Highbrow, lowbrow, and points in between

In The New York Times Sunday book review, you can find an collision of sensibilities over the value of artistic hierarchy between highbrow, midbrow, and lowbrow.

Thomas Mallon writes for the pro-brow party:

On the whole, however, the sheer availability of so much art, its ubiquity in the wide, wireless world of the present, assures that more and more blends and mash-ups and integrations are bound to occur. To some extent, people used to settle on a brow for themselves and then pattern their reading and viewing and listening accordingly. Increasingly, art at all levels now comes to us, seizes our attention for a few digital moments before being elbowed aside by something else. More catholic tastes seem bound to result from more catholic exposure, our brows raising and lowering themselves like a spreadable iPhone photo. (Of course, Shakespeare’s audience never had trouble doing that in the course of a single evening, laughing at rustic horseplay and thrilling to lyrical declamations in the same production.) 

Criticism is the realm in which I’d prefer to see hierarchy abide. In the end, we’re all better off with a republic of letters, not a democracy. No amount of mindless “liking” or one-star customer-comment scorn can replace the lengthier, more considered critical judgments we used to have time to write and read. With everyone clamoring for recognition in the same ether — with everyone now, in effect, his own publisher — our judgments are ever less nuanced, ever more nasty or stupidly appreciative. Speed is imperative, and rumination is out. The brow that’s really in danger of disappearing is the furrowed one.

Pankaj Mishra begs to differ:

Such distinctions as lowbrow, highbrow and middlebrow are now mostly useful in identifying their early adopters: a tiny minority of artists and intellectuals who felt a sense of siege as capitalism became global. Political defeat, isolation and irrelevance had devastated their old presuppositions about art and its relation to human beings. Modernism was their last desperate attempt to reimagine modernity, to move beyond bourgeois notions of representation and harmony. But it turned out to be a patchy and mostly elitist phenomenon.

Modernism is not even a memory in large parts of the world where capitalist modernity completes its work of annihilating traditional cultures and imposing the harsh imperatives of economic rationalization. In India, millions of rural migrants move straight from folk enactments of the “Ramayana” to local imitations of Fox News and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Television, now supplemented by social media, may yet diminish the postindustrial West into the listless and sterile China of Herzen’s fearful imagination. But it is a “rising” China that seems to be obliterating individuality much more vigorously with, among other things, clones of “American Idol” and “The Voice.”

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