates something that was perhaps a little too
common in the papers the author of this pipe begins was appalled when the assignment was made by the way. You don't really have to call yourself the author of this pipe. Just I I you know. And all of you know how to shrink you know why it ought not to be I get pissed that all call themselves the author of all the time yeah you oughta pay was appalled expecting to be led to good taste. The author found instead that he was too espouses. Well the author of time I think that was quite perceptive because that's exactly the point I don't want to lead you to good guys and of course the point is to expose your taste in a sense you can't be led to good taste as no such thing as good taste in an abstract sense and in fact we can never agree with anybody else on good. That's another thing too. Somebody was in to see me this morning my office hours and she apologized but I grounded was very subjective and I said but that's exactly what I want. She said What is it. As I said that's just what I want because you have to make up your mind. You can't be
led by me or anybody else can be that you're not going to amount to anything much as a critic or even as an enjoy of God these things are subjective and that's what the grammar of Ought is. Oh yes and this is a very good definition of a right of OT on this pipe here. And this is the definition that nothing could either be taken away or added to the movie without damaging the overall town and structure anything shot Saddam movement it was changed would upset the harmony of the whole and I think this is a very good rough definition of what a work of art is and this is one of the in the town of Richardson and the loved one and Tom Jones that he is not an artist because he can take away anything from any riches in film and I wouldn't make any difference at all because he sells everything in kind of a. That was sloppy cook and has put the food in front of you now he slaps it down on the table. But a work of art is something which you cannot take anything away without altering it. I remember when I was faced writing on fortune one of the
all the riders there and other ways he was a proud 26 and I was only 23. But anyway I once said to me you know I try to write an article so that the editors are the enemies of course of writers and magazines and that I'm proud of that I really can't leave anything out without damage to it. And I realize of course that is what you should try to do. I go out on how sad you are now that the definition of a successful short story sad. From the first and the last sentence there must be nothing that can possibly be a minute and I why the first sentence must state the theme and everything was developed after that and anything that's extraneous must be left out and I think this is what a work of art is. But anyway now here is that interest in the observation that I prefer the music by Bach very much of the noise produced by The Beatles. Yet I was never able to find my position successfully as to why Bach should be more valuable than the Beatles.
True. Who sets the standard who has a right to decide the question either way. And then she got his eye on Supreme Court building is tasteless Obviously Mr McDonald opinion but who says that his opinion is matters more about him than somebody who happen to like the building well it's just a crust getting wiped out of a point or so. Nobody has to say this there isn't any ultimate authority in these matters. All you can do is to read what I hear when I think about which I won't go into now about the Supreme Court building in Washington. And hear what somebody else says about it and then make up your own mind there's no way of telling. I'm pretty sure now since I know a number of architects and good architects Well again the question of what the good architect but anyway I have really encountered any defense of that building down that way. And there's another type of pressure MacDonald thank you seems to be in much the same predicament to provoke John Stuart Mill to ride on liberty. The pod on the majority of Mast action exceptional individual contemporary situations. More than one of the mass pulling down standards to the lowest common denominator.
This compassion would lead me to say about Mr. McDowell so what. You know this sort of rot came into at least a dozen of these pipes but it's very interesting that this was sort of the thing out of this long long as 80 page right here as a nation that I add that something comes up and says oh good god. I don't have a right well so when I sat down seems to fall into some of the same traps at M.I.T. from south run by Fatah to be compared to John Stuart Mill promising the solution in this case was a clarity you see right out as a loop of what you might call clerics are educated people and McDonald's kinds of gathering of appreciative individuals causes several pollens who would decide what content at a high cost what would be a possible disagreement among members of the elite of course there and that's the whole point in fact a disagreement I would say is that most freshening and heartening thing about the you know the how. I mean what's good
about the concept of a few people interested in art and that it is precisely that I disagree with them so this agreement has nothing wrong with disagreement in fact this is going as a writer to really discover what you really think. But nobody can ever be completely right. Now there was another group of objections that sad that I was much too pessimistic and the general idea would be why is out now not mere growing pains of a culture a transition to a more democratic widespread high kind of culture and here is one of them Man made God has a right to existence as long as it is recognized as such. I couldn't agree more and I'm not in favor of preventing anything that has a spike as a stage in understanding concepts and learning the alphabet greatly facilitates one's lane to read. So even a simplified presentation of God can be used to stimulate interest in learning more about the medium. That's true if it is a simplified presentation of God if it is a very good popularizations such as for instance Gombrich conduct the Buddhist
oddest who in my opinion is the most brilliant and interesting an imaginative writer on art today. He's actually not because he's German but he's lived in and long time writing extremely good not elementary but anyway for high school kids and history abroad. And this is fine. What I'm objecting to however it is not decent populism but the kind of thing that lets a Vance Packard does. That's one example in which he takes sociological books and cannibalizes them and gives you just the most trivial on the most superficial and therefore misleading idea of what the real thrust of these scholarly works are. And another example of course is the loose publications who now make more of that money as you perhaps know a lot of publishing books than I do a lot of publishing magazines and I just got in there the other day it was a ghastly foller about Greek ATA something and many of us are Volga and how could you possibly know what I think about drink got from this sort of thing this is not popularization this is broader as Asian and making it easy. Gummer doesn't make it easy.
Well the same thing we are instead of transition cultural lag. Right now across I don't know maybe sell one though I don't think maybe so Actually that's how a med called is that it isn't popular and it doesn't give you a simplified version are elementary variation of our reality. On the contrary it really eFax and changes this aesthetically ality. You know he's not alone I'm a 20 year old from the University of Texas I believe I live in an area which possesses many of our goddess so far and so on. I'm going to be sad that we don't have an aberrant God for Pablo Picasso who was a down to Nevada at the time Mr. McDonald was cementing his standards never to budge much. Well I think that's a price on the market. And anyone I stand as I was coming on stock at these very fond of my staff and anyway said there is an Andy Warhol complete with kind of soup cans it was and a better experiment today. So the question you asked is Why isn't there a raal the
equivalent of Picasso and why we still have an avant garde and why isn't really the objection of people like me to this kind of rot that Ron Howard represents rising this is same thing as people that objected to Picasso. And for that matter you and I when that Steven felt an honest thing about I laughed with even Fortenbacher right they were wrong and they're wrong to laugh at Suzanne but this across is an argument by analogy but not by logic because logically it's quite possible that Iran might not be tactically interesting and talented and that because I was you know the fact that the people react the same why doesn't prove the point. You have been listening to Dwight McDonald on film. In this program Mr. McDonald House discussed criticism. The first part of a lecture on mass called and made cult these programs were drawn from Mr. MacDonald's lecture series during his recent tenure as distinguished visiting professor of film history and criticism at the University of Texas.
- Dwight Macdonald on film
- Criticism, masscult and midcult
- Producing Organization
- University of Texas
- KUT (Radio station : Austin, Tex.)
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- Criticism, Masscult, and Midcult
- Other Description
- Series of lectures by Dwight Macdonald on film: its makers, its history, its future.
- Film and Television
- Media type
Announcer: Miller, Phil
Producer: Jordan, Bill
Producing Organization: University of Texas
Producing Organization: KUT (Radio station : Austin, Tex.)
Speaker: Macdonald, Dwight
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 67-16-15 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- MLA: “Dwight Macdonald on film; Criticism, masscult and midcult.” 1967-07-06. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 17, 2021. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-k06x1w6x>.
- APA: Dwight Macdonald on film; Criticism, masscult and midcult. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-k06x1w6x