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
A nice question. In 1949 there was indeed a group of avant-garde figures that you could readily identify. I think now that they’ve been split apart pretty widely, to the point where it’s hard to spot them. One of the things that has happened since 1949 is that, instead of having in New York a dozen or fifteen dealers in what you’d call modern painting, you now have six hundred. You have the feeling that modern art is struggling to figure out what the avantgarde is. The New York school, the abstract expressionists, was the avantgarde of 1949, and what has it done? Produced a lot of millionaires among the early customers. Now I’d still call Bob Motherwell an avant-garde artist, but he isn’t that to someone who buys a Motherwell in hopes of selling it at a profit.
So does the highbrow have a problem?
It depends on whether he is trying to sell something.
Is the lowbrow the great survivor?
He’s certainly doing fine. He has football. He has Archie Bunker. There is a constant effort to make him into a middlebrow, but it doesn’t work very well. I don’t see him looking at “Masterpiece Theatre.” I think that as a nation we are proud of our lowbrows because of their lack of pretension. They are not pretending to be somebody else, as middlebrows are. As I said, they’re like children—they know what they like and they don’t worry about it. That doesn’t mean that they may not be bright as hell. Children are bright as hell too. They do their own thing in their own way.
Let’s talk about your 1949 chart and then have a try at bringing it up to date.
Well, as I said, the chart, more than the article, is a tease. We did it for fun. I sat up all night with a Life researcher to work it out. We had a great many cups of coffee and a lot of laughter. It’s particularly a tease in that I carefully don’t identify where I stand or indicate what my own taste classification is.
As to bringing the chart up to date, my wife, Mildred, and I played the game in the car yesterday, driving down from the country. So I’m ready with some answers. I’ll need my pipe for this.
O.K., let’s go down the category columns one by one, substituting updated entries for the old ones. First, clothes. For highbrow clothes, you had fuzzy tweeds and no hat. What now?
The tweed thing I will change. Turtlenecks and jeans now; jeans, or Levi’s corduroys, like the ones I have on this moment. Terribly comfortable, and they last forever.
Apparently exposing you as a highbrow in the matter of pants. Now, what about clothing for the upper middlebrow?
I think blazer and gray flannels. Or plain jacket and loud pants.
Tut, tut, now. It’s against the rules of the game to let your own taste show.
Sorry. Lower-middlebrow clothes?
What would you say to a Madras jacket?
Fine. Now, lowbrow clothes.
Down at the bottom there, let’s put a printed T-shirt.
What if it has a highbrow message, like, say, “Marcel Duchamp”?
I guess the T-shirt has to go at both the top and the bottom.
Aren’t blue jeans lowbrow as well as highbrow?
Oh, yes, I think they are. They’re an interesting phenomenon in that they seem to cut right across the whole spectrum. I wonder if the phenomenon has anything to do with inflation—that jeans are relatively cheap, and they last.
On to furniture.
Referring to the old chart, I don’t think the Eames chair and Kurt Versen lamp are highbrow any more. That kind of thing is too common now. It has become middlebrow. I think highbrow furniture now is 1930s in nature—old Aalto chairs, or Danish. For upper middlebrow, let’s put Victorian—good Victorian—and modern Chinese furniture, bright and cheap.
Lower middlebrow: I put down French Provincial. And I was also thinking of those sofas that come apart into beds—Castro Convertible, is it?— and the kind of thing that changes from a chair into a lounge.
On current lowbrow furniture, I draw a blank.
Our next category is useful objects.
For a new highbrow useful object, Mildred said, “What about the Oxford English Dictionary in tiny type, equipped with a magnifying glass for reading it?” I said, “Why not just the full-size O.E.D. itself?”
It’s interesting that your original highbrow useful object—the decanter and ashtray from a chemical supply company—seems to prefigure the recent high-tech style of home decoration, in which industrial objects are put to domestic use.
Well, the decanter and ashtray were straight out of a Museum of Modern Art catalog, of 1936 I think it was. More power to MOMA for its prescience.
As to upper-middlebrow useful objects, I think the wedding-present silver cigarette box is gone. I don’t know where, but it’s gone. What shall we substitute? A Cuisinart? Souvenir ashtrays from European restaurants? I think so.