According to the world’s No 1 unibrow reference tool, Wikipedia, the term “highbrow” was popularised in 1902 by Will Irvin, a reporter for the New York newspaper The Sun, who “adhered to the phrenological notion of more intelligent people having high foreheads”. A certain whiff of racialism and eugenics should have been enough to do in this word by now, but it has retained a smidgen of utility in a culture that still likes to rank the prestige of artistic endeavours. “Highbrow” spawned “lowbrow” and “middlebrow”, the last of these standing for something blandly conventional, lacking either refined distinction or raw energy. Dwight Macdonald, giving the terms a postwar freshening and some sociological heft, defined the massive terrain of “midcult” in 1960 as a “middlebrow compromise” that “pretends to respect the standards of high culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarises them.”
It’s normal for audiences to “trade up” when their own tastes become more cultivated and demanding — to put aside tabloids for broadsheets, Louis L’Amour for Larry McMurtry. But producers of highbrow art never quite shake off a need for what’s further down. Lowbrows don’t go highbrow in search of guilty pleasure or a creative kick in the pants, but highbrow musicians, designers and writers will go looking for what’s being sung and worn on the streets or what’s opening big on summer movie screens. “We all need a splash of bad taste,” Diana Vreeland once declared from the summits of fashion. “No taste is what I’m against.” Writers of lowbrow fiction operate without much self-consciousness or apology. Highbrow or “literary” ones have to avoid cherishing their own rarefication; they need to realise how genius can ignore, at its peril, the more mundane skill sets (like plotting) of the mere “old pro”. Despite Macdonald’s worries about an artistic version of Gresham’s law, in a healthy cultural ecosystem the popular arts of the lower brow will hoist and fund the higher ones, the way a sound publisher’s catalog will have a Wall Street thriller subsidising the translation of three Eastern European poets. In past decades the fashion pages and automotive ads of glossy magazines like those edited by Vreeland allowed writers of serious short fiction to support themselves with fat fees paid for their work by the same publication.
On the whole, however, the sheer availability of so much art, its ubiquity in the wide, wireless world of the present, assures that more and more blends and mash-ups and integrations are bound to occur. Increasingly, art at all levels now comes to us, seizes our attention for a few digital moments before being elbowed aside by something else. More catholic tastes seem bound to result from more catholic exposure, our brows raising and lowering themselves like a spreadable iPhone photo.
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Criticism is the realm in which I’d prefer to see hierarchy abide. In the end, we’re all better off with a republic of letters, not a democracy. No amount of mindless “liking” or one-star customer-comment scorn can replace the lengthier, more considered critical judgements we used to have time to write and read.
Mallon’s eight novels include ‘Henry and Clara’, ‘Bandbox’ and ‘Watergate’. He is currently professor of English at George Washington University
The New York Times