...Movies were always an interest of Macdonald’s. His father, a lawyer, had served on the boards of several film companies, and had once lectured at Yale on the movie business. In the nineteen-twenties, some of the most innovative films in the world came out of the Soviet Union. “One went to the ‘little’ movie houses which showed Russian films as one might visit a celebrated cathedral or museum,” as Macdonald described it. “In the darkened auditorium of the theatre, one came into a deep and dynamic contact with twentieth century life.” By the late nineteen-thirties, though, the cinema avant-garde in Russia had been killed off by official demands for a doctrinaire product and official hostility to experimentation. Soviet film under Stalin, Macdonald wrote, had become “something that more and more closely approaches the output of Hollywood,” which he thought was similarly committed to uncritical, generic entertainment, and his articles analyzed the causes of this decline. In response, the magazine received a letter to the editor from a thirty-year-old aspiring poet and literary critic, Clement Greenberg.
Macdonald had been introduced to Greenberg in 1938 by two Partisan Review contributors, Harold Rosenberg and Lionel Abel. Greenberg’s letter took issue with a few of Macdonald’s points, and Macdonald, delighted to have stimulated an antagonist, encouraged him to expand it into an essay, which he edited. The essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” was to some extent a collaboration. (Macdonald later claimed that he “invented” Clement Greenberg.) It appeared in the Fall, 1939, issue of Partisan Review, and became one of the most influential essays of the century. It was only the second piece of criticism Greenberg had published.
Except for an important twist, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” is an orthodox Marxist analysis. Greenberg explained that both avant-garde art and kitsch (that is, popular, or commercial, culture) were by-products of the industrial revolution. Art became avant-garde when serious artists turned inward, away from a society they felt alienated from. In the case of painting, artists moved from representation to abstraction, from attention to the world to attention to the paint. Kitsch—the word means trash, or, as Greenberg put it in his letter to Macdonald, crap—was a consequence of the fact that the industrial revolution had made universal literacy possible, and the new technology of mechanical reproduction permitted an ersatz culture to be manufactured cheaply for an audience looking for entertainment and diversion. This manufactured culture killed off folk art, which was a genuine popular culture.
A Marxist ordinarily went on to condemn both avant-garde art (solipsistic and escapist) and kitsch (a mass opiate), but this is where Greenberg introduced his twist. He didn’t denounce abstract painting and modernist poetry; he justified and defended them. They were what genuine culture had to become under the conditions of capitalism. [emphasis added] “By no other means is it possible today to create art and literature of a high order,” Greenberg claimed. The people at Partisan loved “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” and no wonder: it elegantly squared the magazine’s apparently asymmetrical allegiances to Marxism and modernism
But, of course, last century's avant garde could be and was easily assimilated into the mainstream in a variety of ways.
Menand went on to write that Macdonald's argument was that there wasn't any point in condemning the masses liking pulp fiction or mass art. If they like it and you don't, fine. What Macdonald objected to was what he called masscult and midcult and what Woolf called middlebrow. Think pulp with pretense and the pedestrian as profound. So a solid Marxist/leftist would say that both Terrance Malick and Christopher Nolan would utterly fit into this category.
From the old line of thought, anyway. But by the 1960s pop music had become sufficiently sophisticated that the New Left and Old Left couldn't see eye to eye about the illegitimacy of popular culture. How many people tonight are more bothered by the recent death of Prince than by Pierre Boulez? Some may have found both deaths equally sad with respect to the wealth of musical culture available in our era ... but it might be that number of people equally appreciative of Boulez and Prince is something less than a sea of people .... ?