Saturday, January 24, 2015

arguments for a lost middlebrow? Comparing ArtsJournal writers Scott Timberg and Terry Teachout on the loss of a cultural middle


http://artsfuse.org/120923/fuse-interview-scott-timberg-looks-at-the-culture-crash-square-in-the-eye/
AF: The meaning of middlebrow is a bit slippery in the book — it includes indie rock. Unlike Dwight Macdonald, I want middlebrow art to exist — but do I have to like it?

Timberg: Middlebrow has always been a complicated/ ambiguous concept – or set of concepts – and I may have done it no favors here.

When I lament the loss of middlebrow, I’m not saying I want nothing but overplayed warhorses at symphony orchestras, nothing but Matisse shows at the museum, etc. What I miss is the notion that art is somehow clarifying or restorative, and that a broad public education and media push is worth investing in. Middlebrow means Leonard Bernstein on TV, Thelonious Monk on the cover of Time, Anne Sexton learning how to write a sonnet on public television, Lionel Trilling and Auden leading a book club for non-scholarly readers, public school art classes, etc. It says there’s something valuable about culture that goes beyond money (what the neoliberal or capitalist values) or shock value (what much of the cultural left values.)

Middlebrow, whatever its fault and blind spots and earnest pieties, values literature and the arts as aspects of human achievement.

Don’t think indie rock is really middlebrow in any way, but I included it in that section about “Restoring the Middle” because it (like indie film) is built on mid-size budgets and a middle-class audience. If you say you like, say, the films of Spike Jonze and bands like Pavement or TV on the Radio, your taste may have a bit of the avant-garde in it (or what we called in the ‘90s “cutting edge”) but economically, they are in the middle. (That is, they are neither blockbusters nor micro-finances shoestring operations, both extremes which have grown in the 21st century.)
And, no, you don’t have to like it. (I often don’t.) It’s about an ecosystem, not any of the individual flora and fauna within it. When it dies, everything around it starts to wither.
  

I.e. the middlebrow may still suck and all but we need it for a healthy cultural biosphere.  It seems a bit strange but perhaps lamenting the loss of the middlebrow culture is as much a lament for the decline of a middleclass as it actually is.  Another bit from the site.
 
... lot of what my book describes involves unintended consequences, and I think this is what happened here. This is a place where I never intended to end up; I was once a Wesleyan English major besotted with postmodern literature, experimental music and French theory, so I had to go against a lot of my instincts to see that it was the middle, not the edges, that needed restoring.
 
But in a nutshell, the people responsible for passing down the value of art – humanities professors and culture critics, for example, and media-savvy artists like Warhol – lost their nerve, or their faith. The priesthood stopped telling the flock that art was sacred or transcendent or a path to wisdom, and began calling it sexist, built on hegemony, a formation of cultural capital, an endlessly deferred signifier, etc. Some of this was true, at least in part. I don’t want to sound like Bill Bennett or Lynne Cheney and reject it all. But there was a price to be paid in the longterm for this.
 
And this overlapped with a movement going back to 19th century Paris – romantic bohemianism – which separated art from the marketplace and divorced the bohemian from the bourgeoisie. A lot of great art and poetry comes from that period. But all this stuff has consequences.
 
One writer who brought me around to seeing all this, by the way, was David Foster Wallace
  
Even a cursory observation of some boy band that was at one point known as The Beatles might have made a case for the middle.  Maybe "Revolution Number Nine" was just a knock-off of stuff that had been done earlier by Stockhausen but the point should not be lost that mainstreaming musical ideas explored by Stockhausen is not something every pop band has ever done.  So, yeah, maybe we do need the middle. 
 
One of the difficulties of consigning the Western canon of the arts to some dustbin of imperialist/colonial oppression is that you can end up throwing out the good as well as the bad.
 
Let's take a recent piece in The Atlantic.  Michael Godsey penned a little something wondering whether education in the US provides wisdom, the sort of wisdom that has in the past been transmitted through things like the Bible or Shakespeare or various authors:
 
...
But as a man who used to be a high school student interested in pursuing wisdom, I’m almost startled to find myself up late at night, literally studying these anchor standards instead of Hamlet itself. I’m making plans to teach the students how to "evaluate the sufficiency of the evidence" instead of asking them, "Who here sympathizes with Hamlet, or Ophelia, or any character, and how so?"
  
...
I get it: My job is to teach communication, not values, and maybe that’s reasonable. After all, I’m not sure I would want my daughter gaining her wisdom from a randomly selected high-school teacher just because he passed a few writing and literature courses at a state university (which is what I did). My job description has evolved, and I’m fine with that. [WtH are you sure?] But where are the students getting their wisdom?

...
Secular wisdom in the public schools seems like it should inherently spring from the literature that’s shaped American culture. And while the students focus on how Whitman’s "purpose shapes the content and style of his text," they’re obviously exposed to the words that describe his leaves of grass. And that’s good. But there is a noticeable deprioritization of literature, and a crumbling consensus regarding the nation’s idea of classic literature. The Common Core requires only Shakespeare, which is puzzling if only for its singularity. (A respected colleague recently called this stipulation "offensive," immediately rejecting "the audacity of elevating any of [Shakespeare’s] plays over anything ever written by anybody else.")

It seems particularly noteworthy that in a review of Timberg's Culture Crash, someone made the following acerbic observation.
http://artsfuse.org/120537/fuse-book-review-culture-crash-the-people-who-followed-their-bliss-off-a-cliff/

Why hasn’t the fate of creative professionals gotten the attention Timberg thinks we deserve? He thinks it’s a residue of either the romantic expectation that artists are misunderstood geniuses who do their best work from garrets or pervasive anti-intellectualism, “part of a larger revolt against experts and expertise.” He even brings in reference to the Puritans. But much more likely, it’s the fact that the remaining media organizations and the digital platforms that are the distribution channels for cultural work are the ones whose bread is being buttered. The people at the tops of those distribution channels are doing great.

“If we’re not careful, culture work will become a luxury, like a vacation home,” Timberg writes. It’s a good line, and one that anyone who values a diverse cultural ecology would want to affirm. What he doesn’t want to admit is that, absent direct patronage, professional culture workers have often depended on outside sources of income. For some it was the second job (in the post-war period, that job was primarily teaching, a job indirectly subsidized by the government in the form of the G.I. Bill fostering a new population of students). For others, it was something unrelated (meet pediatrician William Carlos Williams). For many (more than we have usually acknowledged and certainly more than today’s BFA and MFA students are aware) it was a trust fund, family member, or a spouse of means. That cushion made it possible for a talented person work on a novel or a painting until the work could earn respect, if not a proportionate wage for the work the artist put into it. Maybe the market would respond, and maybe it wouldn’t, but at least the creative person had a chance to find out.

That’s one of the reasons that pop culture exhortations to follow one’s bliss are so maddening. They imply a kind of privilege at the very heart of the class structures Americans are eager to say don’t exist. The fraying of the middle class is not just something that has happened to creatives. It’s just that Timberg never thought that what had happened to unionized manufacturing workers could happen to the educated type of knowledge workers who worked at the LA Times
 
It's ironic when American culture sorts feel obliged to mention Puritans in the 21st century because whatever flaws the Puritans had those people wrote a lot.  Ever try to read The Christian in Complete Armor by William Gurnall? The arts have always been the work of those with the leisure to work on them.  If there's a crisis in the creative class perhaps we could just throw in a cranky observation from someone like Paul Hindemith about how the problem with American musical education was that all it was good for was teaching people to be music teachers who would teach music teachers.  The idea that music could be taught so that amateurs could make and enjoy music ... maybe that wasn't so on the table.  As music became more and more about what was committed to recordings the idea that music could be something people played together on a weekend rather than hitting the theater to see a movie (indie or otherwise) may have played a century-long role here. 

Debra Cash is right to point out that without a clear grasp of the patronage systems that have been in place a lament about the loss of a creative class can be missing a few important points.  To the degree to which composers and musicians are expected to directly monetize what they do and struggle to find ways to do that in the face of corporate patronage there can be an invitation to "follow your dream" that doesn't account for economic realities. 

At the risk of pointing something else out, we live in an era in which the economics of paths can make it seem as though an aspiring artist can choose one of a number of paths that in the past were not mutually exclusive but that "might" be now.  Bach could afford to have almost two dozen kids.  He was part of a lineage of musicians.  In the United States at this point it seems you could choose to build a family or build an artistic career of some kind but you're not necessarily going to do both unless you've landed a lot of money.  If the ideal of some kind of bohemian cultural innovator in the past was a life of sex, drugs and rock and roll it seems that nowadays you should avoid the drugs and you get to pick either sex or the rock and roll but you'll end up talking with a collections agency if you try to get both at the same time. Maybe in this era of America you've gotta pick the art or the sex whether or not its rock and roll. 

The idea that the arts could be pursued after you've done everything else you "have" to do to get by in life never even seems to be on the table.  It's as though there's this all-or-nothing thing about the arts.  You've either got to be a writer or a musician vocationally or you're not in the arts at all.  That doesn't seem to account for history, as Cash has noted in her review of Timberg's book. There were the trust funds and all that but there were also the teaching jobs.  To bring up Charles Ives, what he did was work in the insurance business.  Bach had a wide variety of duties that did not just include the required cantatas for the liturgical year. 

The political battles over the import of what classic literature, American or otherwise, seems to have been fought and won already.  It's not a huge surprise that a loss of a middle class might eventually include a lament for a loss of a middlebrow could span the political spectrum.  Timberg's been featured at ArtFuse and links to stuff at Salon.  Terry Teachout's writing is more likely to appear in, say, Commentary.  But it's interesting to compare Timberg's concern about a loss of a middlebrow to Teachout's comments.

 
All these things were manifestations of what I refer to in the introduction to A Terry Teachout Reader as the culture of “middlebrow aspiration”:
Just as city dwellers can’t understand what it meant for the residents of a rural town to wake up one day and find themselves within driving distance of a Wal-Mart, so are they incapable of properly appreciating the true significance of middlebrow culture. For all its flaws, it nurtured at least two generations’ worth of Americans who, like me, went on to become full-fledged highbrows–but highbrows who, while accepting the existence of a hierarchy of values in art, never lost sight of the value of popular culture.
Though middlebrow cultural aspiration was already on its last legs when I came along, small towns tend to be a bit behind the curve. Not only did I get a stiff dose of it, but it took: I studied music, tried out for plays, read books by the carload, and spent virtually every nickel of my modest allowance on records of every imaginable kind. What’s more, my parents, puzzled though they were by my burgeoning strangeness, backed me to the hilt. They took me to the public library as often as I cared to go, and later on they bought me an encyclopedia, a violin, a piano, a guitar, and an electric bass, spending money they couldn’t easily spare in order to give me opportunities they’d never had to explore a world of whose existence they were largely unaware.
 
Put this way it could almost seem as though the value of middle brow culture would be its capacity to understand and appreciate the value of both the "high" and the "low" without denigrating one or the other on the basis of some ideology of class warfare either in economics or the arts. 

It's not a particularly original observation that during the Cold War in the West classical music seemed straitjacketed by dodecaphonic academics while in the Soviet bloc Socialist Realism imposed a different kind of draconian set of rules on musicians.  Both were different modes of cultural repression.  If in the Soviet bloc music was considered bad if it took more than one listening to understand it in an era in which Elliott Carter was praised (not that he hasn't composed some music WtH sorta likes) the very idea of tonality was abjured.  Both enterprises could be seen as, well, a kind of ideological warfare in which whatever could have been the "middle", let alone whatever was on the "other" side was villainized.

The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart?  Well, anyway ... .

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