David Brooks is reverting to type: In a column called Joe Strauss to Joe Six-Pack, he laments the demise of what he calls "middlebrow culture" (hereafter, MBC).
For Brooks, MBC is a phenomenon: social climbers consuming elite culture as a status symbol. Allegedly, back in the good old days, socially ambitious people had to expose themselves to elite culture whether they liked it or not:
If you read Time and Newsweek from the 1950's and early 1960's, you discover they were pitched at middle-class people across the country who aspired to have the same sorts of conversations as the New York and Boston elite.
The magazines would devote pages to the work of theologians like Abraham Joshua Heschel or Reinhold Niebuhr. They devoted as much space to opera as to movies because an educated person was expected to know something about opera, even if that person had no prospect of actually seeing one. [...]
That doesn't happen today. And it's not that the magazines themselves are dumber or more commercial (they were always commercial). It's the whole culture that has changed.
Back in the late 1950's and early 1960's, middlebrow culture, which is really high-toned popular culture, was thriving in America. There was still a sense that culture is good for your character, and that a respectable person should spend time absorbing the best that has been thought and said.
Amanda has already done a good job of dissecting Brooks' arguments. Be sure to check out the comments on that thread, too. There's a lively discussion afoot.
Still, I thought there might be a grain of truth in Brooks' steaming pile of elitist bullshit. It seems as if people are less interested in the conspicuous consumption of elite culture than they were in the 1950's and 1960's. I don't have any personal basis for comparison, but for the sake of argument, I'll assume Brooks isn't just fantasizing about an era when the average middle manager from Omaha felt obliged to bone up on opera and mainstream literary criticism in order to climb the corporate ladder.
I'm not suggesting that people are less interested in culture today, nor that social striving is on the wane.
However, it does seem as if there's less social cachet in consuming elite cultural products. Today's social climbers seem more interested in acquiring the lifestyles, manners, and consumer goods of the class they aspire to.
For example, people used to buy leather-bound books by the foot as an interior design accent. Today, people are more likely to invest in glossy coffee table books as a signifier of taste. The fanciness of your stereo system is probably says more about your social status than the titles in your CD collection. Live performances still have a cachet, but ticket price seems to count for more than content. Opera tickets are a status symbol, but you can get at least as much mileage from posh seats at The Lion King.
Every week there's another story about how a symphony orchestra, a ballet company, or an opera house is "struggling to adapt to modern world." That's a nice way of saying that aspirant people don't feel the need to buy tickets to sleep through the season anymore.
The book club is overtaking the bridge club as a middle class institution. If the books marketed for group reading are any indication, book clubs are more about having fun discussions with friends than about slogging through dry but edifying works in the name of self-improvement. Good.
Unlike Brooks, I don't have much of an emotional stake in these apparent trends. They aren't cause for cultural pessimism, or whatever Brooks wants to call his gloom. I see the blurring of "high" and "low" culture as a good thing. It's better that people feel less pressured to define themselves by embracing the "high" and shunning the "low." These days, everyone can afford to admit to liking their share of both. David Brooks might be embarrassed to admit that he watches commercial TV, or prefers a night at the movies to a night at the opera, but most people have moved on.