Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hierarchy of the brows

Following up on an exchange with Marc in comments to the Hard Day's Night post, here's a bit of context. This is from a 1949 Life magazine article, posted by Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber.

Although the above chart is (I think) a bit tongue-in-cheek, it does show that prior to the pop culture explosion of the 50's and 60's, this stuff was taken pretty seriously, especially by stuffy critics of the sort that wrote for Life and major newspapers such as the New York Times. One effect of the post-World War II rise in living standards was a democratization of culture. The vulgar unwashed masses were starting to have an economic impact on American culture, and judging from the Life article, at least one highbrow didn't like it:

The thing that burns up high-brows like me is that the dominant feature of our mental and spiritual life is the overwhelming flood of cultural sewage that is manufactured especially for the tastes of the low-brow and lower middle-brow. It is difficult even for a high-brow to escape its influence. Only eternal vigilance keeps it from converting us into 100% low-brow people. This flood exists for only one reason. The oafish classes, being overwhelmingly numerous, are the biggest consumers of everything from salad to music, and an investment in their tastes is correspondingly profitable. They therefore dominate taste in nearly all our big industries where taste is factor, the most horrible examples in point being the radio and Hollywood movies.

Then a real tragic thing happened; the highbrows began to like "cultural sewage" as well. As a Crooked Timber commenter put it, lowbrow has worn quite well over the years.