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June 18, 2005

Patio Man and Radiohead

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.

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Comments

I suppose it would be too much to expect him to note that class mobility has declined dramatically since the 1950s and 1960s.

One thing that seems to point to a relative democratization of elite culture is that people no longer feel required to dress up for what used to be considered dressy occasions. This is probably somewhat more extreme in the SF bay area, where I live, than in other places, but I think it's a general trend. For example, my husband and I have an opera subscription (at the SF opera), and I rarely dress up any more than I do for work (I work in a casual office). My husband wears jeans and a t-shirt, because that's what he always wears. We have a friend who wears shorts, because that's what he always wears (year round). There are people who dress up more than that, but we don't look out of place. A few years ago there was a gala when the opera house reopened after being renovated, and it was a big deal when Willie Brown declared the event to be "black tie" -- a lot of people thought this was awfully high-handed of him.

The same is true about dining out. There are only a few places in the bay area that even have a dress code any more, and the strictest code I've seen is jacket (no tie) for men; no jeans, t-shirts, or sneakers. This is the dress code at The French Laundry, which is a world-class restaurant and is widely reputed to be the best (or perhaps haute-est) restaurant in the US.

So Republicans and conservatives bash "East Coast elites" for 30 years until people stop paying attention to middlebrow culture and David Brooks is surprised?

Every day must be a shock to Mr. Brooks: "Holy shit -- the sun came up! What does this mean?"

Interesting. I think there may be a little to what Brooks says. Reminds me of my odd fondness for The Modern Library.

Is it possible that we have gone too far in the opposite direction, http://thejewishblog.blogspot.com/2005/06/dangers-of-neo-edwardianism.html>creating a new kind of elitism?

The "elite" culture has no authority. And why should it, when, aside from the fact there is no elite, David Brooks is one of the elite Spokesman of ..... what exactly? The guy is a high paid blow job artist. See, among others, South Park.

"For example, people used to buy leather-bound books by the foot as an interior design accent."

I don't know if you meant this literally, but it is indeed literally true. A friend of mine who ran a second hand bookstore would get orders something like "5 feet of nice-looking books" -- for law offices especially. (I've been told that nowadays decorators buy lengths of board with the spine part of the book glued onto them, so you can get a bookshelf effect more easily.

Berube just did something about a similiar bitch by Teachout. Brooks may be plagiarizing.

Portland may be more extreme than SF on the dressing-down thing. Every once in awhile some missionary carpetbagger in the style biz comes through town trying to get us to look classier, but they usually fail.

Perhaps Brooks ought to join the fight to save NPR & PBS -- the last bastions of middlebrow culture.

Another thing to remember is that quite a bit of the taste for MBC was driven by women who were shut out of the workplace. After spending the day at home alone or with the kids, they wanted to go out in the evenings.

I think a great deal of the drop in "culture" is due to people just not having the time. I was a kid during the women't movements, and I remember that there were fancy dinner parties, and then everybody's moms went to work and their weren't.

Also, I think women just started going to the ballet and such with women friends who appreciated it, rather than dragging unhappy husbands along.

The decline of middle-brow culture corresponds to the decline of the middle-class (as in income-producing property owners - landlords, farmers, shopkeepers, small factories). What we call middle-class in the US is actually middle-income. With only two classes remaining - and facing each other without the mediation of the middle layer - the difference in culture has blurred.

As a middle-class kid who finished college in the 60s, I had been exposed to books, opera, classical music, theatre only in college (we had no books at home) and I was HUNGRY for the art of it all. (I still am.) But I had to take so much BS because of this hunger: from my blue-collar family and my husband's BC relatives, from some black culture people who were ONLY into black music, from some hippie culture people who were ONLY into rock--you get the idea. Art is not only for the elite; much can be enjoyed by anyone. I daresay ticket prices for ROLLING STONES are higher than subscriptions to some symphony! I'm really tired of the rally cry of elitism. I don't think I'm special; I enjoy certain kinds of art. I don't put people down if they don't enjoy the same things I do; I wish they wouldn't feel as if I am criticizing them if I prefer something different. This goofy society has a major inferiority complex in addition to its rampant paranoia!

As a middle-class kid who finished college in the 60s, I had been exposed to books, opera, classical music, theatre only in college (we had no books at home) and I was HUNGRY for the art of it all. (I still am.) But I had to take so much BS because of this hunger: from my blue-collar family and my husband's BC relatives, from some black culture people who were ONLY into black music, from some hippie culture people who were ONLY into rock--you get the idea. Art is not only for the elite; much can be enjoyed by anyone. I daresay ticket prices for ROLLING STONES are higher than subscriptions to some symphony! I'm really tired of the rally cry of elitism. I don't think I'm special; I enjoy certain kinds of art. I don't put people down if they don't enjoy the same things I do; I wish they wouldn't feel as if I am criticizing them if I prefer something different. This goofy society has a major inferiority complex in addition to its rampant paranoia!

i agree that those trends are fine. if joe sixpack prefers disney to puccini, well okay. they're both about ridiculous romantic situations. the stereo-cds connection is imperfect, i think. i'm sure it was just as great to have the latest victrola back in the day. but the music has gone from billie holiday, glenn miller at worst, to britney spears.

what's ugly about today's "low culture" is the productization of these things. instead of making something high quality, they make something inoffensive. i hope we all take offense at the insult soon.

There was worse music in the 50's than Glen Miller, and there is much better music today than Britney Spears. The inoffensive line of critique seems particularly off. On what planet is Britney Spears less offensive than Glen Miller?

There was worse music in the 50's than Glen Miller

Wrong decade. Miller's career basically began in 1936-37 and he died in 1944.

On what planet is Britney Spears less offensive than Glen Miller?

I'm not sure why it surprises you that some people feel this way, DJW. For people raised on swing era big bands, Glenn Miller's band is at least competent. Obviously not in the same class as Basie, but not embarrassingly bad, either. If that's your frame of reference for musical quality, of course most modern music is going to sound shitty to you -- and Britney's a particularly easy target.

I'm also not sure what you think is so offensive about Glenn Miller. I mean, I'm not a fan by any means, but his band was hardly egregiously bad.

John, yes, I meant the leather book thing literally. I think you can still buy books-by-the-foot at The Strand in NYC and at Powell's in Portland. They don't seem nearly as popular as they used to be, though. Not as many people feel obliged to pretend to have an library of important books.

TJ, I'm not sure I understand what your point about a new elitism.

Dorothy, I just want to emphasize that I'm not criticizing people for preferring "high" culture. There's nothing intrinsically elitist about preferring opera to pop, or vice versa. Elitism is an irrationally dismissive attitude about whole categories of expression and/or the people who like them. It's destructive and antithetical to sincere appreciation.

David Brooks pisses me off because he talks about culture like it's either medicine or poison.

Who can afford to be middle class anymore? While he fakes worry about middlebrow culture, he should be worrying about the vanishing middle class.

David Brooks pisses me off because he talks about culture like it's either medicine or poison.

Brilliant!

Lindsay--

I think you hit the nail on the thumb with "...talks about culture like it's either medicine or poison." Like any dilettante, his opinions tend to be self-contradictory. The one he gives us in any given piece reflect the opinions expressed in an article he's recently read, and he's not going to waste too much time thinking about whether or not his current opinion is grounded in reality or makes any sense. Brooks could save himself a lot of time by just linking to the last article he's read with a "heh, indeed."

As for the cultural landscape, I think Dorothy's posts remind us of the reality that Brooks misses: in an era of affordable high culture, high culture ceases to have an elitist appeal. Now that high culture has been left to those who enjoy it for its own sake, I find that most of my friends who do enjoy the arts are working class people.

Oh, yeah--I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed the headline. "Patio Man." Heh, indeed.

Virtually every artist I know works on trying to dislove the gap between high and low culture, and I work for the LA Phil.

Hey Mudkitty,

In that case, y'all might want to have a word with LA Phil flutist Catherine Ransom Karoly, who proudly announced to the press after playing a concert of Nobuo Uematsu's music for the Final Fantasy videogames:

"It's almost on the level of Muzak and pretty much completely without integrity," she said. "It's really, really cheesy."

I'm joshing, of course -- it's obviously not your fault Ms. Karoly is such a fucking prima donna. But this level of thoroughly unprofessional public bitching doesn't exactly help the orchestra's efforts to reach out to young people.

CORRECTION: It was even worse than I remember -- Ms. Karoly made that statement to the press following a rehearsal. I believe her comment was published in the LA Times before the concert even took place.

Maybe elitism is the wrong word. Perhaps I should have used snobbery, since this elimination of the MB is due to a sort of anti-elitist snobbery (I’m exceptionally common, much more common then you, type of http://www.google.com/search?num=100&hl=en&lr=&safe=off&c2coff=1&q=Bush+folksy>posturing). As much as it is good to eliminate old elitist Victorian snobbery, we must be careful not to create a new kind of anti-elitist (and by extension, anti-intellectual) snobbery.

In addition, I should also mention that youth are the new Edwardians because like the upper classes of the Gilded Age, they are a leisure class.

A lot of music really is crap, though. People who are involved in music are often pretty diverse in their tastes as to various styles, but they all have stuff they just plain can't stand. Barry Manilow and New Age music are two examples. For me, if it's noodling over chord changes on electronic keyboards, it's almost always crap.

But music people I knew when I was young thought that Verdi and Puccini were low-class. They were Jews of Russian or German descent.

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