Highbrow Cultural Activity Essay

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Despite Macdonald’s worries about an artistic version of Gresham’s law, in a healthy cultural ecosystem the popular arts of the lower brow will hoist and fund the higher ones, the way a sound publisher’s catalog will have a Wall Street thriller subsidizing the translation of three Eastern European poets. In past decades the fashion pages and automotive ads of glossy magazines like those edited by Mrs. Vreeland allowed writers of serious short fiction to support themselves with fat fees paid for their work by the same publication. Fiction has by now been mostly segregated from everything else, and does anyone believe that the American short story has improved by making its initial appearance in literary quarterlies never seen by any brows but the highest?

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.

Thomas Mallon’s eight novels include “Henry and Clara,” “Bandbox,” “Fellow Travelers” and “Watergate,” a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He has also published nonfiction about plagiarism (“Stolen Words”), diaries (“A Book of One’s Own”), letters (“Yours Ever”) and the Kennedy assassination (“Mrs. Paine’s Garage”), as well as two books of essays (“Rockets and Rodeos” and “In Fact”). His work appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and other publications. He received his Ph.D. in English and American Literature from Harvard University and taught for a number of years at Vassar College. His honors include Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships, the National Book Critics Circle citation for reviewing, and the Vursell prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, for distinguished prose style. He has been literary editor of Gentlemen’s Quarterly and deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and in 2012 was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is currently professor of English at George Washington University.

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By Pankaj Mishra

Hatred of popular culture was to define a generation of American intellectuals and their claim to a superior sensibility.

“Art,” the Russian writer Alexander Herzen wrote in 1862, “is not at ease in the stiff, over-neat, thrifty house of the petit bourgeois.” In exile in London from the czarist autocracy, Herzen had come to despise the commercial society brought forth by industrial capitalism in Western Europe. The “interests of the countinghouse and bourgeois prosperity” in his view made for an “increasing superficiality of life.” Herzen feared that in its “obliteration of individuality,” Europe risked becoming a “second China.”

As for the New World, it was an extreme case of leveling by the profit motive, or what John Stuart Mill called “collective mediocrity.” “The American states,” Herzen wrote, “present the spectacle of one class — the middle class — with nothing below it and nothing above it.” Artists and intellectuals fleeing Europe for America in the 1920s and ‘30s found this painfully confirmed. Eminent filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and Max Ophüls, demoted to serfdom in Hollywood studios, found themselves pleasing a homogeneous “crowd” — for which lowly purpose, Herzen had warned, “art shouts, gesticulates, lies and exaggerates.”

Exposed in Germany to devastatingly effective right-wing propaganda, Jewish émigrés like Theodor Adorno were naturally hostile to mass-produced culture, denouncing television for promoting the “very smugness, intellectual passivity, and gullibility that seem to fit in with totalitarian creeds.” Hatred of popular culture was also to define a generation of American intellectuals, and their claim to a superior sensibility. In the 1930s, Clement Greenberg famously prescribed modernism as the antidote to the inferior cravings of mass man, sneering at The New Yorker for repackaging kitsch to socially ambitious Americans. Dwight Macdonald went on to excoriate the middlebrow, or what he called “Midcult,” made for folks who wish to accumulate cultural capital without having to work too hard.

Edmund Wilson assailing the cult of Agatha Christie, Gore Vidal mocking Cahiers du Cinéma for elevating hired hands such as Howard Hawks into auteurs, Lionel Trilling with his aversion to the movies — all lamented, in different ways, the destruction of an arduous ideal of self-cultivation by the philistines of the modern world.

That process seems unstoppable in an age that is culturally, if not economically, more egalitarian. Adorno would have been distressed to see “Mad Men,” a shrine to what Marxists used to call “commodity fetishism,” revered by a bourgeois elite that ought to have subsidized atonal music (though he might have found his saturnine outlook pleasurably validated by “Breaking Bad” and “True Detective”).

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.”

Pankaj Mishra is the author of several books, including “The Romantics: A Novel,” which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and “From the Ruins of Empire,” a finalist for the Orwell and Lionel Gelber Prizes in 2013. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and contributes essays on politics and literature to The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Guardian of London and The London Review of Books.

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For other uses of "Highbrow", see Highbrow (disambiguation).

Used colloquially as a noun or adjective, "highbrow" is synonymous with intellectual; as an adjective, it also means elite, and generally carries a connotation of high culture. The word draws its metonymy from the pseudoscience of phrenology, and was originally simply a physical descriptor.[1]


"Highbrow" can be applied to music, implying most of the classical music tradition; to literature—i.e., literary fiction and poetry; to films in the arthouse line; and to comedy that requires significant understanding of analogies or references to appreciate. The term highbrow is considered by some (with corresponding labels as 'middlebrow' 'lowbrow') as discriminatory or overly selective;[2] and highbrow is currently distanced from the writer by quotation marks: "We thus focus on the consumption of two generally recognised 'highbrow' genres—opera and classical".[3] The first usage in print of highbrow was recorded in 1884.[4] The term was popularized in 1902 by Will Irvin, a reporter for The Sun who adhered to the phrenological notion of more intelligent people having high foreheads.[5]


The opposite of highbrow is lowbrow, and between them is middlebrow, describing culture that is neither high nor low; as a usage, middlebrow is derogatory, as in Virginia Woolf's unsent letter to the New Statesman, written in the 1930s and published in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word middlebrow first appeared in print in 1925, in Punch: "The BBC claims to have discovered a new type—'the middlebrow'. It consists of people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff that they ought to like".[6] The term had previously appeared in hyphenated form in 1912:

The Nation, 25th of January, 1912:

[T]here is an alarmingly wide chasm, I might almost say a vacuum, between the high-brow, who considers reading either as a trade or as a form of intellectual wrestling, and the low-brow, who is merely seeking for gross thrills. It is to be hoped that culture will soon be democratized through some less conventional system of education, giving rise to a new type that might be called the middle-brow, who will consider books as a source of intellectual enjoyment.

It was popularized by the American writer and poet Margaret Widdemer, whose essay "Message and Middlebrow" appeared in the Review of Literature in 1933. The three genres of fiction, as American readers approached them in the 1950s and as obscenity law differentially judged them, are the subject of Ruth Pirsig Wood, Lolita in Peyton Place: Highbrow, Middlebrow, and Lowbrow Novels, 1995.

Cultural examples[edit]

Prince Hamlet was considered by Virginia Woolf as a highbrow lacking orientation in the world once he had lost the lowbrow Ophelia with her grip on earthly realities: this, she thought, explained why in general highbrows "honour so wholeheartedly and depend so completely upon those who are called lowbrows".[7]

See also[edit]



  • Richard A. Peterson and Roger M. Kern, "Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore" American Sociological Review61.5 (October 1996), pp. 900–907. Extensive bibliography.

Further reading[edit]

  • Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy.
  • Eliot, T.S.. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (New York: Harcourt Brace) 1949.
  • Lamont, Michèle and Marcel Fournier, editors. Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1992. Includes Peter A. Richardson and Allen Simkus, "How musical taste groups mark occupational status groups" pp 152–68.
  • Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press) 1988.
  • Lynes, Russell. The Tastemakers (New York: Harper and Row) 1954.
  • Radway, Janice A. Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire.
  • Rubin, Joan Shelley. The Making of Middle-Brow Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press) 1992.
  • Swirski, Peter. From Lowbrow to Nobrow. Montreal, London: McGill-Queen's University Press 2005
  • Woolf, Virginia. Middlebrow, in The Death of the Moth and other essays.
  1. ^Hendrickson, Robert (1997). Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. New York: Facts on File.  
  2. ^Lawrence W. Levine, "Prologue", Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, 1990: 3
  3. ^Tak Wing Chan, Social Status and Cultural Consumption 2010: 60
  4. ^"Highbrow". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. ^Hendrickson, Robert (1997). Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. New York: Facts on File.  
  6. ^Quoted in Micki McGee, Yaddo: Making American Culture, 106: McGee outlines the history of the highbrow/lowbrow debate.
  7. ^A. Fox, Virginia Woolf and the Literature of the English Renaissnce (1990) p. 107


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