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Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Mourning the Middlebrow.

I recall "The King's Speech" being derided in a review as "middlebrow mush." The term figured prominently in discussions of the film.

My thought: "What's wrong with middlebrow?"

Truth be told, that's probably the most apt term to describe my cafeteria-style cultural tastes. I aspire to highbrow in nothing (all together now: "We could tell!"), but have a hobbyist's interest in a wide swath of topics.

It boils down to a belief that exposure to art, religion/thought, culture and history on a broad scale--enough to have a conversational knowledge, or to acquire the same with reasonable diligence--is critical to being a fully-rounded man or woman.

If I could sum it up using a pop-cultural reference that's probably fading from view: not a Cliff's Notes version of the world, but rather the Time-Life Books level. And, yes, I have bushels of Time-Life books--just ask the long-suffering Much Better Half.

Or, if you're feeling particularly ambitious, The Story of Civilization level. Yes, I have that one, too.

Such works used to be staples, but now they have vanished from the scene, along with the middlebrow mindset that sensed such things were important. Stumbling about recently, I'm at least slightly reassured to see that I'm not the only one to mourn its loss. From the latter, a particularly telling quote about the present predicament:

One reason why culture has become so polarized is that the Internet rewards those who connect to it with more or less exactly what they want. For those who want to find the remnants of middlebrow culture, there are writers like Teachout and James Lileks. For those who wish to find angry bitter screeds, there’s no shortage of them on both sides of the aisle. Pop culture? Porn? Unlimited quantities of both.

Technology is one element in that divergence, and I’m very happy to be connected to an Internet with unlimited options. (And happy that it’s allowing you to read this as well.) But long before there was an Internet, the institutions that gave us the middlebrow culture of the 1950s and ’60s ceded their responsibility for the care and feeding of their audiences’ minds. In her latest blog post on another facet of our fractured culture, Dr. Melissa Clouthier writes, “America has become The View.” But doesn’t ABC share some of the blame for putting such a trainwreck of a show on the air in the first place?

Fair enough, but more than a little blame goes to the individual staring back from the mirror: if it was deemed important enough by the consumer, the institutions would have continued to churn it out. But we didn't want it, so they didn't.

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