I agree with you on the "overcooked" images that are out there, however even they do occasionally have some merit as an artistic representation, sometimes giving an otherworldly feel.

For the purpose of accurate representation, or in other words a "worship of the natural word", HDR can also have a place. It effectively does what you describe with the masks and two exposures, but with some intermediate steps as well. The point made about HDR that I like the most is the intent to represent a wider dynamic range of tones, more akin to what the eye can discern, using sensors (the camera) and media (the paper) that do not have the range.

In short it is a tool that can be used (competently or incompetently) to produce images. And it is only a tool.