What Art Can Learn From the New "Upper Middle Brow" Culture

What Art Can Learn From the New "Upper Middle Brow" Culture
(l-r) Paul Engle, Ralph Ellison, Mark Harris, Dwight MacDonald, Norman Mailer, and Arnold Gingrich gathered for a literary symposium, The University of Iowa, December 4, 1959.
(The University of Iowa Libraries via Flickr)

Over the summer, my dad and I watched three seasons of the Sopranos in about a week. We didn’t regret it, but the part of me that prefers going to galleries to watching TV felt a bit jealous. HBO is an institution of mass culture based mostly on educated, well-to-do, self-selecting cultural consumers. I’ve often wondered why it doesn’t have a better analog in the visual arts, something populist but not dumb.

Reading Dwight Macdonald’s essay “Masscult and Midcult,” I’ve started to get an idea as to why. Writing in 1960, Macdonald decried the emergence of something he called “midcult,” productions of mass culture that were being sold with the veneer of high culture, a phenomenon he saw as the mass market’s disingenuous adjustment to the postwar literacy boom.

In this otherwise gloomy piece of prose, Macdonald pointed with cautious optimism to a yet-unnamed audience for whom midcult wasn’t cutting the mustard — the kind of people who would have loved HBO had cable TV been around. In fact, Macdonald actually predicts something along the lines of HBO towards the end of the paper:

“One possibility is pay-TV, whose modest concept is that only those who subscribe could get the program, like a magazine; but, also like a magazine, the editors would decide what goes in, not the advertisers; a small gain but a real one. The networks oppose this on philanthropic grounds — they don't see why the customer should pay for what he now gets free. But perhaps one would rather pay for bread than get stones for nothing.”

The types of people he is talking about were unsatisfied with the bland, over-hyped character of most books, music, theatre, and film. At the same time, they were hardly duped by midcult’s pretensions. Their eyes glazed over at the grandiose simplicity of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” or the affected “cracker-barrel philosophy” of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” They preferred art-house cinema, off-broadway theater, and “quality” paperbacks.

Fifty years later, William Deresiewicz at the American Scholar has proposed a term for cultural objects that offer an alternative to the static opposition of high brow and middle brow culture: “upper middle brow.” I honestly hope this term will find its way into the broader American lexicon. It indicates that art may not have to remain quite as small-scale and local as we tend to believe, and that crossing over doesn't have to mean dumbing down.

Upper middle brow culture is like midcult (or “middle brow”) in that it depends on an audience of college graduates. Like middle brow culture, it assumes a certain level of intelligence in its audience — but unlike middle brow, its intellectual content manages to stand on its own, without relying on a hokey, stereotyped appeal to intellectualism. Whereas middle brow exploits intellectualism to achieve a goal on the mass market, upper middle brow exploits the mass market as a means of reaching a greater portion of an already high-minded audience. A middle brower took classes in American history and knows that Harry Truman was a very important man. An upper middler reads biographies to learn about Truman’s accomplishments as an autodidact, and that he was once invited to join the Ku Klux Klan.

Deresiewicz describes upper middle brow as “post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive.” He was able to name examples in loads of fields (Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life), but exactly none that are likely to appear on a gallery wall.

We live in a veritable golden age of art house cinema, alternative theater, indie radio, and “just plain good TV” — cultural material that is smart, honest, and idiosyncratic. It begs asking why the visual arts seem to remain an object of contempt from the point of view of a mainstream cultural audience.

Part of my answer would be that while smart works of film, television, music, and literature can cultivate reliable niche markets for their wares, an upper middler who cares about art is not necessarily an art buyer. Besides speculators and the chimeric tastes of collectors, the work that gets promoted tends to concern itself with the concerns of a fairly cloistered audience.

But this isn’t to say that a breakthrough isn’t possible. A few artists have managed to tap into the channels that have heretofore been dominated by pop and middle brow products, and on the few occasions when they have broken through, the upper middling audience has responded eagerly.

Christian Marclay — an upper middle brow artist if there ever was one — will now be seen in permanent collections all over the world. Marclay’s projects are original and intellectually serious. Embracing the mass media (and indeed, recruiting mass culture into the work itself), Marclay has made ambitious, clever art that reaches out to the non-art world public. But he has also smartly promoted himself on mass culture's own turf, through interviews on Charlie Rose and BBC 2., managing to explain what he does without watering things down. This is a rare feat among contemporary art stars — fully distinguishable from Rob Pruitt’s dumb collaboration with the fashion designer Jimmy Choo or the inescapably stupid and obnoxious celebrity culture schenanigans of painter Richard Phillips.

I would also point to Gillian Wearing, a video artist whose guest edit of the Guardian’s art section coincided with a show of her work at the Whitechapel Gallery. In the last week of March 2012, Wearing curated a series of videos for the British newspaper's site, explaining the history of documentary filmmaking and television that formed the basis of her work. Her personal essays were cleansed of the opaque, inside baseball language of gallery press releases and the condescending word choice of a college survey. I truly believed that Wearing was using the same attitude to write to hundreds of thousands of people as she might have used with an enthusiastic handful. And I was grateful.

A limitation to this kind of work, as Deresciewicz points out, is that it is often mainly flattering to the prejudices of the educated middle class. This is a no-no among artists who admire the painters and sculptors of the interwar avant-garde or the politically-inflected performance art of the 1960s. But think of what they’re missing! Think of the number of people who are starving to see more formally complex, socially rewarding art. Some would call catering to this audience a kind of selling out. I call it giving the (smart) people what they want.