Middlebrow

Last updated

The term middlebrow describes easily accessible art, usually literature, and the people who use the arts to acquire culture and "class" (social prestige). First used in the British satire magazine Punch in 1925, the term middlebrow is the intermediary "brow" descriptor between highbrow and lowbrow , which are terms derived from the pseudo-science of phrenology. [1]

Contents

Modernism

The term middlebrow became a pejorative usage in the modernist cultural criticism, by Dwight Macdonald, Virginia Woolf, and Russell Lynes, which served the cause of the marginalisation of the popular culture in favour of high culture. [2] Culturally, the middlebrow is classed as a forced and ineffective attempt at cultural and intellectual achievement, and as characterizing literature that emphasises emotional and sentimental connections, rather than intellectual quality and literary innovation; [3] although postmodernism more readily perceives the advantages of the middlebrow cultural-position that is aware of high culture, but is able to balance aesthetic claims with the claims of the everyday world. [4]

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf derided the middlebrow in an un-posted letter to the editor of the New Statesman & Nation, concerning a radio broadcast that attacked the Highbrows. [5] That letter was posthumously published in the essay collection The Death of the Moth (1942). [6] [7]

Woolf criticizes middlebrows as petty purveyors of highbrow cultures for their own shallow benefit. Rather than selecting books for their intrinsic cultural value, middlebrow people select and read what they are told is best. Middlebrows are concerned with how what they do makes them appear, unlike highbrows, the avant-garde men and women who act according to their indelible commitment to beauty, value, art, form, and integrity. Woolf said that, "We highbrows read what we like and do what we like and praise what we like". Likewise, a lowbrow is devoted to a singular interest, a person "of thoroughbred vitality who rides his body in pursuit of a living at a gallop across life"; and, therefore, the lowbrow are equally worthy of reverence, as they, too, are living for what they intrinsically know as valuable.

Instead of such freedom, the middlebrows are "betwixt and between", which Woolf classifies as "in pursuit of no single object, neither Art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige." Their value system rewards quick gains through literature already designated as 'Classic' and 'Great', never of their own choosing, because "to buy living art requires living taste." The middlebrow are meretricious—which is much less demanding than authenticity.

Russell Lynes: "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow"

Harper's Magazine editor Russell Lynes satirized Virginia Woolf's highbrow scorn in the article "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow". [8] Quoting her and other highbrow proponents, such as art critic Clement Greenberg, Lynes parodied the highbrow's pompous superiority by noting how the subtle distinctions Woolf found significant among the "brows" were just means of upholding cultural superiority. Specifically, he parodies the highbrow claim that the products a person uses distinguishes his or her level of cultural worth, by satirically identifying the products that would identify a middlebrow person.

Lynes continued distinguishing among "brows", dividing middlebrow into upper-middlebrow and lower-middlebrow. The upper-middlebrow's arts patronage makes highbrow activity possible. Museums, orchestras, operas, and publishing houses are run by upper-middlebrows. The lower middlebrows attempt using the arts for self-enhancement: "hell-bent on improving their minds as well as their fortunes". They also intend to live the simple, easy life outlined in advertisements; "lower middlebrow-ism" was "a world that smells of soap". Caricaturing Woolf, Lynes outlined the perfect world without middlebrows; lowbrows work and highbrows create pure art.

Months later, Life magazine asked Lynes to specifically distinguish among the right foods, furniture, clothes, and arts for each of the four 'brows'. That began a national preoccupation, as people tried to identify their proper social class, based upon their favourite things. Although middlebrow often has connoted contempt, Lynes lauded the zeal and aspirations of the middlebrows. [9]

Priestley's defence

J. B. Priestley sought to create a positive cultural space around the concept of middlebrow one characterised by earnestness, friendliness and ethical concerns. [10] He couched his defence of the middlebrow in terms of radio stations, praising the BBC Home Service for its cosiness and plainness, midway between the Light Programme and the Third Programme: "Between the raucous lowbrows and the lisping highbrows is a fine gap, meant for the middle or broadbrows...our homely fashion". [11]

In a struggle that involved competition for readers as well as for cultural capital, Virginia Woolf responded by renaming the BBC the "Betwixt and Between Company". [12]

Dwight Macdonald: "Masscult and Midcult"

Dwight Macdonald's critique of middlebrow culture, "Masscult and Midcult" (1960), associated the modern industrial drive, away from specialization and the folk, with creating a mass-market arts, and, therefore, anonymous consumers of the arts. [13] In the U.S., highbrow culture is associated with specialization for the connoisseurs, while lowbrow culture entails authentic folk products made for specific communities. Mass culture (masscult) copies and manipulates both traditions, with factory-created products, made without innovation or care, expressly for the market, "to please the crowd by any means", thereby creating an American society in which "a pluralistic culture cannot exist", wherein the rule is cultural homogeneity.

In contrast Midcult (middle culture), came about with middlebrow culture, and dangerously copies and adulterates high culture, by way of "a tepid ooze of Midcult", which threatens high culture, with dramaturgy, literature, and architecture, such as Our Town (1938), The Old Man and the Sea (1952), and American collegiate gothic architecture.

The Middlebrow "pretends to respect the standards of High Culture, while, in fact, it waters them down and vulgarizes them." Macdonald recommended a separation of the brows, so that "the few who care about good writing, painting, music, architecture, philosophy, etc. have their High Culture, and don't fuzz up the distinction with the Midcult." [14]

Marketed middlebrow

The Book-of-the-Month Club and Oprah Winfrey's Book Club have been widely characterized as middlebrow, [15] marketed to bring classics and 'highbrow' literature to the middle class. This was particularly highlighted when author Jonathan Franzen, after his book The Corrections was selected, remarked in several publications that some of Oprah's book club picks were middlebrow. [16] In her seminal account of the Book-of-the-Month Club (as it was from its inception in 1926 to the 1980s before it transformed to a purely commercial operation), A Feeling for Books, Janice Radway argues that middlebrow culture is not simply a diluted impersonation of highbrow, but instead distinctly defined itself in defiance of avant-garde high culture. [17]

Contemporary middlebrow

Slate Magazine suggests that the late 2000s and early 2010s could potentially be considered the "golden age of middlebrow art"—pointing to television shows Breaking Bad , Mad Men , The Sopranos and The Wire and novels Freedom , The Marriage Plot and A Visit from the Goon Squad . Slate also defines the films of Aaron Sorkin as middlebrow. [18] Some argue that Slate itself is middlebrow journalism. [19]

In a March 2012 article for Jewish Ideas Daily , Peodair Leihy described the work of poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen as "a kind of pop—upper-middle-brow to lower-high-brow, to be sure, but pop nonetheless." [20] This aesthetic was further theorized in an essay from November that year for The American Scholar that saw William Deresiewicz propose the addition of "upper middle brow," a culture falling between masscult and midcult. He defined it as, "infinitely subtler than Midcult. It is post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive." [21]

In The New Yorker , Macy Halford characterizes Harper's Magazine and The New Yorker itself as "often [being] viewed as prime examples of the middlebrow: both magazines are devoted to the high but also to making it accessible to many; to bringing ideas that might remain trapped in ivory towers and academic books, or in high-art (or film or theatre) scenes, into the pages of a relatively inexpensive periodical that can be bought at bookstores and newsstands across the country (and now on the Internet)." She also notes the internet's effect on the middlebrow debate: "Internet is forcing us to rethink (again) what "middlebrow" means: in an era when the highest is as accessible as the lowest—accessible in the sense that both are only a click away ... —we actually have to think anew about how to walk that middle line." Halford describes Wikipedia: "...Wiki is itself a kind of middlebrow product" and links to this middlebrow entry "because it actually provides a smart summary." [22]

See also

Related Research Articles

Bloomsbury Group Influential group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists

The Bloomsbury Group—or Bloomsbury Set—was a group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists in the first half of the 20th century, including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. This loose collective of friends and relatives was closely associated with the University of Cambridge for the men and King's College London for the women, and they lived, worked or studied together near Bloomsbury, London. According to Ian Ousby, "although its members denied being a group in any formal sense, they were united by an abiding belief in the importance of the arts." Their works and outlook deeply influenced literature, aesthetics, criticism, and economics as well as modern attitudes towards feminism, pacifism, and sexuality. A well-known quote, attributed to Dorothy Parker, is "they lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles".

<i>Slate</i> (magazine) U.S.-based online magazine

Slate is a liberal progressive online magazine that covers current affairs, politics, and culture in the United States. It is known, and sometimes criticized, for having adopted contrarian views, giving rise to the term "Slate Pitches". It has a generally liberal editorial stance.

High culture Artifacts regarded as the most representative within society culture

High culture encompasses the cultural objects of aesthetic value, which a society collectively esteem as exemplary art, and the intellectual works of philosophy, history, and literature that a society consider representative of their culture.

Highbrow

Used colloquially as a noun or adjective, "highbrow" is synonymous with intellectual; as an adjective, it also means elite, and generally carries a connotation of high culture. The word draws its metonymy from the pseudoscience of phrenology, and was originally simply a physical descriptor.

Lowbrow (art movement) Underground visual art movement

Lowbrow, or lowbrow art, is an underground visual art movement that arose in the Los Angeles, California area in the late 1960s. It is a populist art movement with its cultural roots in underground comix, punk music, tiki culture, graffiti, and hot-rod cultures of the street. It is also often known by the name pop surrealism. Lowbrow art often has a sense of humor – sometimes the humor is gleeful, sometimes impish, and sometimes it is a sarcastic comment.

Low culture Term for forms of popular culture with mass appeal

"Low culture" is a derogatory term for forms of popular culture that have mass appeal. Its contrast is "high culture", which can also be derogatory. It has been said by culture theorists that both high culture and low culture are subcultures. Popular culture is mass produced by what has been called by culture analyst Theodor Adorno the "culture industry".

Dwight Macdonald was an American writer, editor, film critic, social critic, philosopher, and activist. Macdonald was a member of the New York Intellectuals and editor of their leftist magazine Partisan Review for six years. He also contributed to other New York publications including Time, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and politics, a journal which he founded in 1944.

Gilbert Seldes

Gilbert Vivian Seldes was an American writer and cultural critic. Seldes served as the editor and drama critic of the seminal modernist magazine The Dial and hosted the NBC television program The Subject is Jazz (1958). He also wrote for other magazines and newspapers like Vanity Fair and the Saturday Evening Post. He was most interested in American popular culture and cultural history. He wrote and adapted for Broadway, including Lysistrata and A Midsummer Night's Dream in the 1930s. Later, he made films, wrote radio scripts and became the first director of television for CBS News and the founding dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lowbrow may refer to:

Postmodernist film is a classification for works that articulate the themes and ideas of postmodernism through the medium of cinema. Some of the goals of postmodernist film are to subvert the mainstream conventions of narrative structure and characterization, and to test the audience's suspension of disbelief. Typically, such films also break down the cultural divide between high and low art and often upend typical portrayals of gender, race, class, genre, and time with the goal of creating something that does not abide by traditional narrative expression.

Russell Lynes was an American art historian, photographer, author and managing editor of Harper's Magazine.

<i>I Lost It at the Movies</i> 1965 book by Pauline Kael

I Lost It at the Movies is a 1965 book that serves as a compendium of movie reviews written by Pauline Kael, a film critic from The New Yorker, from 1954 to 1965. The book was published prior to Kael's long stint at The New Yorker. As a result, the pieces in the book are culled from radio broadcasts that she did while she was at KPFA, as well as numerous periodicals, including Moviegoer, the Massachusetts Review, Sight and Sound, Film Culture, Film Quarterly and Partisan Review. It contains her negative review of the then widely acclaimed West Side Story, glowing reviews of other movies such as The Golden Coach and Seven Samurai, as well as longer polemical essays such as her largely negative critical responses to Siegfried Kracauer's Theory of Film and Andrew Sarris's Film Culture essay Notes on the Auteur Theory, 1962. The book was a bestseller upon its first release, and is now published by Marion Boyars Publishers.

Jane Marcus (1938–2015) was a pioneering feminist literary scholar, specializing in women writers of the Modernist era, but especially in the social and political context of their writings. Focusing on Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, and Nancy Cunard, among many others, she devised groundbreaking analyses of Woolf's writings, upending a generation of criticism that ignored feminist, pacifist, and socialist themes in much of Woolf's work and critique of imperialism and bourgeois society. Marcus's understanding of Woolf's place within the larger context of English literature has become prevailing wisdom today in the fields affected by her theorization and research, despite the controversial nature of her positions when they were originally formulated and how much opposition she garnered from earlier scholars and critics.

Popular culture is generally recognized by members of a society as a set of the practices, beliefs, and objects that are dominant or prevalent in a society at a given point in time. Popular culture also encompasses the activities and feelings produced as a result of interaction with these dominant objects. The primary driving force behind popular culture is mass appeal, and it is produced by what cultural analyst Theodor Adorno refers to as the "culture industry". Heavily influenced in modern times by mass media, this collection of ideas permeates the everyday lives of people in a given society. Therefore, popular culture has a way of influencing an individual's attitudes towards certain topics. However, there are various ways to define pop culture. Because of this, popular culture is something that can be defined in a variety of conflicting ways by different people across different contexts. It is generally viewed in contrast to other forms of culture such as folk cults, working-class culture, or high culture, and also through different high praised perspectives such as psychoanalysis, structuralism, postmodernism, and more. The most common pop-culture categories are: entertainment, sports, news, politics, fashion, technology, and slang.

Peter Swirski

Peter Swirski is a Canadian scholar and literary critic featured in Canadian Who's Who. As a specialist in American literature and American Studies, he is the author of many books, including the prize-winning Ars Americana, Ars Politica (2010) and the staple of American popular culture studies From Lowbrow to Nobrow (2005). His other studies include American Utopia and Social Engineering (2011), American Political Fictions (2015), American Utopia: Literature, Society, and the Human Use of Human Beings, and the digital-futurological bestseller From Literature to Biterature (2013). He is also the leading scholar on the late writer and philosopher Stanisław Lem.

<i>From Lowbrow to Nobrow</i>

From Lowbrow to Nobrow is a book on literary culture written by Peter Swirski, professor of American literature and culture at the University of Missouri, St. Louis and Research Director at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Swirski is the author of twelve books of American literature and culture, Stanislaw Lem, and theory of knowledge.

Perry Meisel, Professor of English at New York University for over forty years until his retirement in 2016, has written on literature, music, psychoanalysis, theory, and culture since the 1970s. His articles have appeared in The Village Voice, The New York Times Book Review, Partisan Review, October, The Nation, The Atlantic, and many other publications. His books include The Myth of Popular Culture from Dante to Dylan, The Literary Freud, The Cowboy and the Dandy, The Myth of the Modern, The Absent Father, and Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Repressed. He is co-editor, with Haun Saussy, of Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics, and co-editor, with Walter Kendrick, of Bloomsbury/Freud: The Letters of James and Alix Strachey, 1924–25. He is also editor of Freud: A Collection of Critical Essays. He received his B.A., M. Phil, and Ph.D. from Yale.

The 3rd Degree is a British quiz show broadcast on BBC Radio 4, hosted by comedian Steve Punt and made by Pozzitive Television. The series is recorded at different universities around the country, the contestants all coming from the university in which the recording takes place. One teams consists of three students and the other of three lecturers who teach the subjects the students are studying.

<i>Even the Stars Look Lonesome</i> African-American writer and poet Maya Angelous second book of essays

Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997) is African-American writer and poet Maya Angelou's second book of essays, published during the long period between her fifth and sixth autobiographies, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986) and A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002). Stars, like her first book of essays, Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now (1993), has been called one of Angelou's "wisdom books". By the time it was published, Angelou was well-respected and popular as a writer and poet. She discusses a wide range of topics in the book's twenty short personal essays, including Africa, aging and the young's misconceptions of it, sex and sensuality, self-reflection, independence, and violence. Most of the essays are autobiographical and had previously appeared in other publications. One essay defends Angelou's support of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, and another one centers on her friend Oprah Winfrey.

The Baby-Sitters Club Club is a comedy podcast hosted by Jack Shepherd and Tanner Greenring. The co-hosts read and analyze books from Ann M. Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club series of young adult novels. The first episode released in February 2016, and the episodes release weekly.

References

  1. "Middlebrow". Oxford English Dictionary. 23 February 2008.
  2. Pask, K. The Fairy Way of Writing (2013) p. 125
  3. "Is "Middlebrow" Still An Insult?". Slate. 12 October 2011.
  4. David Cardiff, Mass Middlebrow Laughter' Media, Culture and Society 10 (1988), 41-60
  5. H. Lee, Virginia Woolf (1996) p. 634
  6. Woolf, Virginia (1942). "Middlebrow". The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays. London: Hogarth Press.
  7. "Woolf contra Middlebrow – HiLobrow". hilobrow.com.
  8. Lynes, Russell (1954). The Tastemakers . New York: Harper.
  9. Rubin, Joan Shelley (1992). The Making of Middlebrow Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN   0807820105.
  10. B. Driscoll, The New literary Middlebrow (2014) p. 40
  11. Quoted in Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (1957) p. 185
  12. M. Cuddy-Keane, Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual, and the Public Sphere (2014) p. 21-9
  13. Macdonald, Dwight (1962). "Masscult and Midcult". Essays Against the American Grain . New York: Random House.
  14. Collected (16 October 2008). The Oprah Affect: Critical Essays on Oprah's Book Club. p. 136. ISBN   9780791476161.
  15. Kelly, Hillary (25 May 2011). "We Don't Need Oprah's Book Club". The New Republic.
  16. Bosman, Julie. "Oprah Picks Franzen for Final Book Club". The New York Times.
  17. Radway, Janice. A Feeling for Books: The Book-Of-The-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire.
  18. "You Can't Handle the Truth About Aaron Sorkin". Slate. 22 June 2012.
  19. Has Slate Declined? Archived 5 November 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  20. "Old-New Leonard". Jewish Ideas Daily. 9 March 2012.
  21. Deresiewicz, William (4 November 2012). "Upper Middle Brow".
  22. Halford, Macy. "On "Middlebrow"".The New Yorker

Further reading