What happened to the Middlebrow culture?

Somewhere between mass culture and elite culture lies a murky, often maligned, in-between culture. Often ridiculed as pretentious and bourgeois and decried as mediocre, pedestrian, conformist, and second-rate, middlebrow culture reached its peak between the 1930s and 1950s, when many newly-middle-class American adults sought to obtain a semblance of cultural polish and social prestige. through the Book of the Month Club or the Story of Civilization books by Will and Ariel Durant and various popular works that summarized science and history – a topic covered extensively in Joan Shelley Rubin’s classic 1992 study, The creation of the middlebrow culture.

At its height, middlebrow culture bridged the gap between avant-garde and kitsch, garish, overly sentimental and vapid, schlock and between elite and pulp fiction, ivory tower, obese academic writing and trashy, highbrow music and popular tunes and jingles. The goal of middle culture was to introduce unequally educated adults to somewhat diluted versions of high culture in an accessible, engaging, and non-threatening way.

Nothing seemed to symbolize the triumph of middlebrow culture better than the eclecticism of The Ed Sullivan Showwhich combined comedy, puppetry and rock ‘n’ roll with ballet dancers, classical music performances and operatic sopranos and tenors.

The Golden Age of American Musical Comedy, especially the shows of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, with their exuberant mix of romance, nostalgia, moral seriousness and complicated take on race, gender and sexuality, illustrated the middlebrow. Anything but avant-garde, many of these works represented an amalgamation of various high and low artistic and musical traditions, Viennese operetta, waltz rhythms, British dancehall, vaudeville and musical revue.

The Middlebrow culture never fully faded and could be seen, even in the 1950s and 1960s in the College Bowl radio and television quiz shows and in the 1960s and early 1970s in the Youth Concerts of Leonard Bernstein and Julia Child. The French cook television series, or in the 1980s and 1990s in Merchant-Ivory film productions of classic late 19th and early 20th century novels. Today, remnants of the middle culture linger, evident in PBS’s American Masters series or Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions book series and even on the game show. Danger!

But in today’s status-conscious society, where educational and cultural capital is often associated with attending private universities or highly selective liberal arts schools, an ease with theorists like Pierre Bourdieu and Thomas Piketty and vigilance to anything that smacks of partiality, to be middlebrow must be dismissed as awkward in taste, coarse in sensibility, and hopelessly behind the times. You might as well wear a leisure suit or a dress in off-the-shelf synthetic materials from the late retailer Robert Hall.

Yet, as someone who views in-between culture as an impressive and admirable attempt to create a truly open democratic culture that sought to make the modern, high-end, and avant-garde widely accessible, its decline is a subject of regret. I have personally adored middlebrow theater and literature and regard them as among this society‘s greatest contributions to the arts and letters and believe that its demise represents a true cultural loss.

Admittedly, the culture in between was Eurocentric and insufficiently responsive to issues of race and gender, although the culture of Richard Wright native son was a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940. Middlebrow culture also contributed to the mid-century illusion of a unitary society. Yet what has replaced it – a highly fractured and stratified society in which large swaths of the performing arts are under threat, false populism reigns and familiarity with canonical works of literature, art and music is increasingly reserved for the privileged – does not seem to me to be a sign of progress.

It was a seminal essay published in 1915 by literary critic and historian Van Wyck Brooks that first painted a portrait of an American culture torn between scholarly and scholarly ideals – by Jonathan Edwards and his successors on one side and Benjamin Franklin and his offspring on the other. . It was a culture divided between literary English and slang, between the adamantly pretentious and abstractly inclined professor and the rude, vulgar, cynical and intellectually contemptuous businessman.

What this society desperately needed was “a middle ground between vaporous idealism and self-interested practicality” that would bridge the gap between top and bottom.

What might such a middle plane look like today if we were to embrace it as a cultural ideal?

Joseph Horwitz’s recent Dvořák’s prophecy: and the thwarted fate of black classical music indicates a response.

Horwitz, a prominent historian of American classical music, begins his book with a statement by the Czech composer in 1893: That “the future music of this country must be founded on” African American and Native American traditions. “This must be the true foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”

Horwitz argues that from the beginning of the 20th century a divide developed between high art music and high art pop music. The American classical music establishment embraced European modernism, with its rejection of traditional tonality, melodies, forms, and metrical rhythm and its interest in atonality, polytonality, and wild experimentation.

At the same time, established institutions showed little respect for vernacular, black, ethnic, and folk traditions and largely refused to play music by black composers or employ black musicians. The results manifest themselves today in the dwindling audience for classical music combined with a kind of creative stagnation that desperately needs an infusion of the dynamism and vitality that characterizes American popular music.

According to Horwitz, the answer lies in drawing from the full range of American musical traditions: African American sadness songs, ragtime, blues, gospel, jazz and more contemporary black genres, but also folk songs, band music, hymns religious and popular songs. from Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building and many more.

In 1925, Harold Ross, the new yorker‘s founding editor, enunciated the vision of his magazine: it would be sophisticated and urban but not highbrow. Unlike a journal, it would be interpretive rather than stenographic. It would provide a guide to theatre, motion pictures, musical events and art and exhibits worth seeing and pass judgment on new books of significance and assume a reasonable degree of enlightenment among its readers. Its “general tenor will be cheerfulness, wit and satire…”

Ross concluded this statement with a classist and sexist sentence that nevertheless remains deliberately provocative: “the new yorker will be the unedited magazine for the old lady of Dubuque.

More than three decades ago, cultural historian Lawrence W. Levine described the emergence of a rigid cultural hierarchy in America. He demonstrated that the boundaries between the serious and the popular that this society takes for granted as fixed, immutable, inevitable and enduring are in fact social and cultural constructs “shaped by class prejudice and ethnocentric anxiety”.

His Intellectual/Weak revealed a mid-19th century culture “less hierarchical, less fragmented into relatively rigid groupings of adjectives”, discrete spaces and distinct genres “that their descendants were to experience”. Levine rightly views the development of cultural hierarchy and the sanctification of high culture as a tragedy. As audiences fragmented and segregated, popular and elite audiences lost touch with the very sources of energy and creativity that would surely enrich the expressive culture of the nation.

Colleges and universities, it seems to me, should play a leading role in combating cultural stratification by doing much more to expose students to the richness and range of artistic, musical, lyrical traditions and theater that surround them. In previous articles, I have mentioned Hunter College’s HUM 20010: Exploration in the Arts as an evolving model. This course combines visits to museums and performance halls with signature seminars and opportunities for undergraduate students to interact with artists, playwrights, musicians and performers.

I invite you to follow this example. Expose your undergraduate students to the scope of expressive creativity; encourage them to apprehend the arts in their rich diversity and infinite variety. After all, a true college education is not just about cognitive development and professional training. It must also educate the senses and sensitivities.

Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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