Sunday, August 02, 2015

on that nebulous middlebrow courtesy of the NYT.

The word crept into English, in class-ridden Britain, between the wars. It was deployed to memorable effect by Virginia Woolf in a letter to The New Statesman, in response to a review. “If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me ‘middlebrow,’ ” she wrote, “I will take my pen and stab him dead.”
The reasons for her rage are spelled out in vivid, good-humored detail. Woolf is proud to call herself a highbrow, which she defines as a “man or woman of thoroughbred intelligence who rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea.” This designation places her in the company of writers from Shakespeare to the Brontës, and also carries an unmistakable, not entirely metaphorical trace of class distinction. Highbrow status is a matter of breeding and belonging. But the highbrow, though an aristocrat, is not a snob.
“I honor and respect lowbrows,” Woolf asserts, “and I have never known a highbrow who did not.” (Lowbrows are defined as those who are as committed to living as highbrows are to thinking.) This is because high and low are in alliance against the middle. “I myself have known duchesses who were highbrows, also charwomen, and they have both told me with that vigor of language which so often unites the aristocracy with the working classes that they would rather sit in the coal cellar together than in the drawing room with middlebrows and pour out tea.”
What makes the middlebrows so contemptible? Woolf’s tautological response is their very middleness, their inability to be either one thing or another, and their habit of “indistinguishably and rather nastily” mixing up art and life (the pure, complementary pursuits of the high and the low) with things like “money, fame, power or prestige.”
The natural affinity of the high and low, and their mutual suspicion of the middle, has been a remarkably durable idea, though it has never proven to be anything more than an idea, a nostalgic vision of ideal order. At heart it is a fantasy of aesthetic authenticity secured by static and hierarchical social distinctions. A world of landlords and peasants, of masters and servant, of patrons and workers is one in which art and life harmonize. In such a world, the middle will always be a place of vulgarity and ostentation, of the kind of money-grubbing, backslapping, self-conscious display Woolf (or at least her notional duchess) would flee to the basement to avoid.
A name for that place, in the postwar years, would be America, which emerged as a kind of Promised Land — or nightmarish dystopia, depending on whom you asked — of middlebrow culture.
The middlebrow is robustly represented in “difficult” cable television shows, some of which, curiously enough, fetishize such classic postwar middlebrow pursuits as sex research and advertising. It also thrives in a self-conscious foodie culture in which a taste for folkloric authenticity commingles with a commitment to virtue and refinement.

But in literature and film we hear a perpetual lament for the midlist and the midsize movie, as the businesses slip into a topsy-turvy high-low economy of blockbusters and niches. The art world spins in an orbit of pure money. Museums chase dollars with crude commercialism aimed at the masses and the slavish cultivation of wealthy patrons. Symphonies and operas chase donors and squeeze workers (that is, artists) as the public drifts away.

Universities and colleges, the seedbeds of a cultural ideal consecrated to both excellence and democracy, to citizenship and to knowledge for its own sake, are becoming either hothouses for the new dynastic elite or training centers for the technocratic debt peons of the digital future.
In the hectic heyday of the middlebrow, intellectuals gazed back longingly at earlier dispensations when masterpieces were forged in conditions of inequality by lucky or well-born artists favored by rich or titled patrons.

Social inequality may be returning, but that doesn’t mean that the masterpieces will follow. ...

If you're curious where "Masscult and Midcult" might fit in (or especially if you're not) ...
" ... There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being." The last sentence is an eleven-word summary, in form and content, of Midcult. I agree with everything Mr. Wilder says but I will fight to the death against his right to say it in this way.

Thus on the play known as Our Town.  In the lexicon of trade axioms, maybe the problem of the middlebrow is that it self-consciously traffics in the proverbial in a way that the high and low avoid either through dread of cliché or ignorance of its promulgation. :)  Perhaps only a middlebrow can fashion a work of art in which the message is the point?

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