Crack-Up: Taste, Anxiety and American Populism

In a post from early February I brought up our collective anxiety over the rules of taste and promised to explore the issue in greater detail, but then got sidetracked with other topics. Yesterday morning (while looking for ways to avoid a big pile of end-of-semester grading), I wandered across a 1946 film noir called Crack-up showing on TCM. The story focuses on an art critic and “anti-snobbery crusader” whose art-for-the-masses lectures get him framed for murder (yep, murder). The real culprit turns out to be an elitist museum board member who doesn’t believe in the critic’s populist message (“I won’t be surrounded by people who don’t know the difference between masterpieces and trash!”).


I’m not exactly sure what the intended message is (the plot is kind of a mess: secretly administered drugs that cause hallucinations; forgery and art theft; the aforementioned murder; blatant slurs on modern art; a suspicious blonde)—but what comes through quite clearly is a palpable mid-century anxst over the relationship between aesthetic taste and middle class/populist identity.

I think a lot about the issue of how taste is formed and controlled because our relationship to our personal taste portfolio has a powerful impact on how, when, where and why we talk (or don’t talk) about the arts. Like the art critic in Crack-Up, I worry about the consequences of ignoring the masses when it comes to evaluating the arts. (I’m just hoping I won’t end up drugged and waking up next to a corpse.)

In 20th century America, anxiety over the relationship between aesthetic taste and social class was most famously expressed by Van Wyck Brooks in a 1915 essay in which he popularized the terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow” while disparaging both: The highbrow was a “superior person whose virtue is admitted but felt to be an inept unpalatable virtue” and the lowbrow a “good fellow one readily takes to, but with a certain scorn for him and all his works.” Brooks longed for a “genial middle ground,” but could not locate it in what he saw as the Puritan American legacy—a people caught between high ideals and everyday practical needs.

By mid-century, social critic Russell Lynes saw the situation in somewhat different terms in his book, The Tastemakers:  “In recent years a new social structure has emerged in which taste and intellectual pretension and accomplishment play a major role. What we see growing around us is a sort of social stratification in which the highbrows are the elite, the middlebrows are the bourgeoisie, and the lowbrows are hoi polloi.” For Lynes, the acquisition of taste was not inherently based on class, as most postwar arts workers and their audiences had been socialized to believe, but instead was made up of three common aspects of American life: “One is education, which includes not only formal but informal education and environment. Another is sensibility, which Webster’s defines as ‘the ability to perceive or receive sensation’. And the third is morality—the kinds of beliefs and principles which direct one’s behavior and set a pattern for judging the behavior of others.”

Lynes’ postwar version of cultural egalitarianism posited that Americans of all social classes had the right to express their personal taste, as long as they agreed to properly prepare themselves for the task. Nonetheless, he never questioned the hegemonic bias inherent in his positivist concept of morality; the source for his “kinds of beliefs and principles” went unexamined, as did the assumption that education would lead all classes and cultural types of arts consumers to normative conclusions about what constitutes a good work of art.

Today, the most common articulation of Lyne’s morality of taste, I would argue, is the concept of “artistic excellence.” We see and hear this phrase at every turn: on mission statements and grant proposals, at arts conferences, in board rooms, in the classroom, at talk-back sessions, and in advertising. Like Lyne’s postwar version of aesthetic morality, normative standards couched in words such as “excellence” and “quality” feel good to say because they seem so definitive, so sure, so concrete.

But what do they actually mean?

I’ll have more to say about the relationship between aesthetic taste, social class and “artistic excellence” in my next post.

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  1. says

    “But what do they actually mean?”

    The answer to that question depends on who you ask. The Lowbrow person isn’t going to be able to tell you much. They may not have any real knowledge of the subject at hand or they may lack the language by which to communicate any feelings they have on the subject. Or they simple may not care, thinking art is only for people who have nothing in common with their interest in life.

    The Highbrow person maybe able to tell you a lot. They maybe be educated in a particular field of art and have the ability to inform other about how artistic excellence was perceived throughout history. They might be able to tell you how ideas of excellence have changed or pinpoint what qualities an art form has that indicates expertise, skill, mastery, uniqueness, and individuality. A so called Highbrow theorist either of philosophy or aesthetics would be ably to show you how a particular excellence can improve or effect ones thinking about the world, or how the many different aspects of excellence manifest themselves in the world of art.

    Van Wyck Brooks is an interesting choice to use attempt to pitch the idea of a gulf between populism and the definition of artistic excellence. Brooks a scholar who was awarded honorary degrees many times over could lecture on the value of such literary greats as Samuel Clemens, Emerson, and Whitman but probably wasn’t very keen on one of the greatest books ever published around the same time as his essay which you cite – James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Brooks would most likely have agree with most low brows on the incomprehensibility and insignificance of Joyce’s work which just goes to prove my point, that to get a good answer on the question of what is artistic excellence depends just on who you ask.


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