This is election season – don’t forget to vote! – there seems to be a lot of talk about the middle class. The middle class is getting crushed.
Made me think a bit about the middle class. I started talking with the internet about it, and up pops this term:
Since I am an aspiring artist, this is my area. Middlebrow is a sometimes derogatory term for culture. It lives somewhere between lowbrow and highbrow. It’s very middleclass. Which might be a way of further defining this interesting term.
Middlebrow culture would be restaurants with waitstaff–known as a sit-down restaurant. And certain TV shows. NPR would be middlebrow.
Perhaps NPR would be upper-middlebrow. Enjoyed by the middlebrow middleclass who might be wanting to better themselves.
Wanting to better oneself is the upward mobility of the brow. There has been a lot of interest in the Book of the Month club that was started in 1926, to feed this culturally aspiring need. People wanted to read a good book, one that made them a little smarter and a little better. And they wanted it to be good, so they went to a trusted source.
There are cultural events that gain this status: Movies, music, books and even live theater. Awards are part of this, the grammies and the nobel prize spotlight certain things of interest. We want the good stuff, and we want to be sure. Certain categories are intrisically higher brow than others: live theater trumps movies and the symphony is better than a CD.
I myself am engaging in a highly middlebrow endeavor right now. I am trying to finish James Joyce’s Ulysses, a darling of the literary laurel-givers for almost a hundred years. It’s a beast of a book. I’ve been wanting to read it for forever, and I cant exactly say I am enjoying it. But I will be better, somehow, for doing it.
I have help. I have a recorded lecture from the teaching company which is a fascinating professor explaining all the delights I have just read and am about to read. I love his voice, and his excitement. He is so sure of what he says; he is the expert. But I want to hear it!
It is as if he is saying, “Come! Join me at the table in this delicious and satisfying feast of knowledge.”
And with that thought freshly formulated, there was a click. Now I understand what has been bothering me about the middlebrow. Let me tell you a story to explain what I mean.
Smack in the middle of middle is this relatively recent establishment known as Starbucks. There are not too many americans who have not frequented a starbucks. And it’s not for their great value prices. It has comfortable chairs and cool hip music. Intesting art is on the walls. It invites conversation, contemplation and study.Starbucks is a coffee shop, and it presents itself as part of the great coffeeshop diaspora.
And many people wear that ambiance like a fuzzy blanket. I also know people who understand the mystique of the coffee shop, with a memory of artists and bohemians who would partake in nights of small dense cups of coffee and think revolutionary thoughts in conversation.
Here is the thing: Starbucks in not that kind of coffeeshop. It may be comfortable, but it is not revolutionary. You may find dense cups of coffee (how often does a true cup of black espresso get ordered, though?) but you will not find revolutionary thoughts. You will not find a painting by an unknown artist on the wall, and you will not find an open mike night at a starbucks.
And this is the essence of Starbucks middlebrow success. It is filtered.
My Ulysses professor invites me to enjoy this delicious book. He gives me a place at the table.
But he does not invite me to cook. He is not in the slightest interested in my concoction.
And that is the definition of the middlebrow. It is curated. And that is the problem.
Starbucks is fine for what it is. But it is not such a feat to please someone with a hazelnut latte. And it should not surprise anyone to hear that I am beginning to enjoy Joyce’s Ulyesses.
But where is the wellspring of the new? The distinctive, challenging and revolutionary?
If I am going to get an epiphany I am going to have to look further than the span of my brow.