Thursday, July 22, 2010

Farting in Church: Charting the Middlebrow

Dante Alighieri, Robert Morris, Venti III (1983)

Anyone who has ever attempted to read Dante's Divine Comedy knows all the fun stuff is in the first book - The Inferno. Hell as turns is hilarious, full of sex, lies, farting and the most cruelly scatological punishments imaginable (as I remember there was a lot more bathroom humor than blood spatter) I battered my way through the holier-than-thou geographies of Purgatory, but was stopped cold by the the totally ponderous descriptions of Paradise. 

If the Modernist had designed the universe (that finally was their goal), Paradise would be just as ponderous, but the ranks of singing angels (or whatever, I really didn't read much of that book at all) would be replaced by the clean utilitarian lines that Mies van der Rohe championed as less is more and Robert Venturi mocked as 'less is a bore.'
Don't get me wrong, I love the clean lines of high modernist design, but I can do without the high-minded attitudes that accompanied it's formation. The big difference between Dante's cosmology and the Modernist's that the penitent drudges would be at the low end and the farting demons would be in the middle. Robert Morris nailed the solemnity of the high and the sin of the middle in his essay Size Matters when he wrote:
Minimal art was only trying to answer Pollock’s challenge and to capitalize on what lay latent and undeveloped in his work - that is, to expand the holism and purity into a communal practice. If Pollock had been the prophet, minimalism was the church... The high formalism of the abstract art enterprise always had a churchlike atmosphere – the solemnity of the making, the necessity for an interceding priest-critic to explicate and give blessing, the sanctity of the museum as site of worship. The raucousness of early pop art contemporary with the minimal irritated. The practitioners of pop art were farting in church.
Phrenology Box, Robert Morris, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961)

In his critique/revision of my Star Wars Klein Group Joshua Glenn framed a great portion of his discussion as highbrow/middlebrow/lowbrow, the key division for Glenn (as best I could follow) seems to be cleaving (which is to say making and unmaking) the highbrow lowbrow split - with special disdain reserved for the middlebrow. This isn't too surprising given that Glenn's post was published on a website called with the motto: "Middlebrow is not the answer." 

It got me wondering exactly what it is they mean by lowbrow and highbrow. The term middlebrow was first used to describe (with disdain) the BBC and Penguin Classics. Virginia Woolf is probably our most authoritative British source on the subject (this weeks Village Voice called her a "titian of Modernism" - that's good enough for me). In an mostly good natured, if barbed letter the the editor she wrote (but did not send) that the highbrow "is the man or woman of thoroughbred intelligence who rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea." Phrenology already stinks of eugenics, but gushing for thoroughbreds in the 1932 is pretty creepy stuff, but no matter, lets go on: 
By a lowbrow is meant of course a man or a woman of thoroughbred vitality who rides his body in pursuit of a living at a gallop across life. That is why I honour and respect lowbrows—and I have never known a highbrow who did not." 
Again with the thoroughbred; but whatever. What is important is that she admires the lowbrow, saw no threat in lives of prostitutes and streetcar conductors. Lets move on:
The middlebrow is the man, or woman, of middlebred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that, in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.
So much for hybrid vigor. "They are the people, I confess, that I seldom regard with entire cordiality." Wolf confessed, concluding: "If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half–crushed worm dares call me 'middlebrow' I will take my pen and stab him, dead." The British debate devolved into thin slicing the Middle into upper-middlebrow and lower-middlebrow. 
Kota Ezawa, Who's Afraid of Black, White and Gray (2003)

But that is the Brits, Joshua Glenn is from Boston. I imagine Beantown would occupy a position solidly Yankee and in total opposition to all things British on a Semiotic Square (shamefully New York was a Royalist hotbed during the revolution). Middlebrow is somewhat different ballgame on this side of the pond. Middlebrow was adopted by Americans (also as a term of disdain) and applied to the New Yorker and Readers Digest. The great American authority on the highbrow/lowbrow schism recast the debate in far less eugenic terms. The young Clement Greenberg in his essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch. turned middle brow into a question of propaganda, his anxiety wasn't class or breeding, it was fascism:
The peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city's traditional culture. Losing, nevertheless, their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.     
With Greenberg British question of class and breeding becomes the looming threat of displaced masses flooding European and American cities: 
There has always been on one side the minority of the powerful -- and therefore the cultivated -- and on the other the great mass of the exploited and poor -- and therefore the ignorant. Formal culture has always belonged to the first, while the last have had to content themselves with folk or rudimentary culture, or kitsch.
Clem also thin slices the middle brow (the New Yorker is "high-class kitsch" My favorite part is when he renames the middle brow and lists its sins:
Where there is an avant-garde, generally we also find a rear-guard. True enough -- simultaneously with the entrance of the avant-garde, a second new cultural phenomenon appeared in the industrial West: that thing to which the Germans give the wonderful name of Kitsch: popular, commercial art and literature with their chromeotypes, magazine covers, illustrations, ads, slick and pulp fiction, comics, Tin Pan Alley music, tap dancing, Hollywood movies, etc., etc.
Unlikely bedfellows

It would be easy to reproach Greenberg as an unreconstructed elitist (that's a mouthful), but I've done that elsewhere (and it was easy), instead I am going to take his side and appeal to a thinker with unimpeachable man-of-the people credentials (again with the mouthful), Edward Said: 
If it is embarrassing for us to remark that those elements of society we have long considered progressive were, so far as empire is concerned, uniformly retrograde, we still mustn't be afraid to say it. When I say "retrograde" I speak here of advanced writers and artists, of the working class, and of women, groups whose imperialist fervor increased in intensity and perfervid enthusiasm for the acquisition of and sheer bloodthirsty dominance over innumerable niggers, bog-dwellers, babus, and wogs as the competition between various European and American powers also increased in brutality and senseless, even profitless, control. 
Said is describing the imperialism that started in the nineteenth century and peaked with WWI, but that is tangled up in the fascist and totalitarian nationalism of the 1930s. It is a cruel passage, but I think it helps us to understand Greenberg's anxiety. People were going nuts with hate. In Greenberg' schema, the high-ground of self-reflexive intellectuals is the formalist avant-garde - which he calls "a superior consciousness of history." Clem is pro. Occupying the low-ground is folk culture, which Clem calls "genuine" so it is safe to say he is also pro. But, exactly like Woolf, special disdain is reserved for the middle-ground of "ersatz culture." Years later (post-Star Wars & Frampton Comes Alive*)  Greenberg would admit that pop culture had gotten a lot better:
“Today I am not bothered by kitsch as I used to be, I was bothered by it when I was growing up. I remember a record player at college that went on forever. It was the repetition that bothered me. Today I think kitsch is better then it used to be. Movies have become much, much better over the last thirty years. I think if I had grown up in the 60s I woulden’t have felt so assaulted or assailed by kitsch.” 
Lucas and Frampton are Dave Hickey's horsemen of the apocalypse.

Just thought it would be fun to list the various things Clement Greenberg name checks as Avant-Garde or as Kitsch. I love that tap dancing and comics make the naughty list. If Greenberg had been grown up in the 1960s he would have hated Hula Hoops.

On the Side Of Angels:

paintings by Braque
poems by T. S. Eliot
poems by Rimbaud
Hart Crane
André Gide's The Counterfeiters
James Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake

Farting in the Church:

Tin Pan Alley music
Saturday Evening Post
poems by Eddie Guest
the Indian Love Lyrics
popular art
commercial art
popular literature
magazine covers
slick fiction
pulp fiction
tap dancing
Hollywood movies
the New Yorker
the popular French novelist Simenon
the popular American novelist Steinbeck
rotogravure sections
calendar girls
Maxfield Parrish
Norman Rockwell
philistinism of Hitler
philistinism of Stalin
Mussolini’s "new Imperial style"
The poles of Clement Greenberg's high-class and low-class Kitsch

* "The massive consequences of Frampton Comes Alive in the record industry and Star Wars in the movie industry have instituted a reign of consensus in the world of commercial entertainment, as well—a quest for a consensus of desire, dedicated to producing “blockbusters” that please everyone, every time." Dave Hickey, Romancing the Looky-Loos 

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