Sunday, August 02, 2015

Scott Timberg's lament about the loss of the middlebrow evokes some "so what?" reactions from folks who aren't into middlebrow, `twas inevitable
Another institution that failed here was the White House. I consider Obama a vast improvement over George W. Bush, and this supposed African socialist has been far better for capitalism than his CEO predecessor. But his housing policy – and lack of guts dealing with the banks which held mortgages and helped create the crisis – was pathetic and lame. People like me, who’d worked their whole lives, made frugal decisions, had maintained good credit, were left to twist in the wind. The banks got bailed out with our tax dollars, their execs got bonuses, and for me and many other musicians, artists and writers who lost their homes, all of our wealth was destroyed.
 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
While there's been too many reviews to try to sum them all up it's tough to find a review that more readily sums up a "so what?" reaction than the following:

The title including "middlebrow tantrum" might tell you just about all you needed to know before you even consider reading the review proper.  But here's an excerpt:
Thinly rejecting Dwight MacDonald’s evisceration of the middlebrow in 1960’s “Masscult and Midcult,” Timberg celebrates the democratic middlebrow, less valuable for generating meritorious art or innovative discourse than for establishing a sort of cultural public square. But not online! Timberg is more interested in the lost role of newspaper arts sections than he is in the health of elite culture, though his analysis of Los Angeles, for example, seems to focus exclusively on the latter, pointing to the closure of Ferus Gallery (1966), Artforum’s departure for New York (1967), and the collector-dealer Virginia Dwan’s same move (1968) as portents of Los Angeleno decline. Despite his cheerleading for the middlebrow, Timberg never fully reconciles how the high relates to the middle. Given the relative strength of the former — a surge of little magazines (e.g. McSweeney’s, Guernica, n+1) greeted the new millennium while big print dwindled — his doomsday assessment of culture writ large seems compromised. But Timberg never strays far from the middle, at one point dismissing poetry wholesale for “being inhaled into academia and [losing] its connection to the literary and intellectual mainstream.”
 As a media critic, Timberg also falls short of the mark. For one, the hysterical retelling of the gutting of the Gannett newspaper empire could benefit from some historical perspective. Here’s A.J. Liebling, writing in the New Yorker in the same year as “Masscult and Midcult,” on the precarity of the journalistic profession: “If a journalist is working in a town where there are two ownerships, he is even money to become unemployed any minute, and if there are three, has two chances out of three of being in the public relations business before his children get through school.” Timberg cites Bureau of Labor Statistics figures on declines in print publishing employment from 2002 to 2012, yet no comparative effort is made to assess growth in other forms of media. The losses of old lions are bemoaned, like the Village Voice’s firing of J. Hoberman, but Timberg fails to note that the film critic’s byline remained a mainstay, and appears frequently today in the New York Review of Books, just as Michael Musto, another Village Voice layoff, resurfaced at Gawker. (Hoberman has also contributed to ARTINFO.) That the media industry underwent a traumatic shift is not in dispute, it’s just that personal hardship does not inherently imply broad-based cultural impoverishment.
 Moreover, even if we are to assume that Timberg’s media theories are correct, it is not obvious to what extent, dispassionately speaking, the fate of a predominantly white and middle-class cadre of culture-section newspaper writers weighs on the public culture of a pluralistic democracy.

Never heard of "Masscult and Midcult", one of the shots fired against middlebrow culture from the mid-20th century?  Well, here ya go.

Macdonald's evisceration of Hemmingway as a short story author who made the mistake of writing novels and who at his best honed baby talk into a literary art form was pretty funny!  Now virtually no one, even on the Left, would agree rock and popular styles are incapable of being art, just as it would actually be difficult to sustain a case that jazz was really "folk art" since it was promoted as a musical commodity just as much as rock would be after it.  Still, one of the debates that constantly burbles within arts criticism and art history, it seems, is a question of what "folk" art is compared to "high art" and how the two relate to each other.  The quasi-Marxist prelapsarian ideal of a high and low that knew their respective before capitalism destroyed everything with the emergence of middlebrow would require books I'm not sure I feel like writing and that, rest assured, others already wrote.

But the question of what folk art is, what the low brow art is in socio-economic terms might be interesting to see get some more discussion.  If high art has existed within a patronage system where the wealthy pay the skilled to create art as a signifier of status and low art is what the masses produce for their pleasure in their spare time than maybe a semi-Marxist way of describing what folk art is as a product related to the means of production is that folk art is stuff that's largely anonymously made at the expense of its creators, who do so at a loss of their time, money and resources simply to contribute to their cultural moment by making something they consider pleasurable and beautiful.  The high arts are things procured as a way to establish socio-economic ranking and legacy.  But what a person could playfully propose about both kinds of art is that the folk art and high art that emerges will be indicative of the empire in which it was created and there is no art that is not, in some basic sense, an imperial relic.  What were the Dark Ages if not merely an era in European history in which empires collapsed and regional feudalism emerged without significant and efficient consolidations of power?  The Roman empire fell and not a whole lot really replaced it. 

But that might be a whole set of other posts ... suffice it to say, when Scott Timberg laments that the production of the arts may be a luxury one can fairly ask how on earth he ever got the idea it was ever otherwise.

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