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October 9, 2003

TT: The middlebrow moment

Courtesy of artsjournal.com, my invaluable host, this story from the Guardian about a recent survey showing how little Brits know about art:

Nearly half (49%) of those questioned were...unable to identify who painted the "Mona Lisa." One in 10 Britons cited Vincent Van Gogh instead of Leonardo da Vinci as the master behind the Louvre's most celebrated treasure.

Meanwhile, despite the painting's popularity with students, more than four out of five people (85%) cannot name the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch as the artist behind "The Scream."...

The survey has gloomy news for gallery directors. It finds that more than two fifths (43%) have never set foot inside Britain's art galleries.

Needless to say, I can't imagine that Americans would score any better--probably worse--but my snap reaction to this grim report is not quite what you might suppose. After all, how many people can one reasonably expect to know who painted the "Mona Lisa"? In a well-regulated society, of course, the answer would be 100%, but our society isn't regulated at all, meaning (among many other things, some good and some not) that we don't "expect" anyone to know anything about high art. As a result, most ordinary people don't know anything about it, and are perfectly happy not to--so far as they know. What surprised me, in fact, was that the number of Brits who'd never been to an art gallery was as low as 43%, not as high.

I'm not saying, however, that the capacity to appreciate high art, or at least to get real pleasure out of it, is limited to those people who currently know who painted the "Mona Lisa." For it so happens that throughout much of the 20th century, ordinary Americans were regularly exposed as a matter of course to a remarkably wide variety of high art--and not by the public schools, either, but by the commercial mass media.

I grew up in the Age of the Middlebrow, that earnest, self-improving fellow who watched prime-time documentaries and read the Book of the Month. That was me, in spades. I was born in a small Missouri town in 1956, the year Dwight Eisenhower was re-elected by a landslide, and as far back as I can remember, I was eager to learn what was going on beyond the city limits of that small town, out in the great world of art and culture. Not that we were hopelessly at sea--we had a Little Theater and a Community Concerts series--but my home was hundreds of miles from the nearest museum, and it wasn't until I went to college that I saw my first live performance of a ballet. Nevertheless, 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.

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 Seņor Wences). In the Sixties, all was grist for the middlebrow mill.

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.

Posted October 9, 2003 10:04 AM

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