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.
...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.