Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Thematic Essays

The Strange Undeath of Middlebrow

Everything that was once considered lowbrow is now triumphant.

Phil Christman

From 1962 to 1971, well known actor and art collector Vincent Price (shown here circa 1965) curated a popular gallery of fine art at Sears stores nationwide; CSU Archives/Everett Collection/ Alamy Stock Photo.

It is odd that anyone still uses the word middlebrow. Like its complements lowbrow and highbrow, it reeks of antique beliefs, specifically the English notion that the brow ridges of pureblooded Anglo-Saxon gentlemen jut out and up in a most lordly fashion.11xThe earliest print use I could find of any of the three brow-words, in the Oxford English Dictionary, was George Eliot’s reference to “gentle maidens and high-browed, brave men” in an 1848 letter. Eliot’s interest in phrenology is well-attested, but as recently as 1939 one could find a Harvard anthropologist assuring his readers that Saxon skulls “lack the low vault and sloping forehead common to the earlier Nordics of Denmark,” and that “compared with the other Nordics, the forehead is relatively straight [and] the browridges are greater.” See Carleton Stephens Coon, The Races of Europe (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1939), 207. It is ill defined, sometimes functioning as an insult, sometimes as a compliment, and sometimes as an ostensibly neutral modifier. The faintly clumsy rhythm of its syllables, the physicality of the image it describes combined with the difficulty of actually picturing it—we have to quickly imagine a whole range of brow placements, then select a spot within that range—leave the impression of something absurd and not quite real.

But what is strangest about the term’s survival is that it would seem to have no purpose. We mainly use the three -brow suffixes to rank cultural products somewhere in the middle of an agreed-upon hierarchy of taste. It is far from clear that such a hierarchy still exists. In my experience, teachers of the humanities, museum curators, arts journalists, and artists themselves—the people whose job it would be to maintain such a hierarchy—are far likelier to disclaim it than affirm it. There are still reputations, in the simple sense that many people have heard the name Shakespeare, somewhat fewer have heard the name August Wilson, and very few have heard the name Paul Green.22xThis is not to deny that artistic reputations are shaped by social structures, as they are by many things. For a helpfully nuanced account of artistic reputation and the idea of literary canons, see Samuel Delany, About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), 337–374. (He won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1927.) So local theater companies continue to present A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, less often, Fences, just as regional orchestras continue to program Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Barber’s Adagio for Strings. But what happens if you ask the director of one of those local theater companies, or the percussionist of one of those regional orchestras, whether tragedy or classical music is an “inherently” worthier form than, say, comic strips? Whatever their feelings, they will remember that scrap of Pierre Bourdieu that someone forced them to read in college—for he, too, is canonical—and say “No.” (We will leave aside, as this conversation generally does, the vexing questions of what inherent and great mean or could possibly mean in this context.) If pressed, they will say that the works that embody these traditions remain important because, due to a once common but mistaken belief in their inherent worth, they have influenced the culture. In other words, these works’ value comes from the fact that misguided people once valued them. Not a ringing defense. The most eloquent and thoughtful such culture workers might make a case on the basis of the qualities of the particular works in question. As they spoke, a bureaucrat somewhere would be eyeing a line item, and reaching for a marker.

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