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.

Modern Middlebrow

Everything that was once considered lowbrow is now triumphant. It is still common for people to talk of “guilty” cultural pleasures—TV, dance music—about which no one has felt guilty in decades, and to apologize for them with an enthusiasm that looks a lot like pride. But the pretense of guilt is merely there to increase our pleasure; it adds the excitement of transgression to an otherwise banal activity. Successful artists in “lowbrow” forms now live in the perpetual snit of offended dignity that used to mark a person as a member of the highbrow avant-garde. Recently, a pop star—a rich person, her work fawned over by critics—publicly attacked a well-respected reviewer over a (mainly positive) review of her new record. Also recently, a wealthy, famous author of books for teenage girls engaged in a public feud with a woman student who had, in a college newspaper, described that author’s books, accurately, as books for teenage girls. Several other wealthy, famous authors joined in—to further humiliate the offending student. Artists used to have the decency to conduct such bullying via backchannels: An agent makes a discreet phone call to the offices of Rolling Stone, and a freelancer disappears from its roster. Today’s popular artists don’t scruple to perform these offenses to their own dignity in public. They seem to think that unquestioned deference is simply due them. This is our culture’s face. Its features are too jumbled for anyone to pinpoint where its middlebrow might be. Yet we go on using the term, and often with an affection that its cousins don’t receive. As with “popular artist,” as used in this paragraph, it’s a ghost-term to which we turn in the absence of a vocabulary adequate to our situation.

During what I already find myself mentally describing, too optimistically, as “the height of the pandemic,” a writer named Stephen Daisley took to the pages of The Spectator to credit COVID-19 with giving “new life to the middlebrow sensibility”:

Quarantine culture is a sort of reverse-engineered middlebrow, that lists back toward half-remembered commonalities like solidarity, neighborliness and heroism and brings them to bear on our current crisis. From the fractures of contemporary culture, we are uniting ourselves around new-old norms and sentiments. The results are not intellectually middlebrow but attitudinally so. Where the old middlebrow aimed to improve our education, quarantine culture yearns to repair our souls, healing the fissures of what we have abruptly realised is a shattered society. What quarantine culture most intimately shares with middlebrow is a cultivation of the collective. It longs for sodality, a new place for the individual in a revived community.33xStephen Daisley, “Ignore the Lockdown Snobs,” The Spectator, April 28, 2020, https://life.spectator.co.uk/articles/ignore-the-lockdown-snobs-quarantine-culture-is-a-triumph-of-populism/.

Daisley’s middlebrow is something that educates mind and heart together, that solidifies community bonds. His examples include homemade pop songs and a viral video in which a bunch of celebrities sang “Imagine.” If this is middlebrow, lowbrow is under your heel.

The “Footloose” Myth

For film critic Jesse Hassenger, middlebrow movies “occupy that increasingly rare space between genuine art and naked commercialism.”44xJesse Hassenger, “In Defense of Middlebrow Sam Mendes,” The Week, January 10, 2020, https://theweek.com/articles/888485/defense-middlebrow-sam-mendes. Jane Hu, in an insightful article about the film director Ang Lee, calls him “middlebrow” because, “unlike other present-day Hollywood auteurs such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Terrence Malick, who seek more elevated highbrow (read: masculinist) subject matter…Lee is constantly working through the feminine middlebrow themes of melodrama and romance.”55xJane Hu, “Gemini Man’s High-Tech Heart,” Slate, October 16, 2019, https://slate.com/culture/2019/10/gemini-man-ang-lee-melodrama.html. I honestly cannot recognize the dichotomy Hu presents here: What is Anderson’s Phantom Thread but a romantic comedy? What are Malick’s recent films but melodramas? For TV critic Aditya Mani Jha, a middlebrow TV show is one “where the writing is good but not too challenging,”66xAditya Mani Jha, “In Praise of Middlebrow Television,” The Hindu, September 13, 2019, https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/in-praise-of-middlebrow-television/article29408183.ece. while for Angelica Jade Bastién, it’s a show that prioritizes “visceral experience and pleasure” over “the intellectual.”77xAngelica Jade Bastién, “When Did Audiences Stop Taking ‘Middlebrow’ Television Seriously?,” Vulture, April 29, 2016, https://www.vulture.com/2016/04/midbrow-television-when-did-we-stop-taking-it-seriously.html. (Like several other critics, Bastién mentions the violent, visceral, and easy-to-follow crime drama The Sopranos as an example of a highbrow show.)

As for books, Beth Driscoll summarizes middlebrow literary culture in terms of “eight key features”:

Every aspect of the literary middlebrow has most of these attributes: the middlebrow is middle class, reverential and commercial, feminized, mediated, recreational, emotional and earnest.88xBeth Driscoll, The New Literary Middlebrow (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 3.

For Driscoll, these attributes lead to what she calls “a therapy-centered ethics of reading,”99xIbid, 100. and what I would call a poetics of moral uplift. The reader identifies with the characters; the reader learns from the characters’ choices. This is more or less the argument John Gardner made in On Moral Fiction (1978), a book that some have labeled middlebrow, but that—given Gardner’s aggressive argumentative and personal style, among other traits—few have attempted to feminize. (It might be interesting to try.)

My point is not to mock any of these examples. Those of us who write cultural criticism must use fuzzy concepts. And the same intellectual inertia that leads people to say, with no guilt and no expectation of judgment, “James Bond movies are my guilty pleasure,” tends to lead American cultural critics (though not all my examples are American) to define their own preferences by defending them, to construct whatever we like against a snobby, dominant enemy. We are Americans, after all; our national myth is Footloose. None of us can fully enjoy our pleasures till we think someone wants us not to have them.

The Woolfian Middlebrow

What intrigues me about the use of the concept of middlebrow, in these and other writers, is that they write of it with a warmth and respect that one can barely imagine anyone bringing to the concept of the highbrow as such (though people do, of course, still write lovingly about particular highbrow works). It is hard to coax a single definition of middlebrow out of all these essays, but there are a few threads we can pull together. Middlebrow unifies; it mediates; it educates. It addresses both heart and mind. (So do opera, ballet, epic poetry—but once we’ve called something “highbrow,” we no longer need to look at it.) Middlebrow is good for you. All of these writers frame middlebrow as a thing in need of defense, even though the specific works they want to defend seem quite safe—safer, surely, than the opera, the ballet, or the long, allusive, heady, postmodern novel. They talk about middlebrow in the way we talk about things we feel in danger of losing through a failure to appreciate them. How did a word that sounds like an insult come to acquire such emotional coloring? To answer that question, we must look to its history.

Most authorities credit a writer for the magazine Punch with first using it in print, in 1925, but an author of advice literature named Margaret Slattery appears to have given a speech titled “High-Brow, Low-Brow, and Middle-Brow” in 1922, just beating Punch to the punch.1010x“Middle-Brow,” Arizona Republican, December 10, 1922, A9. A word that marks distinctions of pedigree, middlebrow is itself of uncertain parentage. In “Middlebrow,” an unsent 1932 letter to The New Statesman which Leonard Woolf included in the posthumous collection The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942),1111xDiana Holmes, “Introduction: European Middlebrow,” Belphégor 15:2 (2017), https://journals.openedition.org/belphegor/942#tocto1n1. Accessed July 22, 2020.   Virginia Woolf depicts an idealized relationship of mutual dependence between high- and lowbrows, menaced only by the “busy-bodies” in the middle. A Woolfian highbrow, who “rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea,” needs the lowbrow, who “rides his body in pursuit of a living at a gallop across life.” Who else will press the highbrow’s suits, drive his car, fight his wars? And the lowbrows in turn need the highbrows, for without highbrows they will not have movies to go to. “It is one of the prime necessities of life to [lowbrows],” Woolf writes, “to be shown what life looks like” via art. She treats this arrangement as one of mutual satisfaction, even love. “I love lowbrows,” she writes. (To a reader of Woolf’s journals, which endlessly record her exasperation with various servants, this announcement comes as a surprise.)

Woolf blames middlebrow people—“the man, or woman, of middlebred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that, in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself”—for introducing disharmony to this once cozy relationship. She condemns them in terms that any student of social movements will recognize:

Have I then made my point clear, sir, that the true battle in my opinion lies not between highbrow and lowbrow, but between highbrows and lowbrows joined together in blood brotherhood against the bloodless and pernicious pest who comes between? If the B.B.C. stood for anything but the Betwixt and Between Company they would use their control of the air not to stir strife between brothers, but to broadcast the fact that highbrows and lowbrows must band together to exterminate a pest which is the bane of all thinking and living.1212xVirginia Woolf, “To the Editor of The New Statesman [unsent],” full text of the 1932 letter posted by Joshua Glenn on Hilobrow, March 4, 2009, http://www.hilobrow.com/2009/03/04/woolf-contra-middlebrow/.

This is how factory owners talk about labor organizers, how Southern gentlemen talk about “outside agitators.” It has that unmistakable note of a person who mistakes an exploitative stalemate for an ecological balance.

What does Woolf find so objectionable about these people in the middle? She writes with such an aristocratic high-handedness—that air of “If you have to ask what I mean, you’ll never understand” that defines the truly pernicious sort of highbrow—that it’s hard to tell. She mentions that middlebrows live in South Kensington. She says they are “betwixt and between” several times. She comes closest to landing a solid blow when she argues that their interest in cultural matters is “mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.” In making the argument, of course, she commits the same fault. I like culture purely, she seems to say, but I must object to these South Kensington interlopers who like it less purely than I do. If she did not share some of their interest in “money, fame, power, or prestige,” she would not care about, or likely notice, the diluted quality of their devotion. As a person must already be a little cynical to detect the cynicism of others, we must possess at least a bit of cultural status-consciousness to label someone else “middlebrow” in Woolf’s sense.

In any case, the strong distinction Woolf posits—between people who love art and learning for their own sake and people who just want to be sure they’re doing it right—seems psychologically untenable. I like learning, and I generally prefer to do things well rather than badly, insofar as I can determine what “well” means. (In this domain, of course, no one finally can.) At some point in my pursuit of learning, I will turn to others’ judgments. If I do not have any experts on a particular topic among my immediate friends, I will listen to a podcast, or read, say, the New York Review of Books. These are terrible solutions to the problem of double-checking one’s self-education, but there are no good ways, and the problem can’t really be solved. Nor can it be avoided.

Already in Woolf, the middlebrow concept comprises two seemingly unrelated ideas: the implication of falseness—of counterfeit culture—and of educational intent. When she asks why the middlebrows enjoy the social success that they do, Woolf answers that they seem to spread good things around. She imagines asking her lowbrow “friends” (one wonders whether they exist) why they tolerate middlebrow company, and stuffs into their mouths this reply: “It is very kind of the middlebrows to try to teach [us] culture.” In associating middlebrow with education, Woolf finally displays a little of the psychological acuity that marks every sentence of her novels. For teaching always does feel somewhat false, somewhat incomplete. In the classroom, I take things I love and adapt them. I abridge them. I simplify. I commit the heresy of paraphrase. I make comparisons and explanatory analogies at which specialists would wince. I make reading lists, which always leave somebody important out—whether I cut Thoreau to make room for Harriet Jacobs (a stunningly vivid and economical writer) or the other way around. I find the right level of oversimplification for my audience, I go directly to it, and then, by degrees, I retreat from it, inviting students to follow me into greater complexity. I never stop worrying that I have replaced my subject with a slightly stupider changeling. It just goes with the territory.

Kitsch, Silly and Corrupting

After Woolf, writers on the subject of middlebrow tended to emphasize one of these two qualities—its falsity or its pedagogical usefulness. On the side of falsity, we have art critic Clement Greenberg, who in his influential essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) separates true art from “kitsch” by centering the artists’ narrowness of purpose, their intentness on a particular idea. Greenberg’s avant-gardists pursue “an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would be either resolved or beside the point.”1313xClement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1989), 5. First published 1961. (One might indeed call this “riding their mind at a gallop in pursuit of an idea.”) For him, this means an ever stricter formalism, an art that breaks itself down into narrower and narrower analysis of its own building blocks, as though in search of the fundamental aesthetic particle. Meanwhile, for the “urban masses,” whose removal from their grandparents’ peasant settings has alienated them from folk culture, a new category of “ersatz culture” arises to fill that need, which Greenberg calls “kitsch.”1414xIbid., 10. Kitsch he considers not only silly, but spiritually corrupting; he associates it with totalitarian regimes.

Greenberg’s friend Dwight Macdonald, in the equally influential “Masscult and Midcult,” warned in 1960 that a “tepid ooze of Midcult is spreading everywhere.”1515xDwight Macdonald, “Masscult and Midcult,” in Masscult and Midcult: Essays against the American Grain (New York, NY: New York Review Books Classics, 2011), 51. First published 1960. (“Midcult” is Macdonald’s coinage, but the distinction between it and middlebrow is, so far as I can see, one without a difference.) Macdonald is slightly more specific than his predecessors; his irritation with midcult consists in its adaptation of avant-garde stylistic flourishes in works that, ultimately, don’t challenge or offend the audience. Macdonald points to the novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder as an example.

Greenberg and Macdonald agree that an ersatz culture, aimed at the half-educated, is crowding out the real thing. It’s not clear, in either writer, why this hypothesis explains our situation any better than would the truism that mediocre work, being easier to do than good work, tends to be easier to find as well. Nor do they make clear why the embattled relationship they posit between excellence and kitsch makes any more sense than does the mutualistic motto that Samuel Delany attributes to the San Francisco Renaissance poets: “Good art makes great art look better.”1616xDelany, About Writing, 157. Why not simply say that some work is good, enlivening, memorable, and some leaves you cold?

The argument advanced by Greenberg and Macdonald leaves few options to artists who wish to avoid being middlebrow. They can follow Greenberg deeper into formalism—difficult to do, when painting has already been reduced to its barest elements. And the revelation that Greenberg and his favored painter, Jackson Pollock, were partly funded—though they likely didn’t know it—by CIA money1717xSee for example Alastair Sooke, “Was Modern Art a Weaopn of the CIA,” BBC.com, October 4, 2016, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20161004-was-modern-art-a-weapon-of-the-cia. didn’t do much for Greenberg’s claim that avant-gardism was somehow inherently resistant, as kitsch wasn’t, to the designs of authoritarians. (This is the same CIA that, for example, dosed unwitting subjects with LSD1818xSee for example Tom O’Neill and Dan Pipenbring, “Inside the Archive of an LSD Researcher…,” The Intercept, November 24, 2019, https://theintercept.com/2019/11/24/cia-mkultra-louis-jolyon-west/. and helped overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran.1919xSee for example Dan Merica and Jason Hanna, “In Declassified Document, CIA Acknowledges Role in ’53 Iran Coup,” CNN.com, August 19, 2013, https://www.cnn.com/2013/08/19/politics/cia-iran-1953-coup/.) Another option, for the artist seeking to avoid middlebrow, is to embrace the lowbrow. The problem, then, of course, is that one may end up adding little to the cultural store. Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book paintings are fun, but not nearly as fun as actual comic books. Finally, the artist can choose to pursue difficulty and danger, or adopt a hostile relationship to the audience. Aside from the way this style of art tends to overrate the value of pain and offense in themselves, transgressive art will always be outflanked by reality. That, say, Henry Kissinger possesses a Nobel Peace Prize is a greater offense than anything ever done by any confrontational film director or self-harming performance artist. Art can never outrage as life does.

The Aspirational Middlebrow

While one set of cultural critics critiqued the falsity of middlebrow, others emphasized, and sometimes praised, its educational component. In 1949, Russell Lynes defined middlebrow people as follows:

These are the men and women who devote themselves professionally to the dissemination of ideas and cultural artifacts and, not in the least incidentally, make a living along the way. They are the cultural do-gooders, and they see their mission clearly and pursue it with determination.2020xRussell Lynes, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow,” Harper’s Magazine 198, no. 19 (1949), 25.

Middlebrow, here, is aspirational; it’s good for you. Middlebrow is mass education, good museums, the Book of the Month Club, the Britannica Great Books set, ’70s public television. It’s Kenneth Clark, in his TV series Civilisation, telling us what to notice about old paintings, and John Berger, in his four-segment documentary Ways of Seeing, telling us what Clark left out. (Both series can easily be found on YouTube and remain well worth watching.) This version of middlebrow is a category about which Americans must be profoundly ambivalent, for we both love and resent the idea of education.

 An Educational Middlebrow Culture

Every few years, someone writes an article expressing nostalgia for this educational sort of middlebrow culture. Early in this century, Terry Teachout attributed its death to the same ongoing development of communications technology that had once made it possible:

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.2121xTerry Teachout, “The Middlebrow Moment,” About Last Night (blog), October 9, 2003, https://www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight/2003/10/tt-the-middlebrow-moment.html.

(Here again, for some reason, The Sopranos is proffered as though it were Finnegans Wake.)

Like many defenders of educational middlebrow, Teachout adopts a half-apologetic tone in talking about it. “It wasn’t perfect,” he writes, “and sometimes it wasn’t even very good, but it beat hell out of nothing.” Earlier in the essay, he writes with winsome self-mockery of the “earnest, self-improving fellow” he was in his youth, reading Life, catching Maria Callas on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Born in the 1970s, I caught the very end of the culture Teachout mourns. My father spent years paying off a set of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World on the installment plan. He read from it when he could, and eventually so did I. The set left me with the unfortunate impression that Homer wrote prose, that there was a single thing known as “the Western World,” that human thought culminated in Sigmund Freud (volume 54, right at the end), and that all geniuses were male. Eventually, with effort and luck, I was able to overcome these prejudices. But the presence of these books in my home also gave me an early awareness that the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were things a person might read after coming home from a shift at Walmart. I have since learned that this is a hard thing for many putatively well-educated people to imagine, and so I look back on those volumes with warmth, as well as skepticism.

The technological fragmentation of the audience lamented by Teachout is exacerbated, in his telling, by the popularity of identity politics among cultural workers. He imagines art professors responding to the factoid that inspired him to write his essay—that nearly half of British people in a survey couldn’t identify the painter of the Mona Lisa—with a shrug: “To them, the very idea of ‘high art’ is anathema, a murderous act of cultural imperialism.” I’ve met these sorts of intellectuals—I allude to them earlier in the present essay—but “identity politics,” like other kinds of politics, can cut several ways. It was partly in her capacity as a feminist that Virginia Woolf demanded the right to learn Greek and read Homer. The identity politician can say, “Only people in my group can make art that speaks to me,” but can also say, “My group, of all groups, deserves every potentially good thing.”

Another likely source of the trend Teachout describes is neoliberalism. After the turn toward individualism and fragmentation taken by politicians, economists, and legal scholars in the late 1970s, institutions of mass education simply seemed like white elephants. Society must be defunded, to adapt Michel Foucault’s adage. Economists love to talk of William Baumol’s “cost disease,” that condition that afflicts professions that cannot be made more productive, even as labor costs rise. When they explain this malady to the public, the examples they often use are teachers and orchestral musicians. Civilization is expensive, and this fact intimidates some people, even in a terribly rich country.

Teachout’s admiration for the civilizing, unifying powers of educational middlebrow links him to its more recent defenders. All of them are drawn to the idea of a widely shared culture. The argument is a confusing one, because we have a common culture, though it changes rapidly. Boomers speak to each other in Dylan references, as people my age do in Simpsons quotes, and people slightly younger than me in Jay-Z lines, and my students in Internet memes. Like other languages, each of these allows certain statements as it disallows others. None of them are adequate to every occasion, but neither would the Greek epics be, or the Four Classical Novels of China, or the Harvard Classics, if we could somehow make the knowledge of any of these universal. These are all great bodies of art, but some of us would argue the same about the oeuvre of Bob Dylan, or The Simpsons, or the rhymes of Jay-Z, if not memes.

American intellectuals’ persistent attraction to the idea of a synthetic common culture, pulled together from the best bits of everything everywhere, seems to me like a displaced form of artistic ambition. It is Richard Wagner’s dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk that unites every art into an unanswerable, unignorable synthesis, or the Modernist dream of an all-powerful new symbolic language formed from the synthesis of new and old, the reblooding of the past. The intellectual wants to compile and curate this language, while the artist wanted to invent it. Each wishes for something that cannot be. Precisely because we can use them to talk to each other, common languages can leave us feeling more fragmented; they let us state our differences more clearly. Language consolidates and it splits. We live among fragments and see through various glasses darkly.

Contemporary American mass culture blends many of the elements of what was once considered lowbrow with the dutiful, striving, effortful qualities of middlebrow. Our true-crime podcasts combine the traditional sensationalist appeal of that genre with sophisticated social ideas borrowed from academic feminism. Novels come to us bearing words like urgent and necessary on their covers. If writers once gloried in their superfluity—“Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden wrote—these writers seem to need to be taken in daily doses, like Lexapro. A generation learned to think about politics from—disastrously—The West Wing. Steven Spielberg’s “serious” recent films, like Lincoln (2012) and The Post (2017), stink of patriotic uplift and the desire to explain history. (His earliest films remain unimproving, and unimprovable.) Where superhero TV shows once offered us idea-free camp silliness, the Marvel Comics films now insist on discussing—with considerable ineptitude—the tensions between national security and freedom.

One artist who seems to me representative of this turn in American culture is the filmmaker Rian Johnson. He is quite good—you have to be, to make successful middlebrow art. His movies seem to challenge us, but the challenges and provocations they offer are thoroughly premapped: We are invited not to wrestle with our feelings but to engage in a kind of self-absolving or penitential agreement with his message. Watching a Johnson film, you don’t reconsider where you stand; you stand where he points, and stay put. In his movie, The Last Jedi, he says what he means so clearly that the incoherence of his plot choices becomes hard not to notice. At one point in The Last Jedi, the heroes are trapped in a fortress on a desert planet, surrounded by the armies of an outer space empire. A fancy laser cannon is pointed at them, and a male character, Finn, flies toward it, undertaking the sort of suicide run that traditionally provides films of this type with a memorable and moving spectacle. But because Johnson has read about the political problems with the American prevalence of showboating male heroes, he doesn’t allow the character to finish this gesture—though his doing so would, in context, likely save lives. (It’s a big laser cannon.)

Instead, a character named Rose flies up to him in her mini-spaceship, knocks him off course, and causes them both to crash. Somehow, he reaches her on the battlefield without being shot by the oncoming army. As the medical droids—also miraculously unshot—arrive to take her to space hospital, he asks her why she did it. Though she is on the edge of losing consciousness, she manages to say, “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not by fighting what we hate. But by saving what we love.” (I am no general, but this does not sound like good strategy.)

Johnson, in other words, delivers a set piece of spectacular self-sacrifice about the wrongness of set pieces of spectacular self-sacrifice. He translates a common criticism of action films into the language of an action film, where it just cancels itself right out. This is what I mean when I say that he is so explicit in his message that he reveals the underlying incoherence of that message; he leaves us in no doubt about what he is saying, and so we see that it makes no sense.

I don’t mean to argue—and it was a sadly common response to The Last Jedi to argue thus—that space westerns should be apolitical. As soon as there are people in your story, there are politics in it. Nor do I reject the film’s more-or-less left-liberal politics, to the extent those politics are consistent. But pop culture teaches best when it isn’t so conscious of its teacherly role, when it doesn’t underline every point five or six times. (It has this in common with, well, any sort of culture.) The low-budget shock filmmaker George Romero taught the audiences of his own period far more powerfully, and with much less fuss, simply by featuring black characters in heroic roles, and by listening when the actress Gaylen Ross said, during the shooting of the 1979 zombie epic Dawn of the Dead, that she didn’t think her character would scream. We might say that Romero rode his mind at a gallop in pursuit of making a frightening movie, whereas our popular artists live betwixt and between, now trying to emulate the artworks that they love, now trying to impart a Very Important Lesson.

Why have we settled for this strange cultural compromise—lowbrow genres, done with middlebrow earnestness, in revolt against a thoroughly defunded highbrow regime? Perhaps it is because we have accepted the idea of the democratization of culture—we have accepted, rightly, that, say, opera is not inherently worthier than jazz, that superhero comics are not inherently dumber than Greek mythology, that ancient epic poetry is not automatically loftier than rap (with which, indeed, it shares some features)—without accomplishing democracy. I mean this in a dully straightforward way: We are not all equally in control of our lives, and we are afraid of what becoming so would entail, of the costs of democracy, of the mess of it. We are divided by class, race, and gender, and united only in being the objects of a ceaseless corporate effort to accomplish our complete commodification. Having lost the economic battle to economic and political elites, we celebrate, again and again, our victory over the mostly-imaginary cultural elite that would scorn us for watching 90 Day Fiancé. What you can’t accomplish in life, you repeatedly do in symbolism, until it becomes a neurosis.The best thing we can do for Homer, for opera, for the French New Wave, as well as for Jay-Z and The Simpsons, is to take the promises held out to the culture by the older sort of educational middlebrow, look carefully at them, and keep them. We would keep them by guaranteeing all people a decent school, free time, and a good nearby library, one they could walk through without immediately attracting the hostile attentions of a security guard. We could decide that there are in fact such things as beauty, goodness, excellence, and self-cultivation, and that we’re willing to pay for them; we could stop indulging the adolescent boy’s fantasy that the world of culture is a scrim drawn over an unremittingly Darwinian landscape. We could, having done all this, settle down to the task of talking with each other about the art we love in a way that attends to the specificity of that art. We could even do that now.