Max Lerner, Virgilia Peterson, Gilbert Seldes

The Intellectual and Mass Culture in American Life

VTR Date: December 1, 1957


ANNOUNCER: The ‘Open Mind, to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today, “The Intellectual and Mass Culture in American Life.” Your host on The Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, author and historian.

MR. HEFFNER: Good afternoon. I think in a certain sense THE OPEN MIND today looks a little bit like a bookstore, and for a very good reason. There are three very interesting books that we will be touching on today and touching on the subject that we have before us. First is Max Lerner’s “America As A Civilization,” which will be published tomorrow. The second is the “Seven Lively Arts,” a re-edition by Gilbert Seldes. And third is “Mass Culture, The Popular Arts In America.”

So much for books. Let’s turn to our guests. Our first guest is Mr. Max Lerner himself, who is a historian at Brandeis University, columnist for the New York Post, and author of the to be published tomorrow, “America As A Civilization.” My second guest is Miss Virgilia Peterson, an author herself, and a critic. And my third guest is Mr. Gilbert Seldes, critic of all the popular arts, and the author, amongst other books, of the newly issued “Seven Lively Arts.”

Now I think I ought to begin today’s program by being a little bit disputatious and putting the question to you, Mr. Seldes. You reviewed Mr. Lerner’s book in the Saturday Review this week and you paid some tribute to him as a person who pointed with some pride to America as a civilization, and I think that some years ago, let’s say in the twenties, there weren’t many intellectuals, and T think without needing to apologize for the term I can classify the three of you as intellectuals.

MR. SELDES: Thirty years ago.

MR. HEPFNER: OK, thirty years ago the intellectuals
would be damning any notion that America had a real civilization. You in your newly revised “Seven Lively Arts,” indicate I think that a number of intellectuals have come to accept mass culture considerably, and I wonder how you would answer the charge that has been made, that could be made, that so many intellectuals in our own times have been sort of sucked in or taken in by mass culture?

MR. SELDES: This is one of the two charges that are made against all of that relatively small number of intellectuals who write about and praise popular entertainment and the other forms of mass culture. The other one is that we have spoiled the people in them, that we have made them self-conscious. If we have spoiled them — to get rid of that one I do not think that George Gershwin was spoiled, no matter what intellectuals said about him.

The other, the thing you have referred to, Mr. Heffner, that we have been sucked in. That we now think that anything that is popular must be good, must be a vital expression
of something important in American life. I think the contrary is the truth. I think the intellectuals have not in a sense been accepted enough or not long enough ago that if we had appreciated what was really going on, if we had praised what was good, we now would be in a better position to criticize and to direct what the mass culture enterprises do. I think we still are too aloof from what the real mass culture is, we intellectuals I mean, and that we have not gotten into it deep enough and that we certainly, I do not think we have been deluded a bit. We know where the weak spots are. At least I think we must know; we are intellectuals.

MR. HEFFNER: Mr. Lerner, what do you have to say? MR. LERNER: First of all I am not sure just how much of an intellectual T am, or any of the rest, but assuming that is so I say that I look for creativeness wherever I find it and if I can find it in the movies or in American speech or in jazz or in the myth-making of the people, or in industrial design, or in TV, then I want to find it there. The fact that it comes in popular culture is for me neither something for it or against it.
You know they say now that there used to be the old highbrows and now there are the new highbrows, and as for me I belong neither to the old highbrows nor the new highbrows, nor the middlebrows, but I do want to find out what is creative in American life, and some of it is in the popular arts.

MR. HEFFNER: Miss Peterson?

MISS PETERSON: Well, I am perfectly willing to grant that the gentlemen on each side of me are intellectuals, but S would like to make it quite clear that I do not consider myself one.

MISS PETERSON: I don’t consider it a dirty word; I have great respect for it But I imagine I must be here as a kind of faded piece of decoration. But if I am to assume–

MR. SELDES: Not very faded.

MISS PETERSON: If I am to assume that I am an intellectual for the moment, just for this particular half hour, who are the intellectuals then? Who are we talking about? Are we talking about the scientists about whom there is such a racket now because we have not got enough of them and we like them because they are useful? Or are we talking about teachers? Are we talking about the critics in the middle magazines who see forty levels in every piece of creative art and probably invent thirty-nine of those levels? Or are we talking about the creative artists, the writers, the painters? Who are the intellectuals?

MR. HEFFNER: Well, who do you think are the intellectuals?

MR. LLRNER: I have a suggestion that the word is not a very useful one, that it is too narrow. The more I thought about it the more I thought that we ought to talk of value
creators in American life, in every area, wherever values are created. They may be created by the brain or they may be created by the artistic sense.

MISS PETERSON: Well, wait a minute. Then value creators are those arbiters of radio and television and women’s magazines, those editors, those people-

MR. LERNER: Not value judges, but value creators.

MISS PETERSON: Well but if they set a tone and say this is what the public should have then they are creating values, unfortunately.

MR. LERNER: No, no; they are trying to impose values, which is a very different thing.

MISS PETERSON: And getting away with it.

MR. LERNER: Sometimes they get away with it, shall I say much too often they get away with it. But one reason they get away with it so often is that you don’t have the kind of education values on the part of the people as a whole which will enable them to see through the sort of artistic and moral imper¬ialism of these people who are trying to impose things on you.

MR. SELDES: I very much object to dropping the word, Mr. Lerner. It has its place. We know perfectly well what we mean. We mean people who have sensibilities and passions, but who govern them more than some people do by thought, by contem-plation, et cetera.

MR. LERNER: Mr. Seldes, I wrote the entire book of mine on “America As A Civilization,” I think with scarcely using the word intellectual.

MR. SELDES: Oh but you used your mind, Mr. Lerner. MR. LERNER: That is a very different thing. But I hope I used something more than my mind, and I think that one of the difficulties about the word intellectual is that it puts so much emphasis simply on intellect, whereas we are whole personalities; we have emotions, we have moral sense, we have aesthetic sense, we have all kind of things in addition to the faculty of reasoning,

MISS PETERSON: Well moral sense and mental sense and reasoning,, and all this belongs in the intellect; the intellect is not a separate category,

MR. LERNER: Belongs in the person, belongs in the person.

MISS. PETERSON: But it belongs in the mind of the person.

MR. LERNER: It belongs in the personality. The rind.. is one: phase of the personality.

MR. SELDES: Some people-balance off more than others, and aren’t we talking of people who do, as opposed to people who very seldom use their minds at all?

MR.. HEFFNER; Wouldn’t you be willing to .accept the notion that if you said intellectual to a group:of people, if you used the word to a group of people who are not particularly know-nothings or know-everythings, they have a fairly good notion that you are talking about artists, you are talking about creators, you are talking about musicians, you are talking about newspaper columnists at times, you are talking about historians, about critics you are talking about a kind of person that we probably could recognize; and what I am concerned with is what is the relation¬ship between this general mass of people and what we call mass culture?

MR. LERNER: MaY I challenge mass culture too? MR. HEFFNER: Sure.

MR. LERNER: I don’t like the word mass culture, and I say in the book quite explicitly that I reject it,


MR. LERNER: I think the word mass culture started from the perspective of intellectuals who in a sense said we have our arts, our elite arts, elite literature; now here is also the stuff for the masses. The fact is that what we are talking about now is not just for the masses. It is for every class, every class. TV and the movies are not for masses; the American
language is not just for the masses, it is for every class.
I would like to substitute if possible — well, Mr. Seldes has a term of his own in his recent work, “the public arts,” which I accept as an interesting term. I just like the ordinary term medlum,or big medium, meaning that it has a large audience, a big audience, and as Mr. Seldes once said he also hopes it has a great audience, which is a very different thing.

MR. SELDES: Yes, but I say that the mass media in the sense that they are not only directed to as large a number as possible — which means they want more than half at least of all the possible people that they can get, and the attitude of the manufacturer of the programs and entertainments, et cetera, is get them virtually at any cost within the law, and the attitude of the intellectuals — and I use the word again — is that these things are not as good as they could be, and that the people whether you call them mass or not, would accept something better and something different.

MR. HEFFNER: Wouldn’t you, if I may interject this, wouldn’t you say, Mr. Lerner, that criticism might be valid along these lines, that it is true that you now talk about the mass media or mass culture in terms of entertainment or books, et cetera, that appeal to a large number of people but maybe this is because we no longer have so many intellectuals and maybe we have leveled down rather than leveling up; and intellectuals are no longer afraid of big audiences it may be because just about any¬thing that goes on takes in what used to be the intellectual.

MR. LERYER: That is an important lead. Actually you will find that in a status society where the class distinctions are quite rigid, as was true in European society out of which America came, in a status society you will find that the distinction between the elite arts and the folk arts is a very sharp one.

Now in the United States where we have a very fluid class society, where it is very difficult to know from year to year what the actual division between the classes is, in the United States you don’t have this kind of rigid distinction between the elite arts and the popular arts, and in that sense I suggest again that the word mass doesn’t mean much. Popular does, popular culture. The large majority of people, you see.

MISS PETERSON; One of the things about our popular culture, and even I would say almost over into the very edge of the intellectual, is that the past doesn’t count in this country. The heritage of the past, the whole attitude toward everything in 19th century literature, 19th century philosophy, all that except for a few highbrows, let’s say, is left out. Part of our culture seems to be — and that I think affects the elite too — is that
nothing happened in the past is worth really hanging on to, that we are going to go ahead all the time, and we sacrifice the past and all the experience has to be learned all over again, and the heritage has to be found all over again.

MR. LERNER: Except for Davy Crockett.

MISS PETERSON: Oh, I was trying to be intellectual. You would throw me down.

MR. SELDES: It is always true of the popular arts. They do deal with the immediate present. The classic arts deal with the universal and the eternal, and the folk arts deal with the past of one group of people; but the popular arts deal with what is going on right now. The popular arts are the song made about something that occurred or that will catch a rhythm that is going on at this moment, and the one thing they know about them is that the individuals even don’t last long because they have got to have something new; and the passion for newness goes on, and I think as a perfectly normal thing.

MR. LERNER: A type is created, Mr. Seldes. When you go all the way back, you see, there is continuity in the whole of American history in the popular arts.


MR. LERNER: Going back all the way to the frontier with the braggart hero, you know. Now the type is created. There is the shrewd Yankee of the early plays. There is the Mark Twain braggart hero. There is the Paul Bunyan type. This kind of thing goes all the way through so that we have a great tradition actually. Don’t lets get the idea that we are always starting from scratch.

MR. SELDES: Well, Amos and Andy were the interlocutor and the end man of the old minstrel show.

MR. LERNER: That’s right.

MR. SELDES: True it goes along, but the manifestation always has to change, and I think that the critical person if not intellectual tends to say this is not as good as the past without recognizing how relevant it is to the present, and that is why I take a great deal of pleasure in the popular arts.

MISS PETERSON: But the present is borne out of the whole of the past. It is never news Everything, every period has always been interested in the present but we seem to be interested in it out of context from everything else. For instance, that television show on CBS — I know I shouldn’t say CBS, but I will, “Faces Of War,” the metered performance where they quote it throughout the program, the great definitions against war and the great heroic war lite ature of all time, was highly criticized because it was supposed to be so
highbrow, because it was supposed to be out of, have nothing to do with Sputnik and have nothing to do with Russia today. They were spurning what Euripides and Homer said. It was just as immediate as anything in the New York Times.

MR. HEFFNER: Let’s not get into that particular program, but I think that the criticism certainly can be made once again that the acceptance of the folk arts, the acceptance of the public arts has gone so far that we seem to glorify any¬thing that has a big audience as something that symbolizes. this great majority, what reflects the feelings, the passions, the ideas of the majority, therefore it becomes something worthwhile.

Mr. Seldes said this many many years ago in the “Seven Lively Arts’,’ and has said it again, but in the process of saying this over against those intellectuals in the twenties who said we won’t have any of it, we are going to leave, we are going to Paris, we are going to Italy. In saying this over and over again haven’t we tendered to take the varnish off of the better things?

MR. LERNER: Let’s see if we can put it this way. If you really love someone, love him deeply, then you can be very critical of him in your own mind. You are so sure of your basic relationship to him that you can be devastatingly critical and he can accept it if he knows that this is the relationship. I might say if I may speak about my own feeling about the popular arts in my book I have been quite devastating on a whole series of things; nevertheless, my basic idea, my basic relationship to it is one of confidence. I believe enough in the people out of which these arts come so that I feel they can eventually create something that has greatness in it and there-fore we can be devastating.

I think Mr. Seldes has the same claim to be devastating because he cares deeply about this.

MR. SELDES: For a special reason, Mr. Lerner. There is the enthusiasm not only of my youth, but the youth of the popular art is one thing. We have got to face this, that they have all become part of big business since and that the changeover from what are then called gaily the lively arts into what we now call kind of crudely the ma8s media has been a matter of enormous mass production of these entertainments. They become woven into our daily lives and our business and it is there I think that when we talk of attitude of the intellectual to them that the great weakness has occurred. That the intellectual has not understood how profoundly these things are tied into our commerce and our economy and has never attempted to use them, and that I think is the greatest defect.

MISS PETERSON: I think the intellectual has under¬stood that only too well and has been very sorry that it should be tied into our business. I think that is the main reason for his hostility. But I would like to put before you gentlemen one little thing. You are so kind and sentimental about American culture at this point—

MR. LERNER: No you are not talking to the right fellow.

MISS PETERSON: Would you be willing to admit) for instance, that the IQ is eminently respected and far more than knowledge that we want our children to be bright, that we want our quiz show heroes to be phenomenal and know everything in spots, but we haven’t got very much respect for somebody who takes a long time to find out a great deal about something? They sit in a corner,

MR. LERNER: I not only admit that, I assert it, and I assert in not only about the big media, I assert it about the whole of the culture.
I think the instance that you gave is a very good one. In so far as the intellect is now coming into TV and Radio it’s coming in in the form of a knowledge of facts, and one of these retentive memories, which is very different from what I talked about a while ago, value creating. Thatts why I stress the values rather than the particular facts or the particular products of the intellect. I think Mr. Seldes raised something that’s really worth going along with, and that is the commercialism part, And I would like to make a distinction here between the various popular arts. I think the worst of them from the standpoint of commercialism are radio and TV; and I distinguish them from others because in other cases you sell a product. You sell a book, you sell a movie to an audience; you sell a newspaper column, whatever it is. But in radio-TV what do you sell? You sell the audience. You sell the audience to a sponsor; and what this means is that the people in the audience become simply so much inert objective matter that ought to be manipulated, and caught, their attention caught, by any kind of means, and so you get the worship of quantity, the cult of bigness. I think this is what is wrong with these kinds of arts. And if I may suggest other arts which I think are great arts, the American speech, the American language which I think is the greatest creation in the whole of popular culture.

MISS PETERSON: Are you separating it from the English?

MR. LERNER: Yes, I am separating it from the English language. The American language which is being made every day, every day by all of us.

MISS PETERSON: You mean the beat generation and doing it for kicks?

MR. LERNER: The beat generation, squares–

MR. SELDES: lAr. Lardner did it, Mr, Ring Lardner did it thirty years ago and made an art in the vernacular which is very sound.
MR. LELRNER: This is the greatest form we have.

MISS PETERSON: I guess the taxi driver who said to me,”14alamI can’t dig your lingo,” must have been the American and I am the alien.

MR. LERNER: He was taking part in the creative process, Miss Peterson.

MISS PETERSON: Well, I’m not.

MR. HEFFNER: Mr. Lerner, he is taking part in a creative process. You talked before about creativity instead of using the word intellectual, the creators. Are you going to equate these two? Are you going to say that creativity now meets the same standards that you might have imposed upon someone who claimed to be an intellectual sometime ago?

MR. LERNER: No, I think that there is a hierarchy of creative capacities. I don’t say that the taxi driver whom Miss Peterson remembers is the same as Beethoven.

MR. HEFFNER: Isn’t that just the point? Hasn’t that been what has happened? That you have taken creativity on any level — not you personally, but a number of people — have taken creativity on any level and said, look how creative we are, we created a language such as this, and have not differentiated between these levels so that we can say we are creative. We want to use the word creative instead of intellectual and by the time you are through with your interpolations here we have a culture that is creative, intellectual, and everything else that is good in writing.

MR. SELDES: And anything goes. No, I would not agree with that. I don’t think certainly the people who criticize the popular arts can be held responsible for that. I think we have separated off within, we have said this is better than that; we have said here is a greater composer and here is one that is not so good. I think, for example, in our American music the five or six people who happen to be almost all the same ones as twenty years ago definitely are first rater and that there have been thirty others of the third rate, and we have all said so. I
think we have been critical and separated. I do not think we have said anything is as good as anything else.

MR. HEFFNER: Do you think that maybe there is a connection between the fact that you and some other people, a few other people, thirty years ago began to celebrate these native creators, between that fact and the fact that there aren’t more first rate ones today?

MR. LERNER: Oh he is trying to make you responsible for the deadness and hollowness of the American scene.

MISS PETERSON: It is perfectly possible in the field of literature for Mr, Heffner to be right. It is perfectly possible if you want to prove that some of the best talents we have had in the last thirty-five or forty years in this country in literature, which I take it you will admit is also an art, have been completely ruined by the amount of praise and pressure and the disproportionate rewards; have been unable to go on, have taken to drink and broken their heads because they didn’t have the character to go on in the face of the exaggerated praises they received for their first efforts.

MR. SELDES: It was not the few critics who gave highbrow praise. It was the enormous rewards that followed the industrialization of popular entertainment that ruined some of these people.

MR. HEFFNER: I shan’t try, as Mr. Lerner thinks I was trying to do, blame this on you, but to say there may be some connection between the acceptance of these talents and the fact that there have not been to any great extent the development of further talents among those lines,

MR. LERNER: Well, when you are talking about rewards let’s not go back to the old myth that you can create only starving in a garret. I think every workman is worthy of his hire and every writer and artist ought to get some reward. I think what happens with many of our writers and artists these days is that when they get into the big money their heads get turned not so much because it is the big money but because they find out how easy it is to make bigger and bigger money by cheapening their art.
Now anybody that has that kind of weakness in him and can succumb to it is going to succumb to other things.

MISS PETERSON: But unfortunately most people are corruptible.

MR.LERNER: If they are corruptible they don’t belong in the category of Beethovens.

MR. HEFFNER: Really?

MR. SELDES: Have I a minute to give you an example? Mr. Ernest Hemingway hit the big money pretty soon, but take him as a creative force. He said that he sold his stuff to the movies and let them do anything they wanted with it, and he said they don’t tell me how to write novels; I don’t tell them how to make movies. This was some ten years ago.
I consider this attitude contemptible. Somerset Maugham said the same thing. He said I never see television so they can do anything they like. Now Mr. Hemingway recently has seen the new version of “Farewell To Arms” and is furious about it. But his contempt for the popular form of his work is precisely what lets the popular form go so low.

MISS PETERSON: That’s a good point.

MR. HEFFNER: Not only that but I wonder whether Mr. Lerner didn’t say something here a moment ago that has to be picked up? T want to pick it up. Talking about radio and TV, and I will have to make my defense, and Mr. Seldes these days can too, and say that I noticed today in the Times Jack Gould was talking about the television fare up to this year.

MR. LERNER: I thought that was a good piece, too.

MR. HEFFNER: All right, but what he said was that there was more and more alternative programming. That I think one could take the book publishing industry and say “My goodness, what trash there is,” if you took every single book and didn’t concentrate on the good best sellers. So I think you have taken everything that is on the air and have not concentrated on the goodly number of very fine things which are quite frequently offered as sustaining programs, which does not mean that they are there to sell the people.

MR. LERNER: Mr. Heffner, I love your change of position. Who is embracing what now?

MR. HEFFNER: I think you changed the position first on the other side.

MR. LERNER: No, because I would like to suggest what I was talking about was not good or bad programming, and am quite willing to agree there is good programming on TV as well as bad. I was talking about the basic principle involved, and say again that the principle is a dangerous one, that you sell an audience to a particular sponsor; and until we get away from that I think we are going to be in danger. I think the proposal to do something like what they do in the press is a very good one, that you sell particular spots for advertising and that the program as a whole is built editorially the way it is in a newspaper.

MR. SELDES: That is the way it all began, there was no sponsor creation of programs and a great deal of program¬ming now done is done by the networks themselves who then sell the program to the sponsor, and they make the better programs.

MISS PETERSON: I would like to point out that it seems to me that the Madison Avenue boys, so-called and the arbiters of television and radio are in their own way after all intellectuals. They are using their minds, but they are using them entirely for gain; and they are corrupting people — when they do corrupt them with poor shows — by the use of their brains. They are supposed to be anti-intellectual. They don’t like the so-called old-fashioned culture, and yet they are just as intellectual as any intellectuals we have.

MR. LERNER: That is what you get into by a false definition of intellectual. You say anybody who uses his brain is an intellectual. Which means if I plot a murder or a bank robbery I am an intellectual because I plan it out. The people you are talking about are value corrupters and not value creators.
MISS PETERSON: Who is going to decide between corrupter and creator? Only the intellectuals.

MR. LERNER: When it comes to the question of values everyone of us has to decide for himself what the values are that he believes in.

MR. HEFFNIR: Maybe again the corrupters are those who set the pattern for the acceptance of the general arts, the popular arts, the great arts.

MR. LERNER: The corrupters are the people that are slack and take things easy. You know the thing that I remember most in my reading at college was a sentance from Ruskin in which he says that you can tell a lie in architecture. You can tell when a building is a lie. I say the same thing about every art. You can tell when there is a lie in some arts, and my basic belief in the popular arts is that ultimately if you can get the people somewhat to think a bit and to see values they will be able to tell a lie whenever it is presented to them.

MR. HEFFNER: That’s a fairly good affirmative note, or negative note, interpret it as you will, to end on; but I think we have come to the end of our program. Thanks so much, Mr. Lerner, Miss Peterson, Mr. Seldes.

Next week The Open Mind won’t be on. You’ll be watching “Ask Congress,” when Representative Adam Clayton Powell will be the guest. We will be back on The Open Mind two weeks from today, December 15, which will be Bill Of Rights Day, and we will be giving our second annual report on Civil Rights over the past year — December 15, The Open Mind. See you then.