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Culture and technology
10 May 2012

1950s America: When culture was popular

From economic history to cultural history – a fascinating article from Fred Siegel in Commentary:

  • It is one of the foundational myths of contemporary liberalism: the idea that American culture in the 1950s was not only stifling in its banality but a subtle form of fascism that constituted a danger to the Republic. Whatever the excesses of the 1960s might have been, so the argument goes, that decade represented the necessary struggle to free America’s mind-damaged automatons from their captivity at the hands of the Lords of Conformity and Kitsch.”

Siegel argues that this is a grotesque distortion – that, in fact, the 1950s shouldn’t just be remembered for its popular culture, but as a time when culture was popular:

  • “… from a remove of more than a half century, we can see that the 1950s were in fact a high point for American culture—a period when many in the vast middle class aspired to elevate their tastes and were given the means and opportunity to do so.”

He presents a range of evidence in support of this argument: the spread of local symphony orchestras, attendance of classical music concerts, viewing figures for TV adaptations of Shakespeare plays and sales of literary works.

Siegel also documents the shocking hostility of the cultural elite to the emergence of the mass middle class and its thirst for culture, but then argues that in the 1960s this attitude underwent a rapid shift – from one of defensive snobbery to a “superior and ironic” disregard for the very idea of high culture.

  • "The 'serious' was replaced by a cheerful mindlessness, and the cultural striving of middlebrow culture came to a quiet end. Why should the well-meaning middle American labor to read a complex novel by an intellectual or try to work his way through a Great Book if the cultural poohbahs first mocked his efforts and then said they were pointless anyway... Today, if there were a T.S. Eliot, Time Magazine would no more put him on the cover than it would sing the praises of George W. Bush."

The subversion of high culture can be seen as an act of spite by the highbrows – appalled that the peasants had come to drink at their well, they poisoned its waters.


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