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102

How To Be Cultured (II): Middlebrow

1
terms
4
notes

Christman, P. (2022). How To Be Cultured (II): Middlebrow. In Christman, P. How to Be Normal. Belt Publishing, pp. 102-128

(noun) brotherhood community / (noun) an organized society or fellowship / (noun) a devotional or charitable association of Roman Catholic laity

107

What quarantine culture most intimately shares with middlebrow is a cultivation of the collective. It longs for sodality, a new place for the individual in a revived community.

quoting Stephen Daisley in the Spectator

—p.107 missing author
uncertain
1 year, 3 months ago

What quarantine culture most intimately shares with middlebrow is a cultivation of the collective. It longs for sodality, a new place for the individual in a revived community.

quoting Stephen Daisley in the Spectator

—p.107 missing author
uncertain
1 year, 3 months ago
120

Born in the 1970s, I caught the very end of the culture Teachout mourns. My father spent years paying off a set of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World on the installment plan. He read from it when he could, and eventually so did I. The set left me with the unfortunate impression that Homer wrote prose, that there was a single thing known as “the Western World,” that human thought culminated in Sigmund Freud (volume 54, right at the end), and that all geniuses were male. With effort and luck, I was able to overcome these prejudices. But the presence of these books in my home also gave me an early awareness that the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were things a person might read after coming home from a shift at Walmart. I have since learned that this is a hard thing for many putatively well-educated people to imagine, and so I look back on those volumes with warmth as well as skepticism.

—p.120 by Phil Christman 1 year, 3 months ago

Born in the 1970s, I caught the very end of the culture Teachout mourns. My father spent years paying off a set of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World on the installment plan. He read from it when he could, and eventually so did I. The set left me with the unfortunate impression that Homer wrote prose, that there was a single thing known as “the Western World,” that human thought culminated in Sigmund Freud (volume 54, right at the end), and that all geniuses were male. With effort and luck, I was able to overcome these prejudices. But the presence of these books in my home also gave me an early awareness that the works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were things a person might read after coming home from a shift at Walmart. I have since learned that this is a hard thing for many putatively well-educated people to imagine, and so I look back on those volumes with warmth as well as skepticism.

—p.120 by Phil Christman 1 year, 3 months ago
123

American intellectuals’ persistent attraction to the idea of a synthetic common culture, pulled together from the best bits of everything everywhere, seems to me like a displaced form of artistic ambition. It is Richard Wagner’s dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk that unites every art into an unanswerable, unignorable synthesis, or the modernist dream of an all-powerful new symbolic language formed from the synthesis of new and old, the reblooding of the past. The intellectual wants to compile and curate this language while the artist wants to invent it. Each wishes for something that cannot be. Precisely because we can use them to talk to each other, common languages can leave us feeling more fragmented; they let us state our differences more clearly. Language consolidates and it splits. We live among fragments and see through various glasses darkly.

—p.123 by Phil Christman 1 year, 3 months ago

American intellectuals’ persistent attraction to the idea of a synthetic common culture, pulled together from the best bits of everything everywhere, seems to me like a displaced form of artistic ambition. It is Richard Wagner’s dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk that unites every art into an unanswerable, unignorable synthesis, or the modernist dream of an all-powerful new symbolic language formed from the synthesis of new and old, the reblooding of the past. The intellectual wants to compile and curate this language while the artist wants to invent it. Each wishes for something that cannot be. Precisely because we can use them to talk to each other, common languages can leave us feeling more fragmented; they let us state our differences more clearly. Language consolidates and it splits. We live among fragments and see through various glasses darkly.

—p.123 by Phil Christman 1 year, 3 months ago
126

[...] pop culture teaches best when it isn’t so conscious of its teacherly role, when it doesn’t underline every point five or six times. (It has this in common with, well, any sort of culture.) The low-budget shock filmmaker George Romero taught the audiences of his own period far more powerfully, and with much less fuss, simply by featuring Black characters in heroic roles and by listening when the actress Gaylen Ross said, during the shooting of the 1979 zombie epic, Dawn of the Dead, that she didn’t think her character would scream. We might say that Romero rode his mind at a gallop in pursuit of making a frightening movie, whereas our popular artists live betwixt and between, now trying to emulate the artworks that they love, now trying to impart a Very Important Lesson.

Why have we settled for this strange cultural compromise—lowbrow genres, done with middlebrow earnestness, in pretend revolt against a thoroughly defunded highbrow regime? The answer is simple and depressing. We have accepted the idea of the democratization of culture—we have accepted, rightly, that, say, opera is not inherently worthier than jazz, that superhero comics are not inherently dumb, that ancient epic poetry is not automatically loftier than rap (with which it shares some features), that all of these things can be done well or badly and that they serve different ends—without accomplishing democracy. I mean this in a dully straightforward way. We are not all equally in control of our lives, and we are afraid of what becoming so would entail, of the costs of democracy, of the mess of it. We are divided by class, race, and gender and united only in being the objects of a ceaseless corporate effort to accomplish our commodification. Having lost the economic battle to economic and political elites, we celebrate, again and again, our victory over the mostly imaginary cultural elite that would scorn us for watching 90 Day Fiancé. What you can’t do practically, you do symbolically, until it becomes a neurosis.

damn

—p.126 by Phil Christman 1 year, 3 months ago

[...] pop culture teaches best when it isn’t so conscious of its teacherly role, when it doesn’t underline every point five or six times. (It has this in common with, well, any sort of culture.) The low-budget shock filmmaker George Romero taught the audiences of his own period far more powerfully, and with much less fuss, simply by featuring Black characters in heroic roles and by listening when the actress Gaylen Ross said, during the shooting of the 1979 zombie epic, Dawn of the Dead, that she didn’t think her character would scream. We might say that Romero rode his mind at a gallop in pursuit of making a frightening movie, whereas our popular artists live betwixt and between, now trying to emulate the artworks that they love, now trying to impart a Very Important Lesson.

Why have we settled for this strange cultural compromise—lowbrow genres, done with middlebrow earnestness, in pretend revolt against a thoroughly defunded highbrow regime? The answer is simple and depressing. We have accepted the idea of the democratization of culture—we have accepted, rightly, that, say, opera is not inherently worthier than jazz, that superhero comics are not inherently dumb, that ancient epic poetry is not automatically loftier than rap (with which it shares some features), that all of these things can be done well or badly and that they serve different ends—without accomplishing democracy. I mean this in a dully straightforward way. We are not all equally in control of our lives, and we are afraid of what becoming so would entail, of the costs of democracy, of the mess of it. We are divided by class, race, and gender and united only in being the objects of a ceaseless corporate effort to accomplish our commodification. Having lost the economic battle to economic and political elites, we celebrate, again and again, our victory over the mostly imaginary cultural elite that would scorn us for watching 90 Day Fiancé. What you can’t do practically, you do symbolically, until it becomes a neurosis.

damn

—p.126 by Phil Christman 1 year, 3 months ago
128

The best thing we can do for Homer, for opera, for the French New Wave, for the Four Classical Novels, for Jay-Z and The Simpsons and Star Wars is to take the promises held out to the culture by the older sort of educational middlebrow, look carefully at them, and keep them. We would keep them by guaranteeing every person a decent school, free time, and a good nearby library, one they could walk through without immediately attracting the hostile attentions of staff. We could decide that there are such things as beauty, goodness, excellence, and self-cultivation and that we’re willing to pay for them; we could stop indulging the adolescent boy’s fantasy that the world of culture is a scrim drawn over an unremittingly Darwinian landscape. We could, having done all this, settle down to the task of talking with each other about the art we love in a way that attends to the specificity of that art. We could do that now.

hell yeah

—p.128 by Phil Christman 1 year, 3 months ago

The best thing we can do for Homer, for opera, for the French New Wave, for the Four Classical Novels, for Jay-Z and The Simpsons and Star Wars is to take the promises held out to the culture by the older sort of educational middlebrow, look carefully at them, and keep them. We would keep them by guaranteeing every person a decent school, free time, and a good nearby library, one they could walk through without immediately attracting the hostile attentions of staff. We could decide that there are such things as beauty, goodness, excellence, and self-cultivation and that we’re willing to pay for them; we could stop indulging the adolescent boy’s fantasy that the world of culture is a scrim drawn over an unremittingly Darwinian landscape. We could, having done all this, settle down to the task of talking with each other about the art we love in a way that attends to the specificity of that art. We could do that now.

hell yeah

—p.128 by Phil Christman 1 year, 3 months ago