Ed Driscoll

Leopold! Leopold!

In a profile of James Lileks that ran in August in the New York Daily News, Lileks bemoaned the death of middlebrow culture:

Most of Lileks’ writing is on a topic that crosses the political divide. It’s what fellow blogger Terry Teachout calls “middlebrow” culture, a concept which, Lileks says, has disappeared from modern life.Middlebrow, Lileks explains, reached its apex in the 1950s, with TV shows like “What’s My Line?” — “where you could find Bishop Fulton Sheen appear, for heaven’s sake, followed by Jerry Lewis.”

An even better example, he says, may be found in a vintage Looney Tune: “Bugs Bunny comes onstage and he’s got long gray hair, which is back in a hair net. As he walks along, the orchestra members are terrified. They’re all whispering: ‘Leopold! Leopold!’ … everyone knew this was [the great conductor] Leopold Stokowski!” Lileks pauses for effect.

“Can you possibly imagine in a ‘SpongeBob SquarePants,’ [conductor] Herbert von Karajan walking around and everyone’s going ‘Herbert, Herbert’? No, you can’t.”

A couple of years ago, Charles Paul Freund had some thoughts on the post-middlebrow era:

What happened to middlebrow and the cultivated elites it empowered? As I’ve argued elsewhere, the precipitous decline in middlebrow culture is in large measure a function of technological innovation, which has had the effect of redrawing culture’s sociological map. “Cable, VCRs, satellites, and the multidimensional changes wrought by the home computer have not only opened a vast array of new cultural choices to people, they are achieving something much larger: They are moving the consumption of culture out of the city and into the home. Cultural activity is becoming increasingly a private rather than a public matter, and the more culture is a private concern, the less status has anything to do with it. In private, people will immerse themselves in the culture they want. Thus culture—stripped of status concerns and reduced to authentic desire—is stranding elites in their own subculture.”

Not everyone thinks that the decline of middlebrow is a good thing. The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout, for example, complained recently that “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…” Though Teachout grew up hundreds of miles from the nearest museum, he writes, “I already knew a little something about people like Willem de Kooning and Jerome Robbins, thanks to Time and Life magazines and The Ed Sullivan Show, and what little I knew made me want to know more.”

I’m happy that culture (and thanks to the Blogosphere, news and opinion) is much more democratized these days; I just wish it wasn’t also as stratified as its become, with pop culture aimed at the lowest common denominator and its highbrow counterpart (or what passes for it in these postmodern and PC days) so insular and isolated.