In Defense of the Middlebrow

Matt Hoberg

Matt Hoberg earned an A.B. in Philosophy from Princeton University in 2009 and resides in Minnesota with his wife and four children in a 19th century farmhouse; these opinions are his own. You can find him on Twitter @kinder_cons and his Substack Kinder Conservative Bulletin.

Related Post Roulette

41 Responses

  1. Jaybird
    Ignored
    says:

    Not everything has to be an A+ that is better than any other option available.

    Sometimes a good, solid B- is okay. Unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks? Holy crap, sign me up!

    “You’ve got to listen to this new band! It’s a Crustpunk/Electroswing fusion! The producer got punched in the face by Steve Albini once!”

    “You know what? I’m just going to listen to Kiss’s Destroyer again, if you’re okay with that.”

    You say “Middlebrow isn’t always a good thing” but the obvious response is that “it’s usually not an awful thing”.

    To go back to the example of restaurants, eating at a new experimental place is a dice roll. Sure, maybe it’ll be awesome. But maybe it’ll be experimental in the bad way. “It’s a delicacy! I guess it’s an acquired taste.”

    Asparagus Jalapeno Ice Cream.

    Yes. I tried it. No. It wasn’t very good. “What did it taste like?” “Sweet, spicy, creamy asparagus.” “That sounds like it’d taste good!” “Yeah, I thought so too.”

    You know what would have been a solid B-? Here is the Chili’s dessert menu. Nope, not a single A+ in sight. But there ain’t no Asparagus Jalapeno Ice Cream neither.

    Part of the problem when it comes to applying this sort of thing to entertainments is that it leads to some weird places. Someone likes Harry Potter? Well, shouldn’t they be reading John Updike instead? Wait, apparently Updike was cancelled. Um. Bret Easton Ellis! (Checks google… crap.) Erm… Gabriela Garcia! Of Women and Salt! She’s a female author! A person of color! And the book is about women of color! Cha-CHING!

    “Why aren’t you reading a Security+ book instead? Or a book on python? Get a better job, earn more money?”

    If the answer is “Not everything is about making more money. Some things should just be done for pleasure!”

    Well… then maybe we’re wandering back to Harry Potter again. Oh, wait, Rowling has been cancelled. Um… John Green?Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird
      Ignored
      says:

      And, yes, I know you got into this.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird
      Ignored
      says:

      Those fast casual spots are not selling you food. I mean, they are. But what they’re really selling you is a sense of satisfaction. Not because the food itself is satisfying. But because they’ve designed a model that will meet your expectations almost every time.

      For some people, dining is about the dice roll. “I don’t know if this will be good or terrible or something in between but I’m excited to try it.” For others, it is about consistency. “I want this to taste the way I expect it to.”

      So a Chili’s in NY is going to taste the same as a Chili’s in Ohio is going to taste the same as a Chili’s in California. Every. Single. Time.

      There is value in that. And to some folks, there is INCREDIBLE value in that. If you goto Chili’s and are upset that your burger wasn’t fabulous, you probably went to Chili’s for the wrong reason.

      Probably little known secret: Many of these restaurants mass produce their food at centralized locations and ship it out frozen to the restaurants to be defrosted/reheated. It is a means of controlling consistency. But it also impacts the quality. To them it is worth it because of what they are selling. Which, again, is not food.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Kazzy
        Ignored
        says:

        This is called bundling. Every restaurant, every purchase of any kind, is more than just the single physical product. As you note, for some people the roll of the dice is part of the bundle. The safety or risk, the atmosphere or home delivery, the authenticity or creativity, along with taste, serving size and cost.Report

      • Murali in reply to Kazzy
        Ignored
        says:

        I think that there is a lot of dumping on these fast casual outlets (and perhaps a lot of food snobbery).

        Sure, there are fast casual outlets which are only ok. I have also been to a number of fast casual outlets where the food is good (e.g. Pizza express, Frankie’s and Benny’s, Zizzi, Ask Italian). A caveat here is that some (not necessarily all) items in these places are good. But those are the items I like to have anyway.Report

    • Marchmaine in reply to Jaybird
      Ignored
      says:

      “Crustpunk/Electroswing fusion”

      Wait, is this an option?

      But more seriously, are we really getting at what “highbrow” is? It isn’t A+ vs. B- I don’t think. I’d suggest that Highbrow is ‘gated content’ or Esoteric in its purist form. It isn’t that it’s better, its that you don’t get it if you don’t have the requisite pre-requisites.

      Greek and Latin don’t make you better people, they make you better able to understand the jokes that allow you to sit with better people. Or it used to.

      We see this in music all the time, especially classical music: usually it is the concerti written for the virtuoso artist of a particular instrument. These concerti are not particularly ‘good’ qua music, they are only good if you know how improbable they are to play at all. There are a tiny handful of pieces created that are both… but those are treated as transcendent genius precisely for being ‘accessible’

      So really, as far as I can tell, we’re awash in Middlebrow… there’s almost no Highbrow culture… just the brute force of $$. None of us have any notion that the Rich folks are highbrow, do we? Does Gates have taste? (Heh, well, that’s fun these days). Bezos? Buffet? Thiel? Anyone? OMG, Zuckerberg? Or just the brute force of exclusivity by $$.

      Other than being nervous that someone was going to serve you with a bill for the ‘free champagne and heavy hors d’ouevres’ you were scarfing at a party with our upper classes, none of us would feel particularly out of place… the topics would still be Game of Thrones or Bridgerton or football/baseball/basketball (depending on the mogul)… sure, you’d have to admit your car doors open side-to-side and not up-and-down and your boat is only cleared for lakes/rivers, but that’s still just the middlebrow tyranny of $$.

      A+ food is often middle brow; as a ‘foodie’ the closest I’d come to pointing out the ‘highbrow’ enclave (that isn’t simply $$) is that some foods require an understanding of how difficult it is to prepare and/or pair flavors that make the achievement esoteric even when it’s not accessible. Middlebrow is just mixing Asparagus and Jalapeno as an Ice Cream because it’s ‘wild’. A+ BBQ? Pisses rings around some of the technically brilliant foods I’ve had… but BBQ is pretty darn accessible… and strangely, some of the foodiest of food places are super accessible from a $$ point of view.

      So my question would be where are the esoteric gates that aren’t simply $$ gates? That’s the enclave of the highbrow. Maybe fashion? Maybe certain forms of Art? But honestly, none of those are cultural signifiers and ‘engagement’ wouldn’t be maintaining our intellectual curiosity about fashion. But they at least exhibit the esoteric requirements for ‘Highbrow.’Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Marchmaine
        Ignored
        says:

        Middlebrow used to be High-class but accessible.

        The Barber of Saville? It’s an opera!

        So let’s put Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in it. Suddenly “Highbrow” becomes “Middlebrow”.

        Huh. This is a pretty good song.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird
          Ignored
          says:

          I’m sure most of us has seen this thread but it’s always a delight to revisit:

          Report

        • Pinky in reply to Jaybird
          Ignored
          says:

          The term middlebrow is often seen as a trait of the viewer rather than that which is viewed. A prole admiring things above his station is middlebrow. Imagine not realizing that art was made for your betters! It’s almost impossible to describe it without sounding British, and yeah, I think that middlebrow was seen as fraudulent more in the UK than in the US, where class is more disregarded.

          There also is the idea of middlebrow art as something not quite highbrow, but I think those two senses can get confused.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Pinky
            Ignored
            says:

            The Saturday Evening Post used to be Middlebrow, I thought. Look Magazine. Life Magazine.

            Norman Rockwell crap. Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. (Or, hell, Reader’s Digest.)

            It was “respectable” by low-brow standards, I guess.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Marchmaine
        Ignored
        says:

        Thinking about rich folks being highbrow, of course not. Bitcoin ruined everything.

        But the “elite”? They’re still highbrow. They may not be flush anymore. They may only be able to get into Harvard because of their legacy status rather than cash in on how one of their ancestor’s maiden names is on one of the buildings on campus, but they’re still highbrow.

        Their star is merely eclipsed by the new money.

        But highbrow is still out there. They don’t hang with the Waltons, even though the Waltons would *LOVE* to hang with them. (Let the Waltons pick up the check, if it can’t be avoided.)Report

        • Marchmaine in reply to Jaybird
          Ignored
          says:

          That’s a getting closer to my point… what’s ‘highbrow’ if the ‘elite’ can’t segment it out by $$?

          I’m suggesting Highbrow isn’t a qualitative aesthetic, but a signifier.

          What things do the people who go to Harvard use to signify that the Walton’s couldn’t get.

          I think there are things, but they aren’t ‘high-culture’ things.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Marchmaine
            Ignored
            says:

            Access, I think. Also invisibility to some extent.

            The problem with Paris Hilton was that she eschewed invisibility and brought a lot of attention to stuff that only crazy people knew/cared about a decade earlier.Report

          • Pinky in reply to Marchmaine
            Ignored
            says:

            As I said below, I think the term middlebrow has two meanings, the low-status person pursuing highbrow things, and the kind of art and dialogue which isn’t as old or sophisticated as true highbrow but doesn’t aim for the masses.

            It’s been a long time since I took a course in sociology, but in my day the main criterion for “class” was educational level rather than income. At least, in the US. In many other countries (and also in the highest levels in the US) class is linked to family history.

            Class isn’t as limiting in the US. A black kid who goes to Harvard Law and believes the right things can be accepted in a way that a NYC developer son of a NYC developer might not be even if he goes to Wharton.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Jaybird
      Ignored
      says:

      Wait, apparently Updike was cancelled.

      Now I want to read John Updike.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Brandon Berg
        Ignored
        says:

        I didn’t think that the Rabbit series was very good.

        Maybe it’s like Total Recall.

        In 1991, we thought it was horribly violent. Now? Hee hee, it’s kitsch.

        Maybe Rabbit, Run read differently in the 50’s.

        Gertrude and Claudius isn’t bad. But once you see the trick he uses of “adultery is just part of marriage” in the Rabbit series, it’s difficult to unsee how he just keeps using it over and over and over and over andReport

  2. Michael Cain
    Ignored
    says:

    Why aren’t you reading a Security+ book instead? Or a book on python?

    Oddly enough — well, probably not that odd for me — when I read this and got to the novel, poem, and short film, I thought “What about that clever bit of real-time code I’ve been meaning to write?”Report

  3. Pinky
    Ignored
    says:

    One strong argument for the middlebrow is the general mismanagement by the custodians of the highbrow. Some Greek scholars may be able to translate The Iliad, but the average scholar of literature may have never read it, or may only be trained in deconstructing it. The last 150 years has seen a de-prioritization of the classic qualities of beauty, truth, and goodness, to the point of opposing them or denying their existence.

    Photography rather famously derailed representational art. Once paintings lost their standing as the best way to preserve a scene, artists began pursuing other goals. Around the same time, the spread of Darwinism disrupted the belief in order, damaging the idea of order as beauty. The Romantic era of classical music emphasized regional differences to the point of forgetting the lessons of counterpoint and traditional structure.

    It’s arguable when and why the de-emphasis of standards of beauty became an opposition to them, although the politicization of art played a role in it. I’ve been surprised to the the de-emphasis of and opposition to truth in my lifetime. I didn’t see that coming. Goodness has always faced its challenges.

    I recently posted a long quote from Chesterton, which included the following: “Truths turn into dogmas the instant that they are disputed….We who are Liberals once held Liberalism lightly as a truism. Now it has been disputed, and we hold it fiercely as a faith. We who believe in patriotism once thought patriotism to be reasonable, and thought little more about it. Now we know it to be unreasonable, and know it to be right.” I think middlebrow interest used to be a way of improving oneself, but in a time of the highbrow assault on transcendent values, it becomes a rallying cry.Report

  4. LeeEsq
    Ignored
    says:

    Middle brow art lives but mainly on streaming services. Most of the prestige TV, especially the ones that tend to be low on the special effects, is where middle brow lives today. In the past middle brow was either read in novels or a mid-level adult movie like the countless family dramas or historical films made during the 80s and 90s. If anything did middle-brow art in, it was the decreasing costs and increasing sophistication of special effects, making spectacle films easier to pull off, the needs of a global market to make movies with more universal messages like good vs. evil, and the rise of YA novel market.Report

  5. DensityDuck
    Ignored
    says:

    Internet porn killed the middlebrow.

    A while back I followed an amusing distraction of reading about 70s and 80s sex-comedy movies. There are an incredible number of films out there whose plot is “loser guys (dorks/burnouts/stoners/middle-age dads) go somewhere exotic (college/frat party/vacation resort/Hollywood) and see some tits, in bikini and then out of bikini”. They were making this stuff one-after-the-other, end-to-end. There’s a “Hollywood Hot Tubs” and it has a sequel; “Bikini Carwash” has a whole series; there’s one just called “Hot T-Shirt Party”. Before you could even imagine telling your computer to find “Cadbury commercial rabbit girl voice 10 hours ASMR”, America’s horniness was channeled entirely through Playboy-inspired cinema, and you could genuinely expect men to pay to watch nerds with spinning bowties do pratfalls for eighty minutes as long as a chick took her top off at some point. And there was a whole industry set up to deliver product at the quality required for this, and it wasn’t all that hard to repurpose that industry to projects of more lofty ideal.

    The point of this is not “harrumph, these modern kids with their sex-besotted brains are RUINING this country”, the point is that the reason middlebrow movies have basically disappeared is that nobody needs to pay seven-fifty a pop to launder their thirst viewing anymore.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to DensityDuck
      Ignored
      says:

      Those raunchy sex comedies are clearly low brow. They are not middle brow. For something to be middle brow, it has to have some sort of aspirational nature even if it isn’t really high art. The Miramax Oscar Bait movies of the 1990s like Restoration or things like Chariots of Fire are pretty good example of what middle brow entertainment is.Report

      • dhex in reply to LeeEsq
        Ignored
        says:

        sex comedy and middle/highbrow are not mutually exclusive. ulysses comes to mind…never look at the beach the same way again…Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to LeeEsq
        Ignored
        says:

        Raunchy sex comedies are lowbrow, but the industry that developed to generate them was easily repurposed to middlebrow entertainment of the sort the OP describes.

        These days, you’d have to recreate all that industry infrastructure from nothing, which is why everything costs a hundred million dollars, because there’s no lighting crew and makeup team looking for a quick buck between sexploitation flicks.Report

    • Pinky in reply to DensityDuck
      Ignored
      says:

      There was a kind of middlebrow period piece thing with the occasional boob, or the controversial European directed hot sex scene kind of movie. I think they’re gone now.

      You might be thinking about the middle-market, the films between the blockbusters and the 20-people-see-them-but-they’re-all-Oscar-voters movies. They could be comedies, mid-budget horror, or a lot of things. They got crowded out by recent Hollywood financing tactics, but they could be returning in the new media era.Report

  6. Rufus F.
    Ignored
    says:

    I agree with every word of this except two- the New Yorker is, in my opinion, the Platonic form of “middlebrow.” I don’t see that as a bad thing, mind you. I aspire to write in the New Yorker style, as opposed to an academic style, because it’s clear and accessible to a larger audience.Report

    • CJColucci in reply to Rufus F.
      Ignored
      says:

      Former New Yorker writer Dwight MacDonald agrees with you. He wrote extensively on the topic, most accessibly in Against the American Grain, which includes his essay “Masscult and Midcult.”Report

    • Matt Hoberg in reply to Rufus F.
      Ignored
      says:

      That’s a heck of an endorsement, thank you. Fair point on the New Yorker. It definitely has an aspirational air to it but is still relatively accessible (as you mention). Thanks for reading!Report

  7. Kristin Devine
    Ignored
    says:

    I really enjoyed this. Thanks for posting!Report

  8. dhex
    Ignored
    says:

    “Shaping the culture so that these voices form a polyphony rather than a cacophony is a hard problem, but one that must be tackled to avoid shortchanging our humanity.”

    i don’t know that there’s a meaningful distance between these two points, but rather matters only from the pov of the people viewing it as one or the other.

    for what it’s worth, people expecting more cultural coherence are going to be largely disappointed. greater filtering options have led to very closed ecosystems of thought, feeling, and aesthetics. which is also impossible to avoid, given the firehose of options we have*. in one sense it is a step closer to true democracy; the dismay comes in when people realize that in the aggregate, the demos appears to be insane.

    at this point my attempt at a guiding principle is that you gotta love what you love and try not to be a jerk about it, because it is fruitless and has small hits upon empathy. it is particularly dangerous, i think, to draw too many conclusions about what various works “mean”, especially about the viewer.

    this is hard to resist: i get drawn into drawing larger conclusions about culture based on my own biases (short version: comic book plots are actually very harmful for emotional development because they explicitly deny the possibility of closure, acceptance, and equanimity) which may very well feel absolutely correct to me and yet be entirely fruitless, if not also wrong.

    i am almost done reading hitz’s book – not hugely drawn into the third act and the get these kids off my lawn-isms that have been foreshadowed, but its a worthwhile read.

    * this causes a tremendous deal of consternation for the media in general, hence the large obsession with how easily people are “led astray” by misinformation/”misinformation” – theories of persuasion are absolutely broken right now in public discourse (though very few, if any, folk act like this is true in private, otherwise you’d see a LOT more gun sales across social classes.)Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *