Essays

The Art of Middlebrow

Tilda Swinton sleeping at MoMA (photo via republicx.tumblr.com)

When I first heard about Tilda Swinton’s “The Maybe,” an ongoing performance piece in which the actress sporadically sleeps in a glass box at the Museum of Modern Art, I sighed and shrugged and laughed a little. Another unoriginal work becomes a cultural flashpoint — cause for media outcry, cause for real, live spectacle, an unexciting performance sold to ticket-buying tourists as avant-garde. What can you do? But “The Maybe” wormed its way into my head, and I found myself confoundedly returning to it often. It was only a week or two later, and after reading Jason Farago’s takedown in The New Republic, that I realized why I cared: middlebrow.

A few days before the news about Swinton’s performance hit every blog in the Western hemisphere, I had gone to the New School on a Wednesday night to see a panel discussion about the cultural phenomenon of middlebrow. The featured guests were The New Republic‘s Ruth Franklin, freelance writer and PhD candidate Christine Smallwood, and the New York Times Book Review‘s Jennifer Szalai, with Harper’s associate editor Christopher Beha moderating. The panel promised to tackle such big questions as whether middlebrow still exists today or has disappeared in a “great cultural leveling,” and, if it’s extinct, whether we miss it, and if it’s not, where it currently resides.

The panel on middlebrow at the New School. From left: Christopher Beha, Jennifer Szalai, Ruth Franklin, and Christine Smallwood (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The panel on middlebrow at the New School. From left: Christopher Beha, Jennifer Szalai, Ruth Franklin, and Christine Smallwood (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

If you’re new to the term (or it’s new to you), a brief introduction: “middlebrow” is one of three cultural “brows” that critics and others sometimes use to explain and classify forms of culture. The word “highbrow” has been in use for some 150 years, according to Beha’s introduction, although it has uncomfortable racial undertones that have since fallen away; it generally refers to avant-garde art and culture — Joyce’s Ulysses, say, or Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” “Lowbrow” entered the lexicon in the early 20th century, Beha said, and refers to popular, mass-produced art: think Thomas Kinkade and Mary Higgins Clark. “Middlebrow” is a term meant for the culture that falls somewhere in the middle — art that aspires to be avant-garde but isn’t quite, that uses the tropes of highbrow forms but presents them in a far more accessible, easily digestible way. Like Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass box at MoMA.

A number of critics have written on the phenomenon of the middlebrow, including Virginia Woolf, but for decades, the one-stop reading on it has been critic Dwight Macdonald’s 1960 essay “Masscult & Midcult.” In it, Macdonald criticizes and attacks “the tepid ooze of Midcult” (another term for middlebrow; “masscult” refers to popular culture). Here’s his starting definition:

In these more advanced times, the danger to High Culture is not so much from Masscult as from a peculiar hybrid bred from the latter’s unnatural intercourse with the former. A whole middle culture has come into existence and it threatens to absorb both its parents. This intermediate form — let us call it Midcult — has the essential qualities of Masscult — the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity — but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf. In Masscult the trick is plain — to please the crowd by any means. But Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.

And here’s a bit more of his vitriol, in the following paragraph:

The enemy outside the walls is easy to distinguish. It is its ambiguity that makes Midcult alarming. For it presents itself as part of High Culture. Not that coterie stuff, not those snobbish inbred so-called intellectuals who are only talking to themselves. Rather the great vital mainstream, wide and clear though perhaps not so deep. You, too, can wade in it for a mere $16.70 pay nothing now just fill in the coupon and receive a full year six hard-cover lavishly illustrated issues of Horizon: A Magazine of the Arts, “probably the most beautiful magazine in the world … “

It’s not hard to see why “middlebrow” has basically been a negative term ever since 1960.

As expected, the panel raised many more questions than it answered, and after an hour plus an audience Q&A, it still felt like there were so many aspects of the topic that had barely been touch on. Jennifer Szalai raised the interesting point that middlebrow might better be a term applied to people who look at or use culture in an aspirational way, rather than the cultural products themselves. Ruth Franklin identified examples of middlebrow all around us — “I feel like we’re drowning in the middlebrow,” she said — including Jonathan Franzen and Paul Auster novels and TV series like The Wire. Christine Smallwood didn’t seem to have much use for the brows, but she made a number of incredibly astute points, including the idea that cultural distinctions aren’t going away — “maybe they’re just refragmenting,” she said — and that people are not necessarily looking for edification, betterment, or truth in art anymore; they may simply be looking for experience.

That last one seems especially relevant to the world of visual art, where experience has become a hugely important factor in exhibition and other programming. The drive for these kinds of universal, social-media-shareable experiences may be what leads, at least in part, to the watered-down pseudo-avant-garde stuff that we often get today. (Which is not to say that all experience art is middlebrow or bad.) Everyone loves a good #ArtSelfie.

Jeff Koons is the poster boy for middlebrow art.
Jeff Koons is the poster boy for middlebrow art (and good for #ArtSelfies). (Image via orensanznyc.org)

I kept thinking, too, about how these concepts are very medium-specific. Visual art will always be ripe for middlebrow, because it’s a field filled with mostly with unique, or at least limited-edition, objects; there’s no built-in mass appeal. For art to succeed, it needs to either truly do something new or build on the formerly groundbreaking, now newish ideas that preceded it. Art’s uniqueness, its inaccessibility, probably scares some people into never setting foot in a museum; by the same token, it also paves the way for all those collectors and investors and showboaters who use art as a status symbol. Visual art is High Culture, naturally. If middlebrows are people, we’ve got plenty of them.

Part of the reason it sometimes seems like middlebrow may have disappeared is that we live in an age when culture is increasingly fractured and niche, not to mention mashed up and thrown together. One audience member commented that “modernity is about mixing up the brows,” which is the case with artworks themselves as well as those who consume them. We’re all cultural omnivores these days; it’s not weird for someone to Instagram photos of a visit the Guggenheim in the afternoon and then spend the night tweeting about Say Yes to the Dress. “At a time when reading up on Kafka is neither more nor less valid than keeping up with the Kardashians, a thriving demographic of middle-class strivers looks to me less ludicrous or menacing than the vacancy it has left behind,” Szalai wrote two years ago in an essay about Macdonald and middlebrow for The Nation.

The art world, however, remains largely monolithic and single-tracked. There are, of course, counternarratives, just as there are artist-run spaces and people operating at the margins — but there’s also the money, and it is everywhere, determining mostly everything. This is another reason that middlebrow often dominates: because it’s fairly easy to identify a prescribed set of values that determine what succeeds and sells, and then mimic them. Controversial but not too much; edgy but not nihilistic; clever but not necessarily original. I suspect this is why, like Hrag and unlike Jerry Saltz, I’m not too worried about the supposed death of the gallery show, at least not yet. As Hrag said, “The narratives we once had were limited and excluded far too many people.” If we work towards opening things up, letting in more voices, which necessarily means more ways of seeing the world, we might be able to create a pluralistic space where middlebrow at least gets pushed to the wings, making it a little bit harder to find.

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