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David and Art - Adventures in Middlebrow

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

Art critic  Clement Greenberg coined the term "Middlebrow" - that midway point between highbrow and lowbrow. 

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Beginning in 1950, the Reader’s Digest company began publishing a series of books that were, as the company itself described them, condensed versions of contemporary and classic literature.   They were a huge hit.

Last week we talked about shortcuts to experiencing the essence of great works of art.  Whether the work in question is a Joseph Conrad novel or a Tchaikovsky Concerto, It seems like there’s always some way to get the flavor of the work with out having to ingest the whole thing. You probably won’t besurprised that I’m not intending that as praise.  One is nourished by eating food, not by merely sniffing it.

Three years after readers digest started publishing those books, outspoken critic Clement Greenberg wrote an essay called “The Plight of Our Culture,” in which he said that most of the energy then in mainstream American culture was happening in a middling level between high and low—between symphonies and comic books.  He called it “middlebrow” and worried that its eventual effect would be to bring high culture low instead of lift people’s tastes.  He complained that the fine arts were being simplified, streamlined and purged of whatever could not be made easily accessible by processing and packaging.  I bet he wasn’t a fan of readers digest.

Middlebrow culture, because of that processing packaging and marketing, he thought that middlebrow culture promoted standardization, and inhibited any idiosyncrasies, temperament, and strong- mindedness….”

The middlebrow in us wants the treasures of civilization, Greenberg believed, but the desire is without tenacity. In general, we seem to be content with substituting “good enough” for good.

But that’s not how our interaction with art should be. Even though a symphony, for instance, may not be as easy to take in as a pop song, truly great works of art reward dedicated attention far more than they do any attempt to get at their richness by cutting corners.

Greenberg believed  that The most important task of culture for people who live in a rapidly changing society, is to maintain continuity in the face of novelty. Short-changing, watering down or otherwise abridging cultural touchstones takes away the ability of culture to maintain that continuity—and leaves us all adrift In a sea of disposable forgettable novelty. 

David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.