A PROFOUND story appeared in the New York Times a few days ago and seems to have gotten far less discussion that it deserved. I mean film critic A.O. Scott’s “The Squeeze on the Middlebrow.” This is one of the best pieces I’ve seen connecting income inequality and the whole 1 percent business to culture and the middle class’s role in it.
Scott begins by speaking about Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century.
The three decades between roughly then and the 1970s, known in France as “les trente glorieuses” (the “glorious thirty”), are remembered in the United States in various ways, not all of them glorious. The Cold War. The Space Age. The infancy, adolescence and reluctant adulthood of the baby boomers. The civil rights and sexual revolutions. The Golden Age of Middlebrow, whose end we may be mourning whether we realize it or not. That may sound odd, since “middlebrow” is the kind of word rarely said without a sneer. How can pretension and mediocrity enjoy a golden age? Like the later, sociologically related terms “yuppie” and “hipster,” middlebrow is a name you would never call yourself, but rather a semantic shoe that belongs on someone else’s foot. It is also, however, a workable synonym, in the sphere of art and culture, for democracy.
He looks at the resentment of middlebrow — the original term is British — by Virginia Woolf and other highbrows, Dwight Macdonald’s dismissal of “midcult,” and recent economic and culture changes. Some things are better now, Scott says. “But in literature and film we hear a perpetual lament for the midlist and the midsize movie, as the businesses slip into a topsy-turvy high-low economy of blockbusters and niches,” he writes. “The art world spins in an orbit of pure money.”
I’ll point out that part of what makes middlebrow hard to talk about — besides the obvious sneer you can’t help but hear behind it — is that the term describes two things. It’s both a kind of culture — unchallenging, conventional, perhaps overexposed — and a means of top-down cultural transmission: a book club run by Ivy League professors, Leonard Bernstein’s talking about classical music on television, and anything aiming to bring reasonably serious culture to a broad (and usually middle-class) audience.
Even with the supposed economic recovery, the middle class is still hurting. Just today, a front page story in the Los Angeles Times shows what the job growth in California really means. Writes Tiffany Hsu:
“The fastest job creation has come in low-wage sectors, in which pay has declined. At the high end of the salary scale, a different dynamic has taken hold: rising pay and improving employment after rounds of consolidation.
Most distressing, middle-wage workers are losing out on both counts.”
Without giving too much away, I’ll just mention that my upcoming book Culture Crash looks at the end of middlebrow, the plight of the middle class, and other related subjects. These seem to me key parts of the crisis we’re in right now, and we won’t be able to get out without facing up to these themes. So far, few have.