Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Middlebrow Culture of America

Terry Teachout has an intriguing editorial in Arts Journal. He points to a recent story in The Guardian in which the author laments popular ignorance of the fine arts. The critique is based on a British survey, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that 49% of Americans would be unable to identify the creator of the Mona Lisa. Nor, like Teachout, do I think that this is necessarily a bad thing, for American culture allowed people to question the aesthetic assumptions of the West and decide for themselves what they considered to be art:

Ours is essentially a popular culture, of course, but in the democratic culture of postwar America, there was also unfettered access to what Matthew Arnold so famously called "the best that has been thought and said in the world"--and, just as important, there was no contempt for it. When I was a boy, most Americans who didn't care for high art still held it in a kind of puzzled respect. I doubt that Ed Sullivan cared much for Maria Callas or Edward Villella, but that didn't stop him from putting them on his show, along with Louis Armstrong and the original cast of West Side Story (not to mention Jackie Mason and Senor Wences). In the Sixties, all was grist for the middlebrow mill.

This is as it should be: cultural values should be determined by individuals in free market environments, and not regulated by force or even substantially influenced by elitist standards. An observer can't look at art effectively without first peeling away the aesthetic presuppositions of cultural norms and letting a piece speak for itself. Forced cultural blinders which say "This is bad art" and "This is good art" can only distort the perception of the individual.

Teachout then moves on to the main focus of his column, the decline of a unified national culture:

The catch was that the middlebrow culture on which I was raised was a common culture, based on the existence of widely shared values, and it is now splintered beyond hope of repair. Under the middlebrow regime, ordinary Americans were exposed to a wide range of cultural options from which they could pick and choose at will. They still do so, but without the preliminary exposure to the unfamiliar that once made their choices potentially more adventurous. The rise of digital information technology, with its unique capacity for niche marketing, has replaced such demographically broad-based instruments of middlebrow self-education as The Ed Sullivan Show with a new regime of seemingly infinite cultural choice. Instead of three TV networks, we have a hundred channels, each "narrowcasting" to a separate sliver of the viewing public, just as today's corporations market new products not to the American people as a whole but to carefully balanced combinations of "lifestyle clusters" whose members are known to prefer gourmet coffee to Coca-Cola, or BMWs to Dodge pickups.

Teachout is, of course, referring to the Long Tail -- the economic phenomenon of mass production that allows individuals to be very selective about their aesthetic desires (among other cultural and financial habits). Due to telecommunications, people can form very specific microcultures and identity groups free from any geographic limitations.

The downside, as Teachout points out, is that people within a geographic area, such as the United States, have a diminished national, common culture:

What's really sad is that most people under the age of 35 or so don't remember and can't imagine a time when there were magazines that "everybody" read and TV shows that "everybody" watched, much less that those magazines and shows went out of their way to introduce their audiences to high art of various kinds. Those days, of course, are gone for good, and it won't help to mourn their passing. I'm not one to curse the darkness--that's one of the reasons why I started this blog. Even so, that doesn't stop me from feeling pangs of nostalgia for our lost middlebrow culture. It wasn't perfect, and sometimes it wasn't even very good, but it beat hell out of nothing.

HT: The Corner


larry said...


Thanks for posting this material. As a preacher, this particular change in our culture is making it nearly impossible to develop illustrations from our contemporary culture that can resonate with even a majority of my congregation at one time.

truevyne said...

One of my son's teachers has Simpson pics on his teaching web page, so I sent him this very same pic for laughs. He wrote me back and said he didn't think the kids would "get it". My son so did... was his comment selling high schoolers short or accurate?