Denning argues “the cultural front reshaped American culture,” that the left, working-class or LABORING CLASS, had cultural hegemony in the 30s for th Denning argues “the cultural front reshaped American culture,” that the left, working-class or LABORING CLASS, had cultural hegemony in the 30s for the first time in U.S. history. The Popular front brought a “deep and lasting transformation of American modernism and mass culture.” (xvi) The “laboring” of American culture refers to - the use of “labor” in the rhetoric of the period (i.e. labor movement, labor party, proletarian); in short, the language itself was “labored.” - Proletarianization of American culture, or, the increasing influence on and participation of working-class Americans in making culture and the arts. Mass Culture allowed working-class artisans to influence greater American culture in new ways. Entertainment industries expanded alongside educational institutions. Children from working class families entered cultural industries. - A new visibility of labor in cultural production. Musicians and actors were working class but creating high art. These workers unionized, including screenwriters, cartoonists, teachers and journalists. - Popular Front culture were not simply New Deal liberalism. It fought for social democratization of American Culture. - Laboring, as in birthing, of a second American renaissance. It was not a revolution, but a prolonged period of gradual influence. Denning looks at the cultural response of Americans to Popular Front movements across the globe. The Popular Fronts were left-wing and centrist movements; they were communist leaning and anti-fascist. Denning does not view the popular front in a conventional way. Most scholars see the popular front as a manipulative strategy of the communist party. Instead, he views it as a broad, grassroots social movement that sparked and fueled a cultural renaissance in American culture. Denning argues for an alliance between mass culture of Jazz, Film and literature with working class individuals. Notable performers such as Orson Wells and Duke Ellington were for workers rights and socialist platforms. Denning blurs the usually clear distinctions between left-wing propaganda and criticism and American capitalist mass media and popular culture. Leftists permeated and dominated American mass culture. Educated critics and working class citizens alike engaged in this cultural front.
Artists such as writers, actors, musicians, recognized and endorsed working class ethos because they were working class. They performed high-brow and low-brow culture alke, but were unionizing at the same time. Intellectuals and Critics may have shunned popular culture, but they did so incorrectly. Denning argues that the cultural front was “laboring” to create an alternative model of popular culture, not simply high/intellectual culture, one that worked with leftist ideals. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is Denning’s best example of crossing leftist politics and popular culture. The song is a thinly veiled metaphor for a lynching. Denning examines this song, as well as Orson Well’s Citizen Kane, through a Gramscian lens. The laboring of American culture was appropriated by capitalism via Kane.
Denning’s analysis of the era is also different in that he views Jazz, and not folk (of Guthrie or Leadbelly) as the music of the popular front. In this analysis he is dead wrong. Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday are his examples, but few of these artists were communist sympathizers or anti-fascists in proactive ways. Their songs are better aligned with future movements in civil rights. Jazz blurred the racial barriers in many ways, beginning as an African American art forms and permeating into multi-racial music. Denning’s appraisal of Ellington or Diz as a communist sympathizers because they signed a petition at a gig is a stretch. Really, they was probably trying to secure another gig. They were, however, working class, but Denning appropriates their actions to support his own historical point of view. This is a critique Susman has made of most culture, and, arguably, by extension, cultural historians. In supporting black communist Ben Davis, then running for NYC city council, Ellington, Basie, Holiday, Tatum, and Fitzgerald were supporting the black part of the ticket, not the communist or working class.