Archive for February, 2012

“It’s time to bring middlebrow out of its cultural closet, to hail its emollient properties, to trumpet its mending virtues. For middlebrow not only entertains, it educates—pleasurably training us to appreciate high art. […] In a culture riven by a choice between Pixote and Porky’s, between works contrived to tickle the rarefied palates of the few and those constructed to microwave the permafrozen brains of the many, middlebrow also reconnects the intellectual with the emotional. It provides some unity in a culture where political, social, and intellectual fragmentation is now the norm. To neglect middlebrow is to deal yet another blow to a civilized and informed discourse, one in which we can all participate and have some clue about what everybody else is talking about.

I recently read an essay about brow levels in the March 1992 issue of The New Republic. Tad Friend champions “middlebrow” culture, a domain, “distinguished by technical competence, singleness of affect, purity of emotion, tidiness of resolution, and modesty of scope.” He criticizes the inaccessibility and pretension of highbrow culture, and derides the cynicism of highbrow’s appropriation of the lowbrow.

I had mixed emotions reading the essay. I graduated from a school that is decidedly a fortress of highbrow academia, and I live in a city  where the ceaseless hunt for the cutting edge often results in the nearly unintelligible or the appropriation of the obviously uncool. The habits of the highbrow are unavoidable to me, and on some level, I felt personally insulted. I am completely guilty of judging the people in my subway car based on the books they are reading, of mastering the art of looking bored at art openings, of referencing people like Walter Benjamin or Roland Barthes to indicate my passive participation in highbrow culture.

But there’s also a part of me that has become frustrated, mostly with myself. I have always considered myself passionate and mentally engaged and, on my better days, creative. I felt none of these things. As I read Friend’s essay, I felt like he was offering advice directly to my soul. Keeping oneself inspired takes a lot of work, a fact I feel goes largely unacknowledged, as if inspiration is a mineral added automatically to the public water source. When the channels of inspiration most readily accessible to me are either exhaustingly opaque or depressingly cynical, I give myself a free pass to sit on my couch and stare uncomprehendingly at the television, meditating on what sort of food I would like delivered to my door.

What I’ve been missing is an appreciation for the middlebrow, or perhaps even the recognition that it is there at all. More specifically, I have missed the things that middlebrow has to offer: pure emotions, genuine ideas, honest vulnerability, and an open mind. I’ve spent years wishing I could climb back into The Ivory Tower, living in a Gothic dormitory and devoting myself to higher learning in a wood-paneled lecture hall. Perhaps what I have been missing instead is that undergraduate naivety: the ability to read or see or listen, have an earnest reaction, and believe that it is valid.

I’m not going to stop judging people by their book covers on subways or carelessly name-dropping after two glasses of Prosecco at a gallery opening. Nor am I going to forbid myself entirely from sweatpant-clad evenings spent with horrible television and a bucket of General Tso’s chicken. Whether I like it or not, these things are equally part of my personality. However, Friend’s essay reminded me that they are not enough to sustain me. As he pointed out: “to really kill boredom, you have to be genuinely entertaining. And to be genuinely entertaining, you have to appeal to your audience’s common humanity—yes—to include rather than exclude, to interest by a considered appeal to intelligence.”

I do not think I am alone in feeling caught between the rock of the lowbrow and the hard place of the highbrow, and I know I am not the only twenty-something who has looked around the so-called “real world” and discovered that inspiration and motivation are frustratingly difficult to find. Perhaps one way to locate these things, to become un-bored with ourselves, is through the warm and open-minded embrace of the middlebrow. Some days I hesitate because the veil of irony seems so much safer than the vulnerability of sincerity, but I’d rather contribute actively to middlebrow culture than stand silently on the sidelines of the highbrow. Which is why I’m pulling out a twenty-year-old essay like it’s some kind of news, why I’m writing about my personal frustrations as if they are insightful. No matter how simple the statement, I’m flexing my voice, enjoying the struggle to make even the tiniest of sounds.


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