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Highbrow, Lowbrows, Middlebrow, Now
Our fascination with categorizing ourselves was fed in 1949 by a famous essay and chart that divided us by taste into different strata of culture. Now the man who invented these classifications brings us up to date.
June/july 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 4
Yes, it was all rather overwhelming. The reaction was a nice demonstration of how self-conscious people are about their taste. A friend who ran a local newspaper-and-candy store said, “Gee, I hate to be at the bottom of your chart. ” It appeared to me then that there was no reason why the lowbrows should be at the bottom of the chart and the highbrows at the top; it would have worked just as well the other way around. And there were people who said, “I seem to be a taste yo-yo, I am at one level in one place and another level at another place. ” Well, that was fine with me. The chart was made for fun, while the piece was written for a serious purpose. I had been working on the idea of doing a book about tastemakers for several years, and I thought that if I was going to do this, I ought to find out about the consumer’s taste, as opposed to the tastemaker’s. So I’d written two or three pages on that subject, perhaps in 1947 or 1948, and I showed them to Kay Gauss Jackson, my fellow editor at Harper’s . She said, “I think you’ve got an interesting piece here—why don’t you do it for the magazine?” And so I did.
As I read it, the main point of your article was that, by 1949, social change in America had evolved to the point where, at least in big cities, prestige had finally come to be based more on taste than on wealth or breeding. And that this new social order consisted of highbrows, lowbrows, and middlebrows, with the middlebrow class subdivided into upper and lower. What general further evolution do you think there has been since then, to alter the scheme you set forth?
A number of things have clearly changed. Television was not a factor of great consequence then. There was a little bit of experimental television going on—the kind of thing that culminated in the show “Omnibus”—but television was very new. It hadn’t settled into its rut, nor did it have a huge audience. Television screens themselves were considered big if they were eight or ten inches across. But there are other things that have changed. Consider traveling: there were no jets then. I remember going to Europe in the 1940s, and it took something like twenty-two hours to get there by way of Newfound-land, Ireland, England. But the idea that you can go to Europe in five or six hours or to the Orient in not much more tends to speed up the rate of social change. At a recent meeting of art historians, I said to a women, “I hear you are going to Outer Mongolia.” You wouldn’t have said that so casually in 1949.
The spread of paperback books has occurred since then too. In those days you didn’t find good paperback books in the supermarkets as you sometimes do now. Nor were you so apt to find a good bookstore in a shopping area. Again, large-scale government support of the arts is new, and so is large-scale support of the arts by private foundations.
These changes—television, paperback books, government and foundation support of the arts, and so on—what they all seem to me to have in common is that they are part of a “massification” of society, if you like. Perhaps you don’t agree. Anyhow, can you pin down the effect that these changes have had on the structure you described—highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow?
Public broadcasting of classical music, dance, and so on has provided an opportunity for a whole lot of people to hear and see it constantly—perhaps too constantly.
Has it moved lowbrows up to lowermiddlebrow status?
Perhaps. I don’t think the real highbrows have been terribly affected. In fact, the highbrow may still not have a television set.
Needless to say, he doesn’t have a color set.
Oh, he probably will, if he gets one at all. To continue, corporate support of art exhibitions makes possible these blockbuster museum shows to which hundreds of thousands of people go and stand in line for hours to see King Tut’s mask or whatever. This moves a whole lot of people into museums, for better or worse. Partly it’s a matter of corporate or government support, and also there’s been an enormous increase in the amount of leisure people have. Work hours are shorter, leaving more time for people to do things they want to or think they want to.
Having stood in line at the museum, do they go home to their old taste classifications, or do they change?
Their level of taste may change, through imitation. But the fact remains that the number of people who are honestly concerned with the arts, in one way or another, remains very small. These are the people who are prepared to go out of their way to find out what is new and interesting in, say, musical composition. They are the people who go to museums or concerts out of love rather than out of imitation. But there aren’t many of them.
In the original article you made much of a natural antipathy, previously noticed by Virginia Woolf, between the highbrow and the middlebrow—particularly the upper middlebrow. Do you think the highbrow’s hostility toward the upper middlebrow is as strong now?