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Ed Driscoll

The Collapse Of Middlebrow Culture

March 3rd, 2009 - 12:48 pm

John Derbyshire links to this Terry Teachout essay from 2003:

Just as city dwellers can’t understand what it meant for the residents of a rural town to wake up one day and find themselves within driving distance of a Wal-Mart, so are they incapable of properly appreciating the true significance of middlebrow culture. For all its flaws, it nurtured at least two generations’ worth of Americans who, like me, went on to become full-fledged highbrows–but highbrows who, while accepting the existence of a hierarchy of values in art, never lost sight of the value of popular 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.

The information age offers something for anybody: Survivor for simpletons, The Sopranos for sophisticates. The problem is that it offers nothing for everybody. By maximizing and facilitating cultural choice, information-age capitalism fused with identity politics to bring about the disintegration of the common middlebrow culture of my youth. Let’s return for a moment to those unlettered folks who don’t know who painted the “Mona Lisa.” I assume, since you’re reading this, that you’re distressed by this unmistakable symptom of the widespread cultural illiteracy with which what Winston Churchill liked to call “the English-speaking peoples” are currently afflicted. But it so happens that a great many American intellectuals, most of them academics, would respond to your distress with a question: so what? To them, the very idea of “high art” is anathema, a murderous act of cultural imperialism. They don’t think Leonardo da Vinci should be “privileged” (to use one of their favorite pieces of jargon) over the local neighborhood graffiti artist. And as preposterous as this notion may seem to you, it is all but taken for granted among a frighteningly large swath of the postmodern American intelligentsia.

Which brings us right back to the problem of cultural illiteracy. How can we do anything about it if we can’t even agree on the fact that it is a problem–or about what basic cultural facts ordinary people should be expected to know? The answer is simple: we can’t.

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.

One reason why culture has become so polarized is that the Internet rewards those who connect to it with more or less exactly what they want. For those who want to find the remnants of middlebrow culture, there are writers like Teachout and James Lileks. For those who wish to find angry bitter screeds, there’s no shortage of them on both sides of the aisle. Pop culture? Porn? Unlimited quantities of both.

Technology is one element in that divergence, and I’m very happy to be connected to an Internet with unlimited options. (And happy that it’s allowing you to read this as well.) But long before there was an Internet, the institutions that gave us the middlebrow culture of the 1950s and ’60s ceded their responsibility for the care and feeding of their audiences’ minds. In her latest blog post on another facet of our fractured culture, Dr. Melissa Clouthier writes, “America has become The View.” But doesn’t ABC share some of the blame for putting such a trainwreck of a show on the air in the first place?