Saul Steinberg, “Lowbrow, Middlebrow, Highbrow”; Harper’s Magazine, February 1949.
The 1940s was a golden age of American arts journalism. Apart from Edmund Wilson, who had been at it since the 1920s, poets Randall Jarrell, Karl Shapiro, and W. H. Auden offered their thoughts on literature to a broad public, and so did the novelist Mary McCarthy. Professional critics included Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, Irving Howe, and, near the end of the decade, Leslie Fiedler. Clement Greenberg reviewed art for The Nation and Harold Rosenberg did the same for Art News. Virgil Thomson wrote weekly music reviews for the New York Herald Tribune.
Securely anchored in East Coast publications, these critics put on display scathing wit and sibylline prose. Thomson wrote after a concert: “Both theatrical experience and poor eyesight are probably responsible for the Toscanini style.” Mary McCarthy skewered Cocteau’s play The Eagle has Two Heads:
Grandiloquent and lurid in the old-fashioned royalist mode, this story of a poet and a queen suggests that the attic of Cocteau’s mind was never as smart as the downstairs: a schoolgirl was there all along reading romances and trying on costumes.
This waspish, refined intelligence held the arts to high standards. Apart from Barzun’s open admiration for detective stories (but not those brutish tough-guy ones), almost nobody paid attention to mass culture. Indeed, most intellectuals were agreed that it was dangerous.
This wing of the New York intellectuals–made of gays, Greenwich Village Bohemians, immigrant-family Irish and Jews denied access to Ivy League colleges, left-leaning traitors to the upper class–was firmly on the side of modernism and against everything that made the Old Guard, the WASPS with three names like Van Wyck Brooks and Mark Van Doren, nervous. But they still had enough of the genteel tradition in them to treat great art with a stiff solemnity. The byword of Partisan Review, the principal platform of the artistic left, was Seriousness.
Enter James Agee, Manny Farber, and Parker Tyler. They wrote criticism with a zany gusto that nobody else imagined possible. They didn’t telegraph their punchlines; sometimes you couldn’t be sure that there was a punchline, and sometimes there seemed to be too many. As for popular culture: They seemed, with reservations, to like it a lot. They liked being unSerious, which only lent greater oomph to the moments when gravity was demanded.
Neither dead nor red
Stalin at the 18th Party Congress (1939) by Sergei Gerasmov.
In spite of all these defects you feel in the Soviet Union that you are at the moral top of the world where the light really never goes out.
Edmund Wilson, 1935
In the 1940s, every intellectual was expected to answer two questions. What do you think of Communism? What do you think of popular culture?
The Depression had convinced many writers and artists that only a version of left-wing politics could overcome the crisis induced by capitalism. The rise of Fascist parties around the world intensified the fear of right-wing dictatorships. To many intellectuals the Soviet Union seemed the best alternative, especially since its apologists assured the world that it was a democracy. But Stalin’s sweeping purge of 1934-1938, highlighted by the murderous charade of the Moscow trials, made many lose faith in the USSR. Soon came the 1939 non-aggression treaty between Russia and Germany, a sign that Stalin was ready to compromise with Nazism.
But dimming faith in the USSR didn’t automatically wipe out socialist ambitions. Apart from the Communists, who followed the Moscow line, there was a daunting array of left parties: Social Democrats, Socialists, Trotskyists, the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Labor Party. Fine-grained differences in doctrine led to constant quarreling. Some intellectuals adhered to one line or another, but many hopped around or simply participated casually, agreeing to donate money or attend meetings or write an article without worrying about ideological consistency.
When the US entered World War II in 1941, many intellectuals saw it as a necessary step in destroying Fascism. Now that Russia was an American ally they often quieted their reservations about Stalin’s regime. At the war’s end, however, politicized intellectuals began to believe that history had proven them largely wrong. Business and labor had cooperated to defeat German and Japanese imperialism. Despite Marx’s predictions, capitalism had lifted the living standards of millions of people. The United States was comfortable as never before. American democracy, while imperfect, was still the best chance for mass participation in governance.
Smaller-scale reforms would always be needed, not least the recognition of equality for African Americans; and some form of democratic socialism might still be achieved. But on the whole, the American way of life seemed the best hope for the future. “The chief cultural phenomenon of the decade,” noted the poet John Berryman, “has probably been the intellectuals’ desertion of Marxism.” By 1952, Partisan Review declared that democracy was “not merely a capitalist myth but a reality which must be defended against Russian totalitarianism.”
Defending American democracy, however, didn’t include defending its popular culture.
Mass art as mass delusion
The Homecoming (1945) by Norman Rockwell.
There has been no lack of critics who have proclaimed the uplifting or degrading qualities of the movies without having noticed anything whatever of what was going on in them.
Marshall McLuhan, 1947
Today, when everybody unselfconsciously finds something to like in the entertainment industry, it’s hard to imagine the climate seventy years ago. Then there was a Serious debate about whether mass media were simply machines of social control. From Communists to anti-Communists, the intelligentsia was largely united in the belief that “mass culture” was at best a bland source of solace and at worst a cruel manipulator of the desires of an unhappy populace. Many very smart people considered Laura, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and Mickey Spillane novels the signs of a society sinking into comfortable degradation.
Already during the 1930s, left intellectuals had worried that mainstream entertainment in the US was corrupt. Not only was the working class victimized by its rulers, but it was fed junk. The most influential articulation of this view was probably Clement Greenberg’s essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” of 1939. According to Greenberg, the great age of modern art, from the 1910s to the early 1930s, had showed the power of self-conscious formal experiment. Cubist painting, the novels of Joyce and Gide, the poetry of Eliot—all had challenged the audience to expand its horizons. But to this avant-garde there was counterposed a rear guard, a debased and easy art that produces “unreflective enjoyment.” Greenberg didn’t spare the Soviet Union from his complaint: Stalin’s Socialist Realism had created its own version of kitsch, in the cinema no less than in other arts.
Greenberg’s article was followed by many others, notably Dwight Macdonald’s 1943 essay “A Theory of ‘Popular Culture.’” The common complaint was that now high art was more threatened than ever before by the rising tide of kitsch. For many intellectuals, it wasn’t just that popular music, comic books, movies, and pulp romances were bad art. They were bad in a dehumanizing way, turning people into more or less mindless consumers of a collective daydream. Mass culture, as it was usually called, was a huge threat to intellectual diversity and political progress. Conseratives and newly anti-Communist liberals turned their firepower on the products of Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley, and the magazines and paperbacks filling the corner drugstore. For many, political criticism became cultural criticism, with a strongly moralistic tint.
The all-engulfing flood of mass media required analysis, reflection, and judgment. How best to understand it? Some writers, following Greenberg’s strategy, used arguments about the achievements of the avant-garde to lambaste mass culture. Others drew on psychoanalysis, which was becoming more prominent in American life. Soon writers were claiming that a whole society had a superego and repressed impulses, and the seething roil of a nation’s inner life was reflected in popular culture.
Social scientists began commenting as well. Anthropologists turned their observational technique on American culture, and sociologists sought to use media to understand the group dynamics of wartime and postwar society. Other academics, brandishing the tools of what was emerging as “mass communication research,” tried to sample and measure the collective delusions promoted on the radio or the movie screen. Émigrés associated with the Frankfurt School merged these strategies with large doses of post-Hegelian philosophy. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) seemed to propose that American capitalism had turned audiences into chortling morons.
Stuck in the middle with Middlebrow
Harper’s Magazine (August, 1967).
Several of these writers had decided by the mid-1940s that Greenberg’s straightforward opposition avant-garde/ kitsch was too broad. A four-part model seemed more adequate for describing cultural activity.
There was Folk Art, a genuine and spontaneous product of the people. Amish furniture, Appalachian folk songs, and black spirituals would be examples. Some observers included jazz and the blues as well. The Folk artists went about their business unbothered by other trends.
There was Highbrow Art, exemplified by the modernist avant-garde, past (Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Stravinsky, Picasso, et al.) and present (perhaps best exemplified in Abstract Expressionist painting).
Then there was Lowbrow art, the anonymous products of the culture industry—radio shows, mystery and romance fiction, pop music, and most movies.
And there was something called Middlebrow Art. The term had become fairly common in the 1930s, and 1940s commentators spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what it described.
Certainly, it involved class. If High Art was consumed by the Bohemians—other artists, museum curators and concert performers, young rebels, and above all college professors and students—Middlebrow Art was aimed at the middle classes, the professional people who aspired to join the sophisticated crowd. The Middlebrows put reproductions of Renoir on their walls, Tchiakovsky symphonies on their turntables, and expensive, unread editions of Shakespeare’s sonnets on their coffee tables alongside Harper’s or The Atlantic Monthly.
Most critics agreed that the Middlebrow impulse poached on other realms. There was pseudo-folk Middlebrow art like WPA murals, Carmen Jones, and “Rhapsody in Blue.” More annoyingly, Middlebrow artwork swiped ideas and techniques from High Art, then sanded off the spiky edges in order to attract an untrained audience. Dwight Macdonald invoked Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed Brechtian theatrical techniques to tell a jes’-folks tale, and The Old Man and the Sea, a simplification of Hemingway’s faux-naïve style ready-made for the Book of the Month Club. Middlebrow made crude art smooth, hard art easy.
True, the new media had disseminated the great achievements of the past more widely than ever before. Recordings and broadcasts of classical music, films about painting and theatre, radio and magazine discussions of art and literature were now part of everyday life in America. Faulkner and Joyce were available in cheap editions. But this greater accessibility didn’t guarantee understanding. According to legend, after finishing Fantasia, Disney exclaimed, “Gee, this’ll make Beethoven!” The same film turned Stravinsky’s ritual of virgin sacrifice into a battle of dinosaurs.
Nervous about falling out of style, the Middlebrow mind tried to keep up with the contemporary avant-garde. A Lowbrow magazine would simply ignore Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings or (if it was Mad) satirize them. By contrast, Life’s famous 1949 profile of the artist anxiously responds to the challenge of Highbrow taste. Pollock is “a shining new phenomenon of American art” and may become “the greatest American painter of the century.” Yet there’s no attempt to explain why his work is significant. The work’s value is appraised in cash terms (one painting is worth $100 a foot) and the results are mocked, timidly. Against the critics’ praise is set the verdict of the common man. “He has also won a following among his own neighbors in the village of Springs, N.Y., who amuse themselves by trying to decide what his paintings are about. His grocer bought one which he identifies for bewildered visiting salesmen as an aerial view of Siberia.” Life has hedged its bets (he might be great) while allowing a reader to say, “Aw, hell, my kid could paint that.”
For such reasons, many intellectuals decided that while Lowbrow culture was a danger, the real foe was Middlebrow culture. The 1952 Partisan Review symposium identified the threat: “Do you think that American middlebrow culture has grown more powerful in this decade? In what relation does this middlebrow tendency stand to serious writing—does it threaten it or bolster it?” If Lowbrow culture ignores High Art, the Middlebrow betrays it.
There were obvious problems with conceiving Mass Culture as a united front of Lowbrow and Middlebrow. What about the great popular arts of earlier eras? Dickens, Poe, Tolstoy, Twain, and many others taken as High Artists today wrote for popular audiences. What in our age prevented a widely beloved play or painting or novel from being good, even great? Then there was the issue of bad faith, as Auden noted: “Whenever the word Masses is used, we must read the words ‘myself in weaker moments.’”
Hollywood: The worst of Low and Middle
Rainbow (1944): The Nazi invader threatens to kill Olga’s baby.
At the core of mass culture lay Hollywood movies. T. S. Eliot had already denounced “the encroachment of the cheap and rapid-breeding cinema,” and by the 1940s no American could ignore films.
They were everywhere. Although Hollywood cut back production somewhat during the war years, many shows were double features, and most theatres changed their bills twice a week. Hits were revived and recirculated. In cities energized by war work, some theatres ran twenty-four hours a day. Now that people had more money to spend, attendance hit new levels. In this age before television, 85 to 90 million Americans, about 60 % of the population, went to the movies each week. Today, it’s around 25 million per week, out of a much bigger population.
The mass media carried synergy and recycling to a new level. A novel (published in hardback, reprinted in paperback) could become a movie (promoted in magazines, with product tie-ins), then a radio show. The cult of stars grew, with popular actors constantly visible on billboards and in magazine ads. After Gone with the Wind, a bestseller like The Robe or Forever Amber stirred frantic anticipation of the movie to come. Producers bought books before publication, and studios commissioned books and plays to be written so they could be turned into movies.
What was a poor intellectual to do? Back in the 1920s the critic Gilbert Seldes had championed slapstick comedy as a mixture of Folk Art and quasi-avant-garde challenges to genteel taste. But that was before Hollywood had turned filmmaking into a factory driven by finance capital and pumping out formulaic stories. After Griffith, Chaplin, and von Stroheim—the touchstones for all intellectuals interested in film—there was little to like in the studio product. The foreign film had provided Caligari, other fine German films, and Soviet masterworks, above all Potemkin; but the rise of Nazism and Stalinism had stamped out those creative impulses. At the end of the 1930s, Dwight Macdonald had denounced Stalin’s cinema as a form of kitsch at least as sinister as Hollywood’s.
Western intellectuals had no access to production in the Axis or Axis-dominated countries, and they were hard pressed to find much to admire in current American cinema. Some tried to study the Hollywood film as a reflection of the American character or social anxieties or certain persistent myths of romance and getting rich. But with few exceptions, the product of the studios was unrewarding as art. What wasn’t Lowbrow belonged firmly to the Middle (Wilson, The White Cliffs of Dover, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives).
After the war, André Bazin and other French critics would start to forge an aesthetic of the Hollywood sound cinema, but American writers did not think so abstractly. Agee, Farber, and Tyler worked more pragmatically to search out cinematic creativity in their time. All shared a trust in the Standard Story of the evolution of film art, from Griffith through the silent masters to René Clair in the early sound era. Yet they weren’t hobbled by nostalgia; they reacted with immediacy to the cinema of their moment.
They set themselves apart from the larger debates of their age by shrewd flanking strategies. For a start, they by and large avoided declaring political allegiance. Agee once declared himself a Communist “by sympathy and temperament” but in the next breath attacked the worker-idolatry of Soviet propaganda. Farber had, according to reports, tried to sign up in the Communist Party in the 1930s, but he doesn’t seem to have joined the print polemics on any side. Tyler seems to have been non-aligned as well, although he indulged in occasional caustic asides about Hollywood’s social commitment. He noted of Meet John Doe‘s purported celebration of democracy, “At this point in planetary affairs, American democracy becomes the theoretical right to hold a job and vote every four years for a new president.”
Although Agee and Farber wrote for left-liberal publications, they often went out of their way to support films that would be considered retrograde. In a famous review, at the height of American solidarity with the Soviet defense of the homeland, Farber charged the Russian war film The Rainbow (1944) with naked cruelty. He also declared Birth of a Nation, despite its prejudices, the greatest film yet made.
Likewise, all three detoured almost completely around the Mass Culture controversy. You can find some snobbish asides about Middlebrow culture here and there (later Farber charged that Agee was a middlebrow critic), and Agee and Tyler did flirt with calling some Hollywood films folk art. Basically, though, they didn’t fight on that terrain. Agee spoke out against the “priggishness” of social scientists’ critiques of thrillers like The Big Sleep. Perhaps these movies did “mirror” society, he admitted, but denunciation of American cinema as social symptoms missed the fact that such films were “relatively intelligent, accurate at least to something in the world, and entertaining.”
I realize also that on its most careful level, as practiced by Dr. Siegfried Kracauer or Barbara Deming, this sort of analysis is of interest and value, dubious as I am about a good deal of it. But to me the most sinister thing that happened during the movie year  was just this kind of analysis.
He was worried that these bleak cultural diagnoses were being seized upon by “club women and the nastier kinds of church pressure groups.” On all the evidence I’ve seen, Farber and Tyler would have agreed.
Culture in the totally administered society
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.
If under present conditions we cannot stop the ruthless expansion of mass-culture, the least we can do is keep apart and refuse its favors.
Philip Rahv, 1952
More generally, all three critics seemed to understand that the best way to show that American cinema had artistic dimensions was to present their case in precise, urgent, sometimes giddy prose. They were connoisseurs, making distinctions and discriminations of fine degree. And they found God, or the Devil, in details. In mounting those lines of defense, they risked condemnation by the most intellectually intimidating critic of the culture industry, Theodor W. Adorno.
Adorno believed that in modern times, true art could only present itself as opposed to easy reception. As a Marxist, he held that economic processes—the division of labor, the obliteration of use value by exchange value, among other factors—made the harmony sought by classic art impossible. For hundreds of years art works participated in a market system, and even the very greatest achievements could bear the traces of social strain. (One Adorno article is titled “Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis: Alienated Masterpiece.”) Traditionally, an artwork aimed for totality, but today the true artist can express only the inability to achieve harmony. Art’s value lies “in those traits in which the discrepancy emerges, in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity.” The formal dissonance of the artwork reveals its refusal to reconcile itself to capitalist demands. Some modernist art, such as Schoenberg’s atonal pieces and Kafka’s novels, achieved this refusal, but even much avant-garde music, painting, and literature fell short of registering the strains of contemporary life.
The culture industry, as characterized in Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, becomes the ultimate expression of capitalist rationality. As companies crank out commodities, Hollywood, Broadway, and Tin Pan Alley pump out synthetic art works. Mass art’s smooth surfaces are a grotesque parody of the unity struggled for by the great artists of the past. Form and content are harmonized in an ersatz, conformist way. Neither avant-garde nor classic art, the standardized mass-marketed products offer no resistance to easy pickup. The music “does the listening for the listener.” Virtually by definition, the entertainment industry couldn’t create art of value.
This is too brief an account of the culture-industry thesis, but two points are especially relevant to our film critics. Adorno argues that the popular artwork concentrates not on the whole but the part. Classic artists struggled to find a unity specific to each piece, but mass culture has made overall formats—the three-act play, the formulaic movie plot, the pop song—so generic that the only strong effects arise from isolated moments. An arresting plot twist or a sudden chord change stands out and has a brief impact. But by slotting itself into the set pattern, the little jolt simply confirms the validity of the prefabricated format.
But surely there are major differences among these products? No two pop songs or movie melodramas are identical, and new styles or formats emerge from time to time. Here comes the second point. Adorno claims that the differences we detect are fake. Each product of mass culture is “pseudo-individualized.”
For one thing, the innovations are still very limited; jazz, Adorno wrote in 1941, is confined by its harmonic and metric schemes. Moreover, even innovation tends to confirm the standardized format. “The constant need to produce new effects (which must conform to the old pattern) serves merely as another rule to increase the power of the conventions.” He suggests that in jazz, a “wrong” note is registered momentarily as a fresh detail but the listener’s ear immediately corrects it. As for film:
Orson Welles is forgiven all his offences against the usages of the craft because, as calculated rudeness, they confirm the validity of the system all the more zealously.
There’s no escape. Just as an automobile or a breakfast cereal uses trivial differences to stand out from the competition, so too do songs and stories. Forms are formulas, novelties are minor and fleeting, and any deviations confirm the norm. Our three critics, by distinguishing subtly between this film and that, often on the basis of scenes or details, have fallen into the mass-culture trap.
It’s easy to call this position humorless (no gags in genuine art) and elitist (“Everyone’s a sucker but me”) and to insist that those who write favorably about mass culture are on the side of right, i.e., the People. But this is just labeling. What if Adorno and Horkheimer’s diagnosis is correct?
In my experience, there’s no arguing with Culture-Industry accounts like this on their own terms. Point to a film that exhibits what you take to be rich form, and the skeptic will say: “Call that complex? It’s just a variant on the same old thing.” Point to a ripe detail in a scene, and you’ll be told it’s just pseudo-differentiation. If Ulysses and Schoenberg’s Erwartung are your prime examples of valid art, His Girl Friday isn’t going to measure up—let alone Rhapsody Rabbit.
Going further, Kristin and Janet Staiger and I tried to show in The Classical Hollywood Cinema that film production can’t be standardized to the degree that high-output manufacture is. It’s an error to consider Hollywood an “assembly-line” system. No two movies are as much alike as two Fords rolling off the line at River Rouge. Hollywood employs an artisanal mode of production, in which each worker adds something distinctive to the result, and the “product” is a complex blend of overlapping and crisscrossing contributions. Marx called this mode of production “serial manufacture.” Instead of rigid standardization, differentiation in various degrees is at the base of the system, and all of those differences aren’t blueprinted via central command.
Another difficulty comes, I think, when we recognize just how stringent are Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s standards for valuable art. The bar is set excruciatingly high. “Telling a story,” Adorno noted in 1954, “means having something special to say, and that is precisely what is prevented by the administered world, by standardization and eternal sameness.” So fresh and authentic stories are impossible? Most of us aren’t prepared to narrow our experience so drastically.
More theoretically, Adorno’s insistence that the true modern artwork must be sui generis, related to tradition only in labyrinthine dialectical ways, seems to me implausible. It puts him close to Croce’s view that each artwork is irreducibly unique. By contrast, I’d argue that art works good or bad, classic or avant-garde, owe a great deal, and quite openly, to norms, styles, genres, and other traditions. It doesn’t take anything away from modernism’s bold innovations to recognize that in many cases artists like Joyce, Picasso, Woolf, Conrad, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg “took the next step” beyond the state of play at the time. Where does radical change shade off into pseudo-differentiation?
It will also come as news to Orson Welles that Hollywood “forgave all his offenses.”
Toward a criticism of popular art
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
If you like to keep warm in your neighborhood theatre these days or have to review movies for a living, you can find something good in any film.
Manny Farber, 1946
Did Agee, Farber, or Tyler read Adorno or Horkheimer? Dialectic of Enlightenment wasn’t translated into English until 1972, but the Frankfurt School’s ideas were circulating in their milieu. (Adorno’s 1941 piece on popular music influenced Macdonald’s “Theory of ‘Popular Culture’” essay.) In any case, my three critics outflanked the mass-culture debates through simply diving, quite self-consciously, into popular material—something very few intellectuals were willing to do. Their sensitivity to nuance and detail carried a force that we seldom find in the Frankfurt School writers.
Plunging into the material had a particular importance at this moment. During the 1940s, criticism became technical to a degree never seen before. I haven’t found any piece by Adorno and Horkheimer that troubles to analyze closely a single product of the culture industry. Writing on Mahler or Berg, Adorno gets more concrete, but he never dismantles a simple jitterbug tune. As “social philosophers” rather than critics, he works at a level of generality that exempts him from looking closely. This refusal stands out in contrast to what was happening in the American artworld of the time.
Most apparent was the flourishing of the New Criticism in literary studies. During the 1930s Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and others in America had picked up ideas of “close reading” from England. Those ideas were disseminated to universities across America in Brooks and Warren’s 1938 textbook Understanding Poetry and its successor Understanding Fiction (1943). Literary history, the survey of authors and their times, was being displaced by the scrutiny of a single poem or story as an isolated work. In calling his time “an age of criticism,” Randall Jarrell complained that this craze for technical analysis was sapping the energies of both poets and critics, but it has maintained its hold as a model of how to understand literature.
Something comparable was happening in criticism of the visual arts with vivacious descriptions of painters’ strategies. Earle Loran’s Cezanne’s Composition (1943), for example, revealed large-scale principles of design underlying paintings that sometimes seemed a jumble of colors and planes. In the context of weekly reviewing, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Meyer Schapiro, and others probed details of color and paint handling. Farber, in his guise as art critic, can be positively fussy in anatomizing the layout of a Léger and the candy-box spectrum of a Chagall.
Musicology, long geared to rigorous analysis, was finding new layers of patterning in both classic and modern works. Heinrich Schenker’s formalism of earlier decades provided a basis for this inquiry. The rise of various musical avant-gardes employing complex compositional procedures, as in serialism, demanded ever more sharply focused studies of form. While Adorno and Hanns Eisler were denouncing kitsch music in film soundtracks, musicologists were dissecting Objective Burma!, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Best Years of Our Lives, and other scores.
I’m not arguing that our three critics conducted such microscopic analysis of movies, though Tyler, operating at a book-length stretch, probably comes closest. But they do burrow into the fine grain of American films to an unprecedented degree. For example, Agee, when he started writing his Nation column in 1942, declared that he would “feel no apology for whatever my eyes tell me.” Here he is praising Huston for a moment in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
Treasure’s intruder is killed by bandits; the three prospectors come to identify the man they themselves were on the verge of shooting. Bogart, the would-be tough guy, cocks one foot up on a rock and tries to look at the corpse as casually as if it were fresh-killed game. Tim Holt, the essentially decent young man, comes past behind him and, innocent and unaware of it, clasps his hands as he looks down, in the respectful manner of a boy who used to go to church. Walter Huston, the experienced old man, steps quietly behind both, leans to the dead man as professionally as a doctor to a patient and gently rifles him for papers.
Thanks to steady looking, Agee can argue that the film has a novelistic power to delineate character, but without words, just through framing and physical action—in other words, through the “clean, direct” expression that Otis Ferguson had thought characterized American studio cinema. That conciseness finds its echo in Agee’s style, which packs characterizing details into adjectives and homely metaphors; one phrase, “a boy who used to go to church,” sketches a man’s life history.
Just as the New Critics punctured gas-filled generalizations about poetry by exposing the nuances of syntax and metaphor, Agee, Farber, and Tyler provide, in a roundabout way, an answer to the critics of mass culture. Through their precision of observation and the contagious enthusiasm of their rhetoric, they showed that blanket denunciations of entertainment missed areas of vitality and creativity, tendencies toward expressive form and emotional force. Sometimes those accomplishments fit the canons of high art, sometimes not. And at moments these critics trace an aesthetic specific to the Hollywood sound cinema.
Not all intellectuals condemned the culture industry utterly. The sociologist David Riesman argued that modern mass culture housed a great many levels, each with its own criteria and artistic ambitions. He dared to claim that there was good art at every level. Moreover, he suggested, the audience was often more aware of the qualities on display than the critics were. In a gesture that anticipates today’s academic study of fandom, Riesman proposed:
The various mass audiences are not so manipulated as often supposed: they fight back, by refusing to “understand,” by selective interpretation, by apathy. Conformity there surely is, but we cannot assume its existence from the standardization of the commodities themselves (in many instances a steadily diminishing standardization) without knowledge of how individuals and groups interpret the commodities and endow them with meanings.
Individuals and groups used media products in a variety of ways, Riesman claimed. The individual’s peer groups might even set up taste structures that could run against the ones offered by media industries. Jazz aficionados, both amateurs and critics, discerned styles and genres not acknowledged by the record companies. In a quiet knock on the High Art standards of literary academics, he suggests that “taste exchange” among fans and critics constitute “the Newer Criticism.” He might almost have been talking about the Internet.
Or, in another way, about my three writers. If we think of Agee, Farber, and Tyler scooping out of mass art something that they could defend, we might consider each a “peer group” of one. They undertook to test their own personal histories and “taste structures” against the churn of commercial cinema. What they devised, suitably sharpened by the pressure of their writing styles, were three idiosyncratic versions of a Newer Criticism.
This series continues here.
In preparing this entry, I’ve benefited from conversations with my colleague Jeff Smith and my long-time friend Noël Carroll, whose Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford University Press, 1998) reviews many of the issues here.
A good introduction to the “cultural left” of the 1930s and 1940s is James Burkhart Gilbert, Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Modernism in America (Columbia University Press, 1993). My Edmund Wilson epigraph comes from page 88. In Left Intellectuals and Popular Culture in Twentieth-Century America (University of North Carolina Press, 1996), Paul R. Gorman traces trends of 1930s and 1940s cultural critique back to earlier decades. Macdonald’s 1938-39 attack on Stalinist cinema is reprinted, with strategic alterations, in Dwight Macdonald on Movies (Prentice-Hall, 1969), 191-249.
I’ve emphasized what we might call the Partisan Review cohort of New York intellectuals, but there were others. Peter Decherney (in Hollywood and the Culture Elite) and Dana Polan (Scenes of Instruction) have documented the emergence of a more academic, largely East Coast, film culture during the 1920s and 1930s.
Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” is available online here, and in printed form in Collected Essays and Criticism vol. I: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944, ed. John O’Brian (University of Chicago Press, 1986), 5-22. Dwight Macdonald’s essay on mass culture was revised and expanded twice, but the one I refer to is the original, “A Theory of ‘Popular culture,’” Politics 1, 1 (February 1944), 20-23. An earlier and seminal defense of popular culture is Gilbert Seldes’ 1924 book The 7 Lively Arts (Dover, 2001). (I discuss him here.) My quotation of McLuhan comes in “Inside Blake and Hollywood,” Sewanee Review 55, 4 (October-December 1947), 715.
A widely-read satiric account of the Brows is Russell Lynes, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,” Harper’s Magazine 198, 2 (February 1949), 19-28. The Saul Steinberg illustration up top prefaces that essay. Lynes offered a followup in “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow Reconsidered,” Harper’s Monthly 216, 8 (August 1967), 16-20; I’ve taken the other cartoon illustration from that piece. Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, ed. Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White (Free Press, 1957) remains a useful collection of 1940s pieces. Interestingly, a 1945 article by Theodore Strauss declared both Agee and Farber highbrow critics writing “over-complicated” prose. See “No Jacks, No Giant-Killers,” The Screen Writer I, 1 (June 1945): 7; here.
The quotations from Adorno come from Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Englightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr and trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford University Press, 2002), 102, 103; Adorno, “On Popular Music,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 9 (1941), 17-48; and Adorno, “The Position of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel,” in Notes to Literature vol. 1, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Sherry Weber Nicholsen (Columbia University Press 1991), 31. See also Horkheimer, “Art and Mass Culture,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung 9 (1941), 290-304; Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, ed. and trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (University of Minnesota Press, 2006); and Adorno and Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films (1947).
For one example of the painter acting as “producer” heading a studio of craftsmen, see Peter van den Brink, ed., Brueghel Enterprises (Ludion, 2001). Glancing through the ten variants of Breughel the Elder’s Netherlandish Proverbs that were churned out by his son’s studio (pp. 59-79), the reader might ask how to distinguish this process from the “pseudo-differentiation” Adorno and Horkheimer attribute to the modern culture industry. Remarkably, it seems likely that the son never saw the father’s original work but rather worked from a sketch the father left behind–a shooting script, we might say.
Not all Marxist philosophers of art were as stringent as Adorno. See, for example, Arnold Hauser, “Can Movies Be ‘Profound’?” Partisan Review 15, 1 (January 1948), 69-73. Hauser says yes.
Randall Jarrell’s objections to the technical bent of New Criticism are formulated in his 1952 essay, “The Age of Criticism,” in Poetry and the Age (Vintage, 1953), 63-86. For an influential example of the sort of analysis that arose from new compositional procedures in music, see René Liebowitz, Schoenberg and His School, trans. Dika Newlin (Philosophical Library, 1949). Analyses of film scores include Lawrence Morton, “The Music of ‘Objective Burma’,” Hollywood Quarterly 1, 4 (July 1946), 378-395; Frederick Sternfeld’s “The Strange Music of Martha Ivers,” Hollywood Quarterly 2, 3 (April 1947), 242-251 and “Music and the Feature Films,” Musical Quarterly 33, 4 (October 1947), 517-532, on The Best Years of Our Lives.
Nearly all material I’ve mentioned by James Agee and Manny Farber comes from their Library of America collections (here and here). Agee’s remark about being sort of a Communist is made in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Ballantine Books, 1960), 225. I’d also recommend Agee’s “Pseudo-Folk,” Partisan Review 11, 2 (Spring 1944), 219-222. Incidentally, the sooner The Nation, The New Leader, The New Republic, and Partisan Review are digitized, the better for understanding American cultural history. My quotation from Tyler about democracy and Meet John Doe is in The Hollywood Hallucination, 185.
The gods of Irony have a good time. Norman Rockwell, the very embodiment of kitsch for the 1940s mass-culture critics, has enjoyed a rehabilitation as a “serious” artist. The most recent sally is Deborah Solomon’s American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell. Christopher Bentley provides an enlightening review.
For an account of the theory of sound cinema developed by Bazin and his peers, see Chapter 3 of my On the History of Film Style.
Life (8 August 1949).