Somewhere between mass culture and elite culture lies a murky, often maligned, in-between culture. Often ridiculed as pretentious and bourgeois and decried as mediocre, pedestrian, conformist, and second-rate, middle culture reached its peak between the 1930s and 1950s, when many newly-middle-class American adults sought to obtain a semblance of cultural and social polish. prestige through the Book of the Month Club or The Story of Civilization books by Will and Ariel Durant, and various popular works that summarized science and history – a subject extensively covered in Joan Shelley Rubin’s classic 1992 study , The creation of the middlebrow culture.
At its peak, the middlebrow culture bridged the gap between avant-garde and kitsch, garish, overly sentimental and tasteless, schlock, and between elite and pulp fiction, the ivory tower, egg-headed academic writing and trash, and art music and tunes and popular jingles. The goal of middle culture was to introduce unequally educated adults to somewhat diluted versions of high culture in an accessible, engaging, and non-threatening way.
Nothing seemed to symbolize the triumph of middlebrow culture better than the eclecticism of The Ed Sullivan Show, which combined comedy, puppetry and rock ‘n’ roll with ballet dancers, classical music performances and operatic sopranos and tenors. opera.
The Golden Age of American Musical Comedy, especially the shows of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, with their exuberant mix of romance, nostalgia, moral seriousness and complicated take on race, gender and sexuality, illustrated the middlebrow. Anything but avant-garde, many of these works represented an amalgam from a variety of high and low artistic and musical traditions, Viennese operetta, waltz rhythms, British ballroom, vaudeville and musical revue.
The Middlebrow culture never fully faded and could be seen, even in the 1950s and 1960s in the College Bowl radio and television quiz shows, and in the 1960s and early 1970s in the Concerts for young people by Leonard Bernstein and the television series “The French Chef” by Julia Childs. , or in the 1980s and 1990s in Merchant-Ivory film productions of late 19th century classicse and early 20e novels of the century. Today, remnants of the middle culture linger, evident in PBS’s American Masters series or Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions book series and even the game show Jeopardy.
But in today’s status-conscious society, where educational and cultural capital is often associated with attending private universities or highly selective liberal arts colleges, an ease with theorists like Pierre Bourdieu and Thomas Piketty, and vigilance to anything that smacks of partiality, to be average is to be dismissed as clumsy in taste, coarse in sensibility, and hopelessly behind the times. You might as well wear a leisure suit or a dress in off-the-shelf synthetic materials from the late retailer Robert Hall.
Yet, as someone who sees in-between culture as an impressive and admirable attempt to create a truly open and democratic culture that seeks to make the modern, the superior and the avant-garde widely accessible, its decline is the subject of some regrets. I personally adored in-between theater and literature, and consider it one of this society’s greatest contributions to the arts and letters, and believe that its demise represents a real cultural loss.
Admittedly, the culture in between was Eurocentric and insufficiently responsive to issues of race and gender, although the culture of Richard Wright native son was a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940. The Middlebrow culture also contributed to the illusion of a unitary society by mid-century. Yet what has replaced it – a highly fractured and stratified society in which large swathes of the performing arts are at risk, false populism reigns and familiarity with canonical works of literature, art and music is increasingly reserved for the privileged – don’t knock. me as a sign of progress.
It was a seminal essay published in 1915 by critic and literary historian Van wyck Brooks who first painted a portrait of an American culture torn between intellectual ideals and low-intellectual ideals – by Jonathan Edwards and his successors on one side and Benjamin Franklin and his offspring on the other. It was a culture divided between literary English and slang, between the inflexible, abstraction-prone professor and the rude, vulgar, cynical, intellectually contemptuous businessman.
What this society desperately needed was “a middle ground between vaporous idealism and self-interested practicality” that would bridge the gap between top and bottom.
What might such a middle plane look like today if we were to embrace it as a cultural ideal?
joseph Horwitz recent by Dvorak Prophecy: and the thwarted fate of black classical music indicates a response.
Horwitz, a prominent historian of American classical music, begins his book with a statement by the Czech composer in 1893: That “the future music of this country must be founded on” African-American and Native American traditions. “This must be the true foundation of any serious and original school of composition to be developed in the United States.”
Horwitz maintains that from the beginning of the 20e century, a gap opened up between artful art music and artful pop music. The American classical music establishment embraced European modernism, with its rejection of traditional tonality, melodies, forms, and metrical rhythm, and its interest in atonality, polytonality, and wild experimentation.
At the same time, established institutions showed little respect for vernacular, black, ethnic, and folk traditions, and largely refused to play music by black composers or employ black musicians. The results manifest themselves today in the dwindling audience for classical music combined with a kind of creative stagnation that desperately needs an infusion of the dynamism and vitality that characterizes American popular music.
The answer, Horwitz supports, lies in drawing from the full range of American musical traditions: African-American sadness songs, ragtime, blues, gospel, jazz and more contemporary black genres, but also folk songs, band music, hymns and popular songs from Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building and more.
In 1925, Harold Ross, the new yorkerthe founding editor of his magazine, said vision. It would be sophisticated and urban but not highbrow. Unlike a journal, it would be interpretive rather than stenographic. It would provide a guide to theatre, motion pictures, musical events, art and exhibitions worth seeing and pass judgment on new books of importance, and assume a reasonable degree of enlightenment among its readers . Its “general tenor will be gaiety, wit and satire…”.
Ross concluded this statement with a classist and sexist sentence that remains deliberately provocative: “The New Yorker will be the magazine that is not published for the old lady in Dubuque.”
More than three decades ago, cultural historian Lawrence W. Levine described the emergence of a rigid cultural hierarchy in America. He demonstrated that the boundaries between the serious and the popular that this society takes for granted as fixed, immutable, inevitable and enduring are in fact social and cultural constructs “shaped by class prejudice and ethnocentric anxiety”.
His Intellectual/Weak revealed a mid 19e the culture of the century “less hierarchical, less fragmented into relatively rigid groupings of adjectives”, discrete spaces and distinct genres “that their descendants were to experience”. Levine rightly views the development of cultural hierarchy and the sanctification of high culture as a tragedy. As audiences fragmented and segregated, popular and elite audiences lost touch with the very sources of energy and creativity that would surely enrich the expressive culture of the nation.
Colleges and universities, it seems to me, should play a leading role in combating cultural stratification by doing much more to expose students to the richness and range of artistic, musical, lyrical traditions and theater that surround them. In previous articles, I have mentioned Hunter College’s HUM 20010: Exploration in the Arts as an evolving model. This course combines visits to museums and performance halls with signature seminars and opportunities for undergraduates to interact with artists, playwrights, musicians and performers.
I invite you to follow this example. Expose your undergraduate students to the scope of expressive creativity; encourage them to apprehend the arts in their rich diversity and infinite variety. After all, a true college education is not just about cognitive development and professional training. It must also educate the senses and sensitivities.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.