The Squeeze on the Middlebrow

“If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me ‘middlebrow,’ ” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1932, “I will take my pen and stab him dead.”

“Capital in the 21st Century,” by the French economist Thomas Piketty, has become this year’s most unlikely best seller, a crossover from the world of scholarship into general public discussion of a kind that seems rarer than it used to be. The book’s thesis — that economic inequality in the developed world is increasing, with potentially dire consequences for social justice and democratic governance — has struck a nerve in the American body politic. But its implications extend beyond the realm of political economy. Though it is expectedly dry, careful and data-driven, the book invites the re-examination of deeply held assumptions about the world.

According to a widely accepted story, the expansion of the middle class — the collapse of older social hierarchies, the decline of inherited privilege and the rise of a new meritocratic order — unfolded according to something like a natural law. The nature of capitalism, we have been taught to believe, tends toward greater equality, wider opportunity and the leveling of archaic, invidious distinctions based on pedigree. Mr. Piketty throws cold water on this conventional wisdom, which has been part of the intellectual birthright of nearly everyone born in the West since the end of World War II.

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.

The word crept into English, in class-ridden Britain, between the wars. It was deployed to memorable effect by Virginia Woolf in a letter to The New Statesman, in response to a review. “If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me ‘middlebrow,’ ” she wrote, “I will take my pen and stab him dead.”

The reasons for her rage are spelled out in vivid, good-humored detail. Woolf is proud to call herself a highbrow, which she defines as a “man or woman of thoroughbred intelligence who rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea.” This designation places her in the company of writers from Shakespeare to the Brontës, and also carries an unmistakable, not entirely metaphorical trace of class distinction. Highbrow status is a matter of breeding and belonging. But the highbrow, though an aristocrat, is not a snob.

“I honor and respect lowbrows,” Woolf asserts, “and I have never known a highbrow who did not.” (Lowbrows are defined as those who are as committed to living as highbrows are to thinking.) This is because high and low are in alliance against the middle. “I myself have known duchesses who were highbrows, also charwomen, and they have both told me with that vigor of language which so often unites the aristocracy with the working classes that they would rather sit in the coal cellar together than in the drawing room with middlebrows and pour out tea.”

What makes the middlebrows so contemptible? Woolf’s tautological response is their very middleness, their inability to be either one thing or another, and their habit of “indistinguishably and rather nastily” mixing up art and life (the pure, complementary pursuits of the high and the low) with things like “money, fame, power or prestige.”

The natural affinity of the high and low, and their mutual suspicion of the middle, has been a remarkably durable idea, though it has never proven to be anything more than an idea, a nostalgic vision of ideal order. At heart it is a fantasy of aesthetic authenticity secured by static and hierarchical social distinctions. A world of landlords and peasants, of masters and servant, of patrons and workers is one in which art and life harmonize. In such a world, the middle will always be a place of vulgarity and ostentation, of the kind of money-grubbing, backslapping, self-conscious display Woolf (or at least her notional duchess) would flee to the basement to avoid.

A name for that place, in the postwar years, would be America, which emerged as a kind of Promised Land — or nightmarish dystopia, depending on whom you asked — of middlebrow culture. The midcentury middlebrow was defined most incisively by Russell Lynes, a brilliant magazine editor and pop sociologist whose 1949 Harper’s essay “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow” remains instructive and amusing to this day. Even more influential (and infinitely entertaining) was the chart it inspired, published in Life, which neatly divided American taste into four echelons, splitting the middle rank into “upper” and “lower” and identifying, with an anthropologist’s precision and an ad man’s brio, typical preferences in food, drink, clothing and art.

That chart has been reproduced and imitated countless times. It invites an endless reverie of quibbles, updates and comparisons. In 1949, if you were eating avocado, you were most likely at an upper-middlebrow dinner party. Today, you are probably at Subway. Has bridge, a lower-middlebrow pastime back then, migrated upward, displaced by Cards Against Humanity? Is beer still low, or does it depend on the brand?

The categories are easy to scramble because the chart is less an emblem of hierarchy than of mobility. Its categories do not represent class differences; they replace class differences. There are no duchesses and charwomen in Lynes’s tableau, and none of the mystified language of animal husbandry. There are not even necessarily significant gradations of income. Every brow-holder is assumed to be able to afford furniture, clothes, reading material and other amenities, and each is assumed to have leisure time in which to enjoy them.

They also all have jobs; no one is living off income from capital. This is clear in the essay, which identifies the highbrow not as an aristocrat or even an artist, but rather as someone likely to work in the academy. The upper middlebrows, who may have more money — and who fill out the all-important donor class that supports symphony orchestras, libraries and museums — are well-placed professionals living in the bigger cities. What unites the brows is that all of them are, fundamentally, consumers.

The high, drawing inspiration from the low — from “jazz musicians, primitive painters and ballad writers” — feeds the middle, which grows ever larger, a marvelous circumstance for Lynes, who concludes his essay on a good-humored, optimistic note. “The highbrows would like,” he notes, perhaps with Woolf in mind, “to eliminate the middlebrows and devise a society that would approximate an intellectual feudal system, in which the lowbrows do the work and create folk arts, and the highbrows do the thinking and create fine arts.”

But, he declares, “the highbrows haven’t a chance,” and notes that everything refined and difficult has a way of slipping down toward the middle. That means that everyone has an opportunity to rise toward the high. His grid is “a ladder,” not the social ladder of generations past, but one it is nonetheless possible to climb: “It’s onward and upward just the same.”

Credit...Associated Press

Only a highbrow could fail to be charmed by this rosy projection of upward mobility, with its vision of a vast, all-encompassing and yet still pluralistic and lively middle. And as Lynes’s prophecy was realized, there was no shortage of complaint. The subsequent history of American culture over the course of les trente glorieuses is a tale of growth, punctuated by occasional grumbles of dissent.

Among the most famous of these came from Dwight Macdonald in a long Partisan Review essay from 1960 called “Masscult and Midcult.” A political leftist and an aesthetic snob, Macdonald surveyed the abundance of postwar America with a skeptical eye. He was astute enough to identify the economic and political sources of that abundance: higher wages, more leisure, increased access to higher education, foundation- and government-supported arts organizations. He even approved of these developments and some of their effects. Great works of literature were widely available in inexpensive but nonetheless authoritative paperback editions; people were buying almost as many classical as rock ’n’ roll records; cinematic art house and community theaters were thriving.

But it wasn’t enough. It couldn’t be, in part because “the great cultures of the past have all been elite affairs, centering in small, upper-class communities which had certain standards in common.” Macdonald was too much of a democrat to wish for a return to such a state of affairs. But he did register the sense that something — variously called sophistication, authenticity, seriousness or just art — was being lost as the old, unbudging, quasi-feudal hierarchy of upper and lower was replaced by the hectic scrum of mass and middle.

Maybe something was lost. But it is hard to look back at the middlebrow era without being dazzled by its scale, complexity and size, and without also, perhaps, feeling a stab of nostalgia. More does not always mean better, but the years after World War II were a grand era of more. In Pikettian terms, the rate of growth exceeded the rate of return on capital, and the result was a culture as well as a society that became less stratified and more egalitarian.

High culture became more accessible, popular culture became more ambitious, until the distinction between them collapsed altogether. Some of the mixing looks silly or vulgar in retrospect: stiff Hollywood adaptations or comic-book versions of great novels; earnest television broadcasts about social problems; magazines that sandwiched serious fiction in between photographs of naked women. But much of it was glorious.

Credit...Karsten Moran for The New York Times

And we live — happily or grumpily — with its legacy even as the signs of its obsolescence multiply. The middlebrow is robustly represented in “difficult” cable television shows, some of which, curiously enough, fetishize such classic postwar middlebrow pursuits as sex research and advertising. It also thrives in a self-conscious foodie culture in which a taste for folkloric authenticity commingles with a commitment to virtue and refinement.

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. The art world spins in an orbit of pure money. Museums chase dollars with crude commercialism aimed at the masses and the slavish cultivation of wealthy patrons. Symphonies and operas chase donors and squeeze workers (that is, artists) as the public drifts away.

Universities and colleges, the seedbeds of a cultural ideal consecrated to both excellence and democracy, to citizenship and to knowledge for its own sake, are becoming either hothouses for the new dynastic elite or training centers for the technocratic debt peons of the digital future.

In the hectic heyday of the middlebrow, intellectuals gazed back longingly at earlier dispensations when masterpieces were forged in conditions of inequality by lucky or well-born artists favored by rich or titled patrons.

Social inequality may be returning, but that doesn’t mean that the masterpieces will follow. The highbrows were co-opted or killed off by the middle, and the elitism they championed has been replaced by another kind, the kind that measures all value, cultural and otherwise, in money. It may be time to build a new ladder.

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