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					    The Formation of Modern
         American Culture
Part II: Modernism, Mass Culture,
        and the Middlebrow

      Making of the Modern World
               Week 19
• Modernism and mass culture
• Cinema and the culture industries
• Women and the mass media:
  empowerment or victimization
• Men in the mass media: crisis of
• Highbrows, lowbrows, and 20th-C cultural
• The Middlebrow
  Modernism and Mass Culture
• Industrialization,            • Similar historical context;
  urbanization, immigration       use of technology
  of 19thC fuel 20thC           • Incorporation of familiar
  modernism                       themes of Victorian
• Rejection of traditional        culture
  Victorian culture             • Appeal to widest
• Creation of new select          audience
  canon                         • Mass-produced image
• Faith in individual work of     (Benjamin)
  art                           • Miriam Hansen:
                                  ―Vernacular Modernism‖
        American Modernism
• Cultural movement of    • Paul Strand, Pepper
  first half 20thC          (1932)
• avant-garde rejection
  of Victorianism
• ambivalent attraction
  to industry and
• form over content
• benefits from
  immigrant cultures
     Gilbert Seldes and the Lively Arts
• Seven Lively Arts (1924)
• Praises new modern
  American arts of comic
  strip, jazz, cinema
• American arts do not
  imitate style, narratives,
  themes of European art
• Emphasizes virtuosity
  and kinetic energy of
  American arts
    Modern Media, 1920-50 (a.k.a. the
           Culture Industries)
•   Film (beginning of worldwide
    Hollywood dominance after WWI;
    corporate consolidation of industry)
•   Radio (a few mavericks start it;
    goes corporate in 1920s; ad
•   Tabloid Journalism (chain papers,
    syndicates and Hearst‘s ‗yellow‘
    appeal to the masses
•   Photojournalism (the rise of Time,
    Life and Fortune)
•   Comics (Krazy Kat national art of
    America according to cultural critic
    Gilbert Seldes)
•   Advertising (takes off in 1920s as
    corporations market to an
    increasingly consumer and image-
    driven society)
•   All these major industries are
    concerned with mass production
    and marketing, constructing the
    idea of modernity, and often
    reinforcing mainstream white
The Liveliest Art
     A Lively Art or American-transnational culture
•   Silents appeal across nations through 1928
•   Chaplin‘s popularity in Japan, Russia, US
•   Mary Pickford first woman studio ‗head‘: UA (1920)
•   An evening‘s cheap entertainment: anyone could afford a movie
•   Early emphasis on ‗exoticism‘ of stars, expatriate communities in
    southern California
•   But Hollywood also markets ideal ‗white‘ modern American woman
    (Gloria Swanson), workingclass girl (Clara Bow) and average
    American guy (Gary Cooper)
•   Studios unite as major corporations in 1920s: production,
    distribution, exhibition controlled from the top down (Paramount,
    MGM, Warner Brothers, etc.)
•   Work closely with other industries to mass-market films: fashion,
    advertising, journalism, fiction
•   Diversification: all studios have news services and cartoons
•   Corporate, sales and production offices all over Europe
The ‗New‘ Interconnected Media
• Blockbusters (supported by product ads
  and multinational corporations)
• MTV (Music Television: video ‗narratives‘
  have ties to films; theme songs)
• Video games (b. 1958, with Tennis for
  Two; 1980 Pac-Man Arcade game;1989
  Nintendo Gameboy; biggest markets
  Japan, UK, US); ties to major blockbusters
  like The Lord of the Rings trilogy
       The Hollywood Blockbuster
•   b. 1975 with Spielberg‘s Jaws
•   Aimed at global rather than national market; broad audiences, simple action
•   Violence integral to genre; often adaptation from best-selling novel or
•   Now with theatre attendance down (US:, UK: Global), Hollywood has made
    most of its money in past decade through network contracts, foreign
    distribution rights and DVD sales
•   Even with censorship boards gone, trend has been toward children‘s
    entertainment: between 1989-2003, the average gross of an R-rated film
    was 7 million (US); G-films make an average of 79 million (US)
•   Hollywood challenged in recent years by national cinemas with art market
    niches and China and India. However, Hollywood still has entrenched
    mechanisms to maintain its dominance: Bollywood sold 3.6 billion tickets
    and had total revenues (theater tickets, DVDs, television etc) of $1.3 billion,
    whereas Hollywood films sold 2.6 billion tickets and generated total
    revenues (all formats, DVDs, etc) of $51 billion.
   Lucas/Spielberg and the Age of

                              Left: Grauman‘s
                              Premiere of Star
                              Wars (1977) and
                              above, Alec
                              Guinness as
Above: Harrison Ford as       Obi-wan
Indiana Jones in Raiders of
the Lost Ark (1981)
        Women, Modernism, and
• Classical theory sees
  women as victims of
  visual system—looked at,
• But: films cater to
  women‘s specular
  fantasies (male stars)
• Film industry‘s links to
• Melodrama lets women
  have it both ways
• Female stars
Women in the Modern Mass Media
• Madonna (b. 1958)                 •   Oprah Winfrey (b. 1954)
• Most successful recording         •   Net worth 1.2 billion (US)
  artist of all time (over $200     •   News anchor in 1970s
  million in international sales)   •   Relocates to Chicago and
• Started 1982– marketed as             establishes talk show (1986)
  R&B singer with big Af-Am         •   Popular afternoon program
  audience                              covers health, death, politics
• 1984 uses Marilyn Monroe          •   Stars in and produces Tony
  image in Material Girl video          Morrison‘s Beloved in 1998
• 1985 moves into films             •   Multi-media: co-authored 5
• 1989 Like a Prayer denounced          books and edits 3 magazines
  as ‗blasphemous‘ by Vatican       •   Cultural arbiter/icon: book club
• 2002 American Life video              since 1990s—
  revoked from circulation
  because of scene where she
  tosses grenade into lap of
  Bush look-alike
Postmodernism (1949-)

        • Above: Marilyn and Madonna as
        • Above and below left: Marilyn in 1953
          and reproduced by Andy Warhol
          shortly after her death in 1962 in the
          first of his assembly-line silk screens
   Men in Grey Flannel Suits: Mass
  Culture and the Crisis of Masculine

• Selling corporate
  culture: Ogilvy‘s
  Hathaway shirt
• Sloan Wilson, The
  Man in the Grey
  Flannel Suit (1955)
• Vance Packard, The
  Hidden Persuaders
  ―Weak Faces‖ and Flannel Suits
• North by Northwest
  (Alfred Hitchcock,
• Fragility of identity
  and social status
• Consequences of
  post-war wealth
• Instability of
      Hitchcock as Highbrow?
• Icon of American
  popular culture
  becomes ―auteur‖ in
  1950s Europe
• Criteria based on
  form, not content
• Resistance until
  1990s to seeing
  social commentary
  and criticism
    Highbrows and Lowbrows
• Gilbert Seldes and Charlie Chaplin reject
  dichotomy between art and mass culture—
  call themselves ―high lowbrows‖
• Often bifurcates along European/American
• Critics like William Allen White call for
  authentic American popular culture; reject
  modernist canons
         Masscult and Midcult
• Clement Greenberg, ―Avant-Garde and Kitsch‖
  (1939): art versus consumerism
• Dwight MacDonald (1960): Masscult ―an
  instrument of domination,‖ mechanistic, without
  standards, popular—not to be confused with
  ―folk art‖ and working-class culture
• Midcult will infect true High Culture, and its
  values ―instead of being transitional —‗the price
  of progress‘—may now themselves become a
  debased, permanent standard.‖
Ferber and Rockwell
         American Middlebrows
• Joan Shelley Rubin (1992) notes that cultural study
  focuses on either high or low, but not the median culture
  of America
• Middlebrow writers in 1920s at odds with Lost
  Generation moderns; mostly best-selling women like
  Ferber, Hellman, Loos
• Longstanding contempt for middlebrows by cultural
  conservative Dwight MacDonald
• Middlebrow culture more powerful than either—heritage
  of Arnold and persistence of Victorian value of cultural
• Book-of-the-Month Club, Saturday Review of Literature,
  Pulitzer Prize, Alexander Woolcott‘s radio show,
  historical films, Clifton Fadiman‘s ―Great Literature‖ lists
  all 20th-century outcroppings of ―middlebrow culture.‖
    Is Mass Culture Dangerous?
• Film‘s Production Code Administration (1930, 1934) and other
  national censor boards threaten to ban films from theatres unless
  industry follows prevailing moral ‗codes.‘ Pornography goes
  mainstream in 1970s when old censorship restrictions and ratings
  are obliterated
• Literature from Hamlet to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to
  Gone with the Wind banned by community educators beginning
• 1939: Billie Holliday‘s record company, Columbia, refused to release
  recording of Strange Fruit for fear of alienating mainstream racist
• Radio and TV in US regulated since 1934 by Federal
  Communications Commission (UK‘s equivalent of ITC). TV adopts
  Hollywood‘s old Hays code. Sponsors support network programming
  and withdrawing support can be its own form of censorship
• Censoring the internet difficult because of free speech claims,
  transnational flow of information and pseudo-anonymity
Finding Room for Middlebrows?
• High art (Greenberg) now overtaken by
  mass culture in academic study; rejection
  of elitism
• Poststructuralist deconstructive criticism
  breaks down unified works of art, canons,
  and grand narratives
• Middlebrow creed fractures on conflict
  between creating great canon and selling
  it—reconciling desire for both high and low
   High Art and Mass Culture?
• This age-old dichotomy used to separate these
  two realms. Art was for the educated few and
  mass culture had a broad class appeal that
  didn‘t demand too much intellectual activity to
  understand. But has the history of the 20th-
  century culture industries blurred the
  boundaries? Can mass/popular culture
  challenge dominant stereotypes, ideologies,
  perceptions, imagined histories, or does it simply
  reflect the prevailing constructed taste?
• See Frederic Jameson, Signatures of the Visible