In an article at Commentary, Fred Siegel argues that much of the decline of popular culture can be traced to a sort of snobbery among the intelligentsia of the 20th Century. He observes that
The [literary intellectuals] —Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and Waldo Frank especially—had “a vague belief in aristocracy” and a sense that they were being “oppressed” by the culture of Main Street. But they believed America could be rescued from the pits of its popular culture by secular priests of sufficient insight to redeem the country from the depredations of the mass culture produced by democracy and capitalism. They were championed not only by leftists such as Cowley, but also by Nietzscheans such as H.L. Mencken, the critic and editor whom Walter Lippmann described in 1926 as “the most powerful influence on this whole generation of educated people” who famously mocked the hapless “herd,” “the imbeciles,” the “booboisie,” all of whom he deemed the “peasantry” that blighted American cultural life.
I submit that we continue to see this sort of attitude from a significant portion of the Codevillean ruling class — to test this hypothesis, mention Fox News in a faculty lounge some time. The conversation will turn Menckenesque in short order, and not in a good way.
Siegel then observes that post-WWII America, with its unprecedented prosperity and rising standards of living, which brought comforts and cultural opportunities to the masses that had not previously been available, meant that high culture was now no longer exclusively for the self-appointed mandarinate. This brings us to my post’s title: in the movie The Incredibles, Syndrome (the antagonist) claims that his technology will give everyone superpowers, and when everyone is super, then no one is.
The overwhelming new medium of television was particularly decried by critics of mass culture. But as the sociologist David White, co-editor with Rosenberg of Mass Culture, noted, NBC spent $500,000 in 1956 to present a three-hour version of Shakespeare’s Richard III starring Laurence Olivier. The broadcast drew 50 million viewers; as many as 25 million watched all three hours. White went on to note that “on March 16, 1956, a Sunday chosen at random,” the viewer could have seen a discussion of the life and times of Toulouse-Lautrec by three prominent art critics, an interview with theologian Paul Tillich, an adaptation of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s Hook, a documentary on mental illness with Dr. William Menninger, and a 90-minute performance of The Taming of the Shrew.
At the same time, book sales doubled. Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, a National Book Award winner, had only modest sales when it was published in 1953. But it went on to sell a million copies in paperback—the softcover book having been introduced on a grand scale after the war. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture, published in 1934, sold modestly until the advent of the paperback. By the mid-50s this assault on Victorian moral absolutes in the name of cultural tolerance had sold a half million copies.
In 1947, notes Alex Beam in his recent book A Great Idea at the Time, Robert Hutchins, then president of the University of Chicago, and the autodidact philosopher Mortimer Adler launched an effort to bring the great books of Western Civilization to the people. In 1948 Hutchins and Adler drew 2,500 people to a Chicago auditorium to hear them lead a discussion of the trial of Socrates. By 1951 there were 2,500 Great Books discussion groups, with roughly 25,000 members meeting “all over the country, in public libraries, in church basements, Chamber of Commerce offices, corporate conference rooms at IBM and Grumman Aircraft, in private homes, on army bases,” and even prisons. At the peak of the Great Books boom, Beam writes, 50,000 Americans a year were buying collections of the writings of Plato, Aristotle, the Founding Fathers, and Hegel at prices that “started at $298 and topped out at $1,175, the equivalent of $2,500 to $9,800 today.”
This was the danger against which critics of mass culture, inflamed with indignation, arrayed themselves in righteous opposition.
How, then, is a would-be cultural elite to distinguish itself from a mass that suddenly likes the same stuff? Siegel argues that (thanks to Susan Sontag, for one) the mark of superiority would become not what is enjoyed, but the manner of enjoyment — ironic smugness (never in short supply in faculty lounges, for instance) would become the appropriate shibboleth, the extended pinky on the teacup of cultural consumption. This meant in turn that the old distinctions between high and low culture were obliterated, and in fact, a race to the cultural bottom (tattooing, for example) could provide even more opportunity for ironic detachment and proper boho/elite status.
It’s an interesting, provocative article, and worth a look.