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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
Now, for lower-middle useful objects, we didn’t quite know what to substitute for the His and Hers towels, so let’s leave them. Lowbrow is easy: C.B. car radios.
Our next category is entertainment.
Ballet, the old highbrow entry, will no longer do. Ballet has been so much disseminated by television that it is no longer strictly highbrow. I’d put in foreign films from India and Japan. Upper middlebrow: “Live from Lincoln Center. ” Lower middlebrow: Johnny Carson. What do you think of that?
It suits me, but some people would insist Carson doesn’t belong that low. For example, the card-carrying highbrow Kenneth Tynan loved him.
That’s the fun of it. When this chart first came out, people would say to me, “Oh, you got that wrong.” And I’d say, “How can I have got it wrong? I made it up. It’s my chart.” Lowbrow entertainment, instead of Western movies, is now game shows on TV.
Now we come to salads.
I don’t think salads are it now. Let’s make that category just foods. You might think of “gourmet cooking” for the highbrow slot, but I don’t think that’s right; everybody is a gourmet cook these days. Highbrow food is linguine with pesto; it would be suitable provided you raise your own basil. Upper-middlebrow food is quiche, and lower middlebrow is falafel. Lowbrow food is, of course, fast food.
Now, as to drinks: in going over the Harper’s piece, I noticed that it was not important to buy expensive wine, because anyone could do that. I had an “adequate little red wine” as the highbrow drink. Now I would change it to a good jug wine. Currently there’s a great deal of competition among people who wouldn’t be caught dead spending too much on wine but also wouldn’t be caught dead not knowing what’s a good buy for the money. As for the uppermiddlebrow drink, the Martini has been replaced by chilled white wine. The lower-middlebrow drink is red wine on ice. Very good, they say. Now, as for lowbrow …
Are you going to tell me that beer hasbeen replaced as the lowbrow drink?
Well, sort of. It’s Lite beer now.
What about reading?
Highbrow now is surely The New “York Review of Books . Upper middlebrow is novels like The World According to Garp . Lower middlebrow is all those how-to books on sex, cats, and so on. Also, I would put Gothics there. And lowbrow is The Enquirer .
The next category is sculpture.
Highbrow is Christo, who wraps buildings and curtains valleys and so on. Calder, formerly highbrow, has slipped to upper middlebrow. Lower middlebrow is those porcelain shepherdesses and things that you see advertised all over. At the bottom, it’s still parlor sculpture, or rather, parlor and lawn sculpture.
Let’s change that category to just music. For highbrow music we have several suggestions. Renaissance music groups. Elliott Carter, the highbrow’s highbrow; he’s very highly thought of. And Aaron Copland, who still retains his highbrow status. For upper middlebrow, Charles Ives, whom hardly anyone had heard of at the time of the original chart, even though he did his composing early in the century. Lower middlebrow: the big bands and Country Western. Lowbrow: rock.
When this chart first came out, people said to me, “Oh, you got that wrong.” And I’d say, How can I get it wrong? I made it up. It’s my chart.”
On the old chart it was Go. Apparently there is still a Go championship, but I think that chess has taken over as the highbrow game. Bridge is the uppermiddlebrow game now, up from lower middlebrow. Canasta and mah-jongg are the lower-middlebrow games, while video games are the lowbrow entry.
Then you have to think about jogging—a new sport that goes right up and down the scale.
The highbrow cause is still art. The upper-middlebrow one is Save the Whales, also perhaps health foods. We haven’t got a new lower-middlebrow cause; for lowbrows, I would think we’d better leave the Lodge where it is.
Now, what about adding one new category? How about architecture? That’s a specialty of yours.
Highbrow architecture is now postmodern. Upper middlebrow is conservation and restoration, mostly Victorian. I think lower middlebrow would still be the ranch house, in a curious way; when people want to build a house, they want a house one story high with a peaked roof. As for lowbrow architecture, the obvious choice is trailers.
That completes the new chart. The problem with all this is that if you got any five people together and sat down to redo the chart, you’d probably come out with five different answers in every case. And that is the fun of the thing. It’s a game.