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Highbrow. Lowbrow. No brow. Now what?

July 27, 2008|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

It was only 50 or so years ago that critics and intellectuals were busy constructing -- and redrawing, and shoring up -- hierarchies about what kinds of culture were good for us and which ones were bad.
Literary man Dwight Macdonald wrote a famous essay about "Masscult and Midcult" -- both, he said, were degrading real, traditional High Culture. Art critic Clement Greenberg, in an influential essay about modern painting, looked at "Avant-garde and Kitsch," championing the former as essential to the human spirit and denouncing the latter as tinder for a fascist revolution.
But judging from my recent conversations with a handful of literary and intellectual types -- the heirs, you could say, to the Macdonald/Greenberg tradition -- we live, today, in a pleasingly hierarchy-free, almost utopian cultural world. Most people I know share my disparate taste, enjoying "South Park" alongside Franz Schubert, the crisply plotted novels of James M. Cain as well as the philosophically searching films of Antonioni.

Do guilt or shame still play a role in shaping people's taste? The answer was a unanimous "no." What I found instead when I asked my posse what culture they were consuming this summer was a sense of good feeling, an expectation of openness -- a lack of angst all around. (Writer Michael Chabon, whom I interview on Page F9, even said he hates the very phrase "guilty pleasure.")

"My reading in general is kind of heavy and pretentious," said New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross, who favors modernist literary masterpieces. "But when I go to the movies, I love to see bloated Hollywood blockbusters. I never worry too much about the category that those experiences fall into."

"I'll probably go see 'Hellboy II,' " said the unimpeachably smart Salon book critic Laura Miller. "I like to see popcorn movies in the theater."

Pico Iyer, the eminent Japan-and-California-based travel writer, told me: "One highlight of recent summers for me was 'Nacho Libre'; I saw it in a packed house on opening night and subsequently hurried to see it again, so carried away was I by Jack Black's impromptu hymn." Like a true 21st century man, Iyer likes to mix it up: This summer, his favorite has been "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," a grim Romanian art-house film (now on DVD) unlikely to be remade with Jack Black.

Not that it matters. "To me, high and low, guilt and innocence, masscult and midcult are as out of date now as East and West and old and new," said Iyer, who thinks globalism and the Internet have shuffled all the decks. "Many of the more interesting artists today, from a Salman Rushdie to a Sigur Ros, blur the distinctions in all kinds of ways 'til we don't know, exhilaratingly, if we're being elevated or entertained."

Miller was more sober but no less decisive: "There are still some people who are snobs about it," she said. "But they are so few and they don't have much influence on anyone but other snobs."

Fast-tracked freedom

How THEN could this melting of the hierarchies have happened so quickly and so completely?

Ross thinks his own listening -- from Messiaen to Missy Elliott to Miles Davis -- is pretty typical these days. "The most natural state is to have this curiosity and openness," he said, describing "a deep-seated American impulse. It was only in the 20th century when people really tried to organize and divide different art forms off from each other."

Ross is fond of a scene that begins Lawrence Levine's "Highbrow / Lowbrow," which describes Shakespeare performances on the 19th century American frontier. "There were scrambled programs," Ross said, "with a Rossini aria, then a vaudeville pianist, and then a movement from a string quartet, and then dancers, and then something from Shakespeare." That kind of mix, he said, "is very deeply rooted culturally," and today's eclecticism is just a return to the way things were before culture became sacred.

Novelist and Los Angeles magazine film critic Steve Erickson thinks the ice broke more recently. "Mass media, as much as anything else, has broken down the distinction between high and low," he said. "One of the reasons the Beatles took over the world was they came along at a certain point on the timeline," when they could appear on "The Ed Sullivan Show," show up in magazines and record songs that would play all over the world with a then-unheard-of speed. Thanks to their interest in classical and experimental music, they made strict highbrow / lowbrow divisions look creaky: With 1966's "Revolver" album alone, said Erickson, "The Beatles obliterated those distinctions."

Other distinctions are melting away as well. Formerly "uncool" musicians -- psychedelic cowboy Lee Hazlewood, for instance, who died last summer -- have become very cool today "because people have gone back to listen with fresh ears and without those cultural biases," Erickson said. "Kids today can see something on YouTube and get into it without looking over their shoulder."

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