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Reformulating the brows

Post #1278 • January 20, 2009, 10:39 AM • 25 Comments

During the night, the thread at the last post turned to music, a subject I know poorly, but one that gives me the opportunity to talk about the probability that we need to reformulate the highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow characterizations regarding culture.

We typically employ highbrow to refer to museum-level art and classical music, middlebrow to refer to, say, illustration and art rock, and lowbrow as, say, posters of bikini-clad women on cars and dance pop. These have served as useful distinctions to consider the art of the last several centuries. But they are becoming unworkable, and not for the anti-elitist reasons that alleged progressives usually suggest, but because one can often find examples of the middle tier producing better work than the high tier, and the low tier producing better work than the middle tier. If I'm right, I have an elitist argument for questioning the brows.

I said once at Ed Winkleman's blog:

It's the lowbrow group that can't parse awkward paintings of soup cans as art. It's middlebrow to say that those paintings are important and interesting. It's highbrow to say that compared to similar statements by, for example, Charles Demuth, they really aren't very good.

And later:

...the brows are marked by varying refinement of taste. If you'll permit me a wine analogy: Highbrow taste can distinguish between years of a single vinyard. Middlebrow taste can distinguish between varietals. Lowbrow taste can distinguish between red and white.

So in art, highbrow taste is concerned with the highest reaches of the art, and fine distinctions between excellent efforts and superlative ones. Lowbrow taste is concerned with anything that tugs on the human psyche in any way. Middlebrow taste is concerned with the parameters of highbrow taste, but can't or won't access it. Incidentally, some people can become extremely good at low culture, just like others can excel at high culture. I caught the last half of Enter the Dragon the other night. This movie, pretty much by any metric, is completely ridiculous, but Bruce Lee is so awesome that it ends up not mattering. (Mind you, I wouldn't watch it twice.) I'm undecided whether one can achieve mastery in the middlebrow realm - the nature of middlebrow taste might preclude it.

Although I didn't get lowbrow fixed down well enough above, I have decided that previously undecided question: One can achieve mastery in a traditionally middlebrow realm, and the results can exceed that of flailing around in a traditionally highbrow realm.

Hovig, in an off-blog discussion about a similar problem, suggested an example of music that I would compare to certain kinds of art as highbrow, conceptually interesting, and aesthetically intolerable: Stockhausen's Helicopter String Quartet. However highbrow, I can't see myself keeping it on the CD player in the car, which currently holds Django Reinhardt, Rage Against the Machine, Iron & Wine, and the Pixies. David Thompson has said that the pleasure he gets from older art, he seeks not in new art (where he hardly ever finds it) but in comics and design. In this situation, it makes sense to stop talking about genres as belonging to one of the brows. The genres are merely producing objects evincing a given set of traits particular to its genre. Taste then deals with them in a highbrow, middlebrow, or lowbrow way. The reformulation consists of pinning the brows not to objects, but to tastes.

Taste is the ability to detect quality. Specifically, it is the ability to detect quality independently of traits. Lowbrows like traits, and will feel compensated when a work of art supplies those traits. Highbrows recognize that certain uses or combinations of traits turn out more successfully than others. John demonstrated this for us beautifully last night by remarking, "And Johnny Cash, I really like, absolutely, especially the last few albums." By noting (with felt enthusiasm, not cool disinterest) that the last few albums are better than some of the albums leading up to them, John is operating as a highbrow, despite talking about the genre of country music. Highbrows can make those kinds of fine distinctions. A lowbrow couldn't perceive how much better Cash is than Toby Kieth; in fact, because later Cash defies a few of the standard traits of country music (for instance, he covered a Soundgarden song at one point), Cash might sound too strange for his liking.

What, then, is middlebrow taste? There could be many versions of it. Some people don't make firm distinctions about a genre - they basically like it all, or like most of it, and don't reflect why. There are people who make firm judgments, but judgments that are so wildly off base as to disqualify them as highbrows. Genres that are hostile to aesthetic judgment condemn its aficionados to middlebrowdom at best. (There are people in the art world who feel irritated about the whole question of artistic quality, and thus prefer types of work that are hostile to artistic quality. They are middlebrows to the core. I'm also thinking of the burners, whose spirit of inclusion trumps stringent evaluations of quality, and thus have trouble leaving middlebrow orbit; when they do, it is because people are tacitly competing on scale, outrageousness, or total output of fire.) There are people who like traits too well to see past them but also well enough to see when they're being used poorly; zealous critics of superhero comics often fall into this category. The list might go on indefinitely.

So our job as always is to get the pleasures right: first to enjoy, then to compare. Let culture throw at us what it will.

Comment

1.

opie

January 20, 2009, 11:56 AM

My impression of middlebrows is that they don't have any taste. They get what passes for taste from pop culture. And they get very uncomfortable when someone starts making fine distinctions.

Lowbrows, like highbrows,"know what they like" and don't give a damn what you think.

2.

cherie hanson

January 20, 2009, 3:27 PM

Interesting that you are delineated some of the very issues about value of art that I have been thinking about recently. Is it important to evaluate what it is your are doing as an artist rather than just focusing on your work? Marketing as opposed to making art? Issues that we are all dealing with are interesting to read about.
Cherie

3.

Bunny Smedley

January 20, 2009, 4:40 PM

I've known people who are happy to define themselves as 'highbrow', and also people who are happy (perhaps even more so) to define themselves as 'lowbrow'. Is there anyone, though, who actually welcomes the 'middlebrow' label? Or is this one simply a badge of failure for someone who'd much rather be something else?

4.

John

January 20, 2009, 4:59 PM

I've always thought of highbrow as being able to get what is "out there", and to enjoy it to the extent its objective goodness allows, no matter what the type looked at, listened to, or read.

Lowbrow decides mostly on type, but using some discrimination though it is often based on sub types, and other aspects extrinsic to art, such as politics, guns, and religion.

Those poor middlebrows. They think they are the highest of the highbrows because the herd they run in tells them so, not because they experience much for themselves. Like the lowbrows, they also use type as a major guideline though they like a wider range. Only middlebrows could give a grant to Pope.L - and they did. They run the art world, so I can't feel very sorry for them.

5.

John

January 20, 2009, 5:23 PM

Bunny: My father-in-law called me an "Okie from Muskogee" with the loving disrespect that lowbrows from Chicago dispense with great regularity. I liked hearing it and in some sense it is true. Oklahoma's lack of "high level" cultural resources worked as a purifying factor, leaving a level field upon which to play.

The first really good art I saw was by Leon Polk Smith and Larry Poons when I went to college - before they were well known or maybe as they were beginning to emerge. The show revealed that there was more to art than largemouth bass breaking water with a lure hanging from their jaws and the sacred heart of Jesus flowing a few drops of blood, not to forget feather counted mallards leaping off shallow water ponds.

It was pure experience because I didn't know any better, didn't know any worse. Instead, I was free to take in what was there to take - pretty damn good pictures, the first I had ever seen in the flesh. They moved me, as opposed to all the rest from the past that had simply commanded respect for their technical achievement.

6.

Jack

January 20, 2009, 7:13 PM

Oklahoma's lack of "high level" cultural resources worked as a purifying factor, leaving a level field upon which to play.

I can relate to that, though I've never been in Oklahoma. As I grew up, art was never an issue in my house, family or environment. It might as well not have existed. Nobody addressed it in any way, and there were no art venues to speak of at hand, let alone anything substantial. I don't recall art books or even reproductions of famous works around. As I said, art was a non-issue.

But, evidently, the aptitude or disposition or susceptibility to art was in me, somehow, and it just needed a catalyst. The catalyst was a momentous visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid, where I was taken mainly because my parents had been told it was more or less mandatory for visitors to the city.

Mind you that, at the time, I was utterly virginal artwise (and otherwise). It was, literally, like throwing a kid who's never been in the water at the deep end of the pool, if not the middle of the ocean. There was no preparation for it whatsoever, and no guidance while there--I was left to roam through the huge, cavernous rooms full of strange, wondrous, often larger-than-life images. It was like a foreign planet. Just me and the images.

In a way it was traumatic, in a good way, and that was the beginning, the cracking of the eggshell, the awakening. I had no idea about any of it at the time, but I started with the best, and the thirst for it has never left me.

7.

opie

January 20, 2009, 7:28 PM

Yeah, my background was in a way similar. Nothing on our walls but inherited etchings and a photo of a plane my father flew once. Photos of relatives on the piano, etc.

I saw a Ben Nicholson in the Herald Tribune Roto section one Sunday next to a painting of a clown asking "Which one do you like better" - you know, the old my-kid-could-do-that BS. No contest. I loved the Nicholson so much I cut it out and put in my wallet.

8.

Jack

January 20, 2009, 9:02 PM

I think, or rather strongly believe, that what John, OP and I are talking about in comments 5-7 are variations of the same thing, all illustrating the same principle. I think that "getting" art, or "art hunger," if you will, always goes back to an innate capacity or aptitude for engaging or connecting with art. Some have it and some don't, or at least, different people have it to very different degrees.

It's not a matter of education or exposure, because while those things are obviously important, they are only enablers or enhancers of the innate quality. If that quality is absent, or insufficient, no amount of external influences will do the trick. They may provide a veneer, an appearance of refinement or taste, but the real thing is something else--something much more profound, intense and, essentially, natural.

9.

1

January 20, 2009, 9:24 PM

i think another factor that is tied in to this innate drive is a critical nature. whether it is art, food, drink, music, furniture, design, people, asses or whatever, i always find myself comparing and contrasting and making value judgements.

10.

opie

January 20, 2009, 10:35 PM

Not exactly, Jack.

Like any intrinsic talent, it improves with exercise.

11.

ahab

January 21, 2009, 12:56 AM

I'm with you, 1. I mean, I too have a "critical nature".

I can't count how many times people have told me that my opinions are always so interesting, never sure whether they mean 'original' or 'unexpected' or 'retarded'.

12.

John

January 21, 2009, 1:56 AM

Jack, there is a song with the line "I've never been to heaven, but I've been to Oklahoma" - sometimes second best just has to do.

13.

Bunny Smedley

January 21, 2009, 4:12 AM

I agree with Jack (8), subject to Opie (10). But I'd also say that it takes a degree of self-confidence to make value judgements and to articulate them, particularly if they depart from the mainstream - something that can certainly be innate, but can also be boosted by experience.

I grew up in a household where it was considered normal, if not downright compulsory, to have strong views about art, politics and pretty much everything else. (Not a recipe for happy family life, by the way, but at least quite bracing.)

My husband, on the other hand, grew up in an entirely art-free household, and only really started looking at art in any serious way when he was in his 20s. Clearly, he was born with the ability to see and compare and evaluate - he's got, by any standard, 'a good eye' - but it took a while for him to get to the point where he trusted his own art-related judgement enough to speak up about it. And yet, in his entirely sane and reasonable way, he's a very confident person, willing to defend unpopular points of view and to trust his own judgement.

Jack and I have had a version of this discussion elsewhere, but I do think some people - even those who are very successful and confident in other aspects of their lives - are so un-confident when it comes to art that they would rather listen to some 'expert's' judgement than actually look at the art themselves, if only because they are scared of being made to feel silly or gauche or ignorant. All of which is very sad, and entirely unnecessary, but goes some way towards explaining some of the 'popularity' of Hirst & Co., etc.

14.

Jack

January 21, 2009, 9:12 AM

Re #10, OP, I agree that it improves with exercise, but it has to be there to begin with, which was my point. I also agree with #9 in that a critical or analytical nature comes into it. Like 1 reports, this tends to affect everything, not just art, for those who have it.

And yes, Bunny, it is both sad and unnecessary that even people who are otherwise confident and successful can be such sheep when it comes to art. The phenomenon can be explained, but it's not really rational.

15.

Jack

January 21, 2009, 9:19 AM

By the way, Franklin, you must get some sort of perverse kick out of being the odd man out. I mean, I can imagine how your comments on the brows went over at Ed W's blog. Or rather, how they didn't. Still, sometimes it's good just to piss people off.

16.

Franklin

January 21, 2009, 9:21 AM

It's true. Somebody once said that sacred cows make great burgers.

17.

opie

January 21, 2009, 10:58 AM

But sacred cows make nasty cow flops. That's why they should be turned unto burgers.

Bunny your observation is correct and applies universally. That's why (in part) I wish some social psychologist should examine the whole contemporary art phenomenon. It is a rich source. I don't know why it hasn't been done already

18.

Jack

January 21, 2009, 11:20 AM

It may not have been done already, OP, because the psychologists are also afraid of being considered "out of it" or "not getting it." One has to remember that the worst offenders are very rich, powerful and/or famous people, who presumably have a lot going for them and, again presumably, are not to be taken lightly.

19.

Chris Rywalt

January 22, 2009, 11:43 AM

There's a really fun little sub-chapter in the book I just finished, Richistan by Robert Frank, on how wealthy people approach art. It kicks off by noting that -- which is the theme of the whole book -- wealth is being concentrated in the hands of a few, but that few is still a large number and getting larger; one of the things the rich like to buy is art, but "quality" art is getting scarcer; and thus art prices are going to continue to go through the roof.

"What troubles [Barney Ebsworth] -- and signals an irrational market, fueled by Richistani competition -- are the huge prices being paid for bad art. 'When you see a late '60s Picasso selling for more than $15 million, that's crazy. That was his weakest period. These people have a lot more money than smarts. They're buying the name, nothing else. The dealers are flakking these B-minus pictures as if they're great works, and buyers don't know the difference.'"

Later, Frank quotes an anonymous New York dealer: "Today's collectors are buying with their ears, not their eyes."

Of course, put into context of other books like Paul Krugman's Conscience of a Liberal and the new Obama administration, with the looming New Great Depression and a smell in the air of a New New Deal -- which drained the wealth from the robber barons of the Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties -- Richistan may well be describing a vanishing world. I have hope.

20.

opie

January 22, 2009, 1:47 PM

"Today's collectors are buying with their ears, not their eyes."

Today's Collectors? I'm happy to say that I wrote that somewhere 25 or 30 years ago.

I am glad someone outside of our little formalist camp of kvetchers is saying these things. What the hell, maybe it will finally catch on.

Don't be too eager for the advent of Socialism, Chris. Art doesn't do too well under Socialism. Neither does much else.

And if it were not for those nasty robber barons we would not have the Metropolitan Museum Of Art and most of our small town libraries, and so forth and so on.

Check it out.

21.

Chris Rywalt

January 22, 2009, 2:06 PM

That some of the people who have made their wealth off the backs of others give some of it back doesn't make it okay.

I'm not looking for socialism, big S or small. I'm a fan of the free market. I just think the word "free" in there is misused. A truly free market rapidly becomes extremely unfree.

What I believe in -- as much as I believe in anything -- is full cost accounting. Our current version of capitalism is notorious for not taking into account enormous costs. Take offshoring of manufacturing for example: It doesn't actually cost less to make things in China. It's just that many of the costs -- in worker health, in environmental degradation and so on -- aren't included on the balance sheet. In America we've used the law and government to force some small amount of that cost to be included on the balance sheet. The Chinese government doesn't, so, poof! Those costs seem to disappear. But of course they don't -- they're just borne by people other than the stockholders and executives of the companies doing business there.

I believe it's not just amoral but actively immoral to allow such costs to be ignored. Perhaps it comes from living in New York and New Jersey where so much of our land was poisoned by people who drew their profits and quit the scene many years ago. The companies left behind continue to refuse to take responsibility -- and why should they? No one who works there now reaped those profits -- and we the people are left with the mess.

Corporate balance sheets need to include these and many other costs which are routinely left out, and these sheets need to be true and accurate across the entire planet. That they're not is an imbalance which results in a very small elite receiving far more wealth than they should.

Since I'm not one of those elites, I'm cranky about it.

22.

Chris Rywalt

January 22, 2009, 2:13 PM

I also think there should be a greater acknowledgment by the people receiving wealth that their wealth springs from the collective work of others. I'm not talking about communism per se but the understanding that humans work together and that's part of what makes us human. And that government is one of our tools for working together.

A billionaire doesn't make their money in a vacuum. Their money is built on roads, airports, trains, phone lines, digital networks; and these things are built collectively. Private enterprise didn't give us the Eisenhower highway system or the Internet. (If you want to see what the Internet would look like if private companies had built it, look no farther than your overpriced underfunctional mobile phone.)

23.

opie

January 22, 2009, 2:33 PM

Cost accounting is here but it is here in the wrong way, by imposing obligations on business that inhibit business. Maybe someday we will work it out.

Free enterprise certainly created the internet. Just because it came up in the military and in academia doesn't mean that it was not brought to us by free enterprise, or that free enterprise did not pay for it, because it did.

Freedom and free enterpise and basically coterminous. If you give people freedom you get free enterprise. Governments only function should be to protect those free people from from their enemies and from themselves.

Anyway, I shouldn't get into this oldest of arguments..

24.

Chris Rywalt

January 22, 2009, 2:51 PM

The creation of the Internet wasn't motivated by profit, and that's the point I was trying to make. If you want to define all activity as basically economic activity, I guess you can do that, but warning: You'll sound like a Marxist. Or, worse, an Objectivist.

25.

Chris Rywalt

January 22, 2009, 2:53 PM

By the way, I'm smiling as I type. No need to get deeper into the conversation/debate if you don't want to. I've said before that watching artists think about politics is like watching a dog try to get peanut butter off the roof of its mouth, so maybe we should both stick to painting.

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