Highbrow, Lowbrows, Middlebrow, Now

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RUSSELL LYNES , despite being known to his friends as the most amiable of men, is nationally famous as a witty and sometimes acerbic commentator on American society and its manners.

 

RUSSELL LYNES , despite being known to his friends as the most amiable of men, is nationally famous as a witty and sometimes acerbic commentator on American society and its manners. Nothing Lynes ever did on the subject attracted more attention than an article entitled “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow” that appeared in the February 1949 issue of Harper’s (of which Lynes was then managing editor) and a chart on American tastes classified from highbrow to lowbrow that appeared in Life magazine two months later. For a season or so, dividing American objects, pastimes, and people into highbrow, upper or lower middlebrow, and lowbrow was something of a national sport.

Recently, after more than a generation during which Lynes had kept his eyes and ears trained on American social and cultural change, I took occasion to question him about what he believes has happened to our highbrows, middlebrows, and lowbrows since he identified (and perhaps skewered) them in 1949. His point then was that people’s tastes could no longer be explained by their “wealth or education, by breeding or background,” but that a new social stratification was growing, in which “the highbrows are the elite, the middlebrows are the bourgeoisie, and the lowbrows are hoi polloi.”

Our interview took place at the townhouse in New York City that he and his wife, Mildred, a lecturer on art, have shared for the past thirty-eight years. The room where we sat was decorated with works by Ben Shahn, George Grosz, Eugene Berman, Saul Steinberg, and Ralston Crawford. The furniture was comfortable, venerable, well upholstered, and, to me, impossible to classify according to the Lynesian cosmology.

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1910 and graduated from Yale in 1934, Lynes as a young man did a stint as a schoolmaster, serving at the Shipley School for girls in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, as assistant principal from 1937 to 1940 and principal from 1940 to 1944. He joined Harper’s in 1944 and served as its managing editor from 1947 to 1967. Among his books are Snobs (1950), Guests (1951), The Tastemakers (1954), and Good Old Modern (1973). He writes a regular column for Architectural Digest and is at work on a social history of the arts in the United States from the Columbian Exposition of 1893 to the present.

Your article “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow” appeared originally in 1949 and was reprinted virtually unchanged in your book The Tastemakers in 1954. My soundings indicate that a great many people remember reading the article when it first appeared, and even more seem to remember the famous taste chart that you cooked up for Life. What kind of reactions did you get?

When the article appeared I got a call from Life asking if I would come up to their offices and talk to one of the editors, Maitland Edey. After the chart appeared, there was even more reaction. The thing was all over the place suddenly. Somebody wanted to make an ad based on it. People picked it up and made comedy from it. There was even a Broadway show by Walter Kerr and his wife, Jean, more or less based on the idea. The chart made the idea into a sort of national parlor game. There were a lot of—well, not a lot, but certainly some—infuriated highbrows.

Thereby refuting your statement in the article that highbrows like to be called highbrows?

I don’t think they felt they came off very well. It was in the nature of the thing. What pleased me most, I think, was getting a note from W. H. Auden, who got the joke and went along with it. The sociologist David Reisman wrote too. The whole thing was fun in that way. Eventually college magazines were making their own charts based on mine.

There probably came a time when you wished you’d heard the last of highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow.

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?

I don’t know. I don’t read highbrow magazines as much now as I did, but I do think that The New York Review of Books has replaced Partisan Review as the highbrow’s literary magazine. And on the evidence of The New York Review , I’d say the highbrow is still pretty down on the middlebrow. On the other hand, The New York Review needs the middlebrow—that’s where the money is coming from.

It’s important in that context to realize how much confidence Americans have gained in our own artistic products over the past generation. Do you remember the special issue of Cyril Connolly’s British magazine—the issue devoted to America, published in England back in the late forties? The whole point was America’s lack of self-confidence. But American painting in the forties and fifties—particularly the abstract expressionist movement—showed the whole world that America had become the place where the action was. After that, we didn’t have to worry so much about whether what we produced was serious or not.

 

In 1949 you described a natural alliance, or at least affinity, between the highbrow and the lowbrow. How has that alliance been doing since then?

I think it survives. You see, the lowbrow is childlike in a way. This is a guy who doesn’t care about what you think of his taste; he just likes something, and says so. The highbrow point of view is that this is a real, honest reaction that comes from inside and is not a made-up reaction to impress somebody else. Therefore the highbrow thinks it is useful. The highbrow liked jazz for the same reason, and he still does. I don’t know what he thinks of rock, but I suspect he doesn’t like it.

Do you think that the middlebrow still tends to look up to the highbrow as a source of taste and guidance, as you implied he did in 1949?

No, I think the lower middlebrow, at least, now tends to look upon the highbrow as an intellectual fraud.

You associated academics closely with highbrows in 1949. Still true?

There’s an important point to be made here: the taste business is a consumer business, not a business of making something. Highbrow art is not necessarily made by highbrows; a highbrow artist in his life may be a straight middlebrow. The academic community’s job is interpretation of the arts, and that is a highbrow consumer activity.

But hasn’t the characteristic academic changed from then to now—a vast increase in his sheer numbers, for one thing?

The percentage of people who are highbrows, in or out of the academy, is probably a constant percentage. You have more academics now, and therefore more highbrow academics. But I don’t think the percentage changes.

You spoke of the book publisher as a sort of would-be highbrow. You wrote: “The conscientious publisher … spends a large part of his time on books that will not yield him a decent return on his investment. He searches out writers of promise; he pores over the ‘little magazines’ (or pays other people to); he leafs through hundreds and hundreds of pages of manuscript. He advises writers, encourages them, coaxes them to do their best work; he even advances them money.… Zn order to publish slender volumes of poetry he must also publish fat volumes of historical romance.…” Do you feel, considering the state of book publishing in the 1980s, that your 1949 view of the publisher has a somewhat nostalgic ring?

I’m afraid it does. I can vouch for the truth of that paragraph as of the time it was written, because I saw those things going on around me all the time. Now I have the feeling that there is an awful lot more pressure in publishing houses to publish anything that is going to make money and to neglect the other values—to not bother with the trade-off that I described. The little books, first novels, that are commercially risky are probably given less time and money than they were.

Do you think that an editor in a publishing house still wants to do the kind of thing you described, but that perhaps now his boss won’t be so ready to let him?

I can’t believe that any editor doesn’t want to do that kind of thing, because finding new talent and working with it is by all odds the most exciting part of publishing. I don’t know what goes on upstairs though.

In recent years many people have noted the relative disappearance in the arts of what was called the avant-garde. But the avant-garde is the fox that the highbrow is chasing, isn’t it? And if it’s gone, what does that do to the highbrow?

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.

Ugh.

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.

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.

Records?

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.”

Games?

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.

Causes?

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.

And besides, it’s sociology. Don’t forget that. It seems to me that what we come down to is that although technology and broad social structure may change drastically, and so may specific tastes as to ideas and objects, the highbrow-lowbrow-middlebrow taste structure remains stubbornly the same. For example, a considerably higher percentage of our national population is college educated now than in 1949, and yet, you say, the national percentage of highbrows remains constant. At the other pole, you remarked in 1949 that lowbrows were to be found in approximately equal numbers in all income groups. May I assume that is still true?

Yes, I think so. I think there are still an awful lot of rich lowbrows.

You still haven’t announced your own class allegiance.

Are you asking me to declare myself?

Yes.

Certainly not.