Mechanical Dances

Middlebrow?

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A. O. Scott has produced an intriguing but confusing piece in the New York Times: “The Squeeze on the Middlebrow: A Resurgence in Inequality and Its Effects on Culture.“ His argument seems to be there is a parallel between what is happening economically and what is happening culturally. Just as rising inequality is threatening the middle class, so “middle-brow” culture is being squeezed out of existence. The middle of the 20th century were the “Golden Age of Middlebrow,” he suggests. And that is passing. But it is hard to discern what Scott means by “middlebrow.” He seems at one point to be referring to “serious” Hollywood drama and “serious” fiction of the kind that gets reviewed in the New York Times or the New York Review of Books. Yet we are experiencing right now the “Second Golden Age” of serious television drama, which would seem to be the essence of “middlebrow.”

The period Scott is referring to is the period when hierarchies of art and culture were breaking down: the 1950s through the 1970s. That breakdown quickly brought us to the point where high-, middle- and lowbrow became hard to distinguish. What we had (and have) are communities of producers and consumers (of film, painting, rock music, performance art, television, dinner theater, and on and on). Some of these communities still claimed an elite (and culturally central) status for their media forms. But that claim was (and is now) accepted only within their own community. And one of the major effects of the breakdown of elite or high modernism in precisely this period was the advent of what I have called popular modernism. Both “middlebrow” and “lowbrow” producers and consumers were often influenced by the fragments of the modernist paradigm.

Prior to the 1950s, to be educated and wealthy implied certain cultural preferences. If you were rich and had gone to good schools, you were supposed at least to acknowledge the value of classic music and high art. Today, we are not at all surprised if a billionaire prefers blues or rap to classical music. For example, during the 2012 presidential campaign, Rolling Stone reported that Mitt Romney, one of the wealthiest men ever to be a major candidate, likes the Beach Boys and country music.

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