Commentary: The crucial role of 'middlebrow' arts

Clayton Lord, blog "New Beans", 2/8/12

I was having a conversation about interviews with patrons that I had conducted as part of our intrinsic impact research [to be published 3/1]. At some point I started getting a sour taste over some of the things we were discussing. The most impactful experiences of these people were, by and large, what we theatre insiders might call "middlebrow." Which got me thinking about snobbery. For me, those middlebrow shows form a disturbingly large portion of my early memorable theatrical experiences. If I had to say what sparked the interest in theatre in me, I'd be hard pressed to come up with an answer that wasn't a mega-musical. And I tend to think now that I'm a pretty insider-type person in the field, writing all highfalutin' like about all sorts of theory. [In a separate] interview with Diane Ragsdale [she hones in] on the role of the "middlebrow" as the sort of gateway drug of theatre - and there was a supreme aggravation at our field's inability to understand how very crucial such work (and the purveyors of such work, most notably Broadway producers) is to the sustainability of our field as a whole. As Ragsdale says in the book,

"We have ignored the larger part of society for so long that they no longer think that we're important -- and they have evidence that we're not important in their lives because they haven't been going, nobody that they know has been going, and they're all doing fine."

"Community theatre" draws up images of amateurism, LCD (lowest common denominator) shows -- Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Neil Simon. Funny, catchy, and not too challenging. Which of course, also brings up a sense of being derogatory. And I think, consciously or unconsciously, that derogatory stream extends to the idea of creating work for the masses, "dumbing it down," etc. Right now, a whole lot more of our theatre community than can really be sustained want to be art house institutions with blockbuster budgets. On my drive to work, I was listening to a podcast about FarmVille. In the gaming community, Zynga, the company that created FarmVille, is sort of the equivalent of Broadway producers -- the hugely successful monolith that is viewed as artless, pandering. Gabe Zichermann, an expert on "gamification," which is the process of turning everything into a game, says: "Other gamers may think FarmVille is shallow, but the average player is happy to play it. Two and a Half Men is the most popular show on television. Very few people would argue that it's as good as Mad Men, but do the people watching Two and a Half Men sit around saying, 'Oh, woe is me?' At some point, you're just an elitist f*ck." So. Yeah. Who are we?


Commentary: No time for snobs at regional arts companies

Gale Martin, Operatoonity blog, 2/26/11

My blood boils when I hear comments like, "I'm an opera snob," as one person told my friend unapologetically. "That company is third-rate," he continued, referring to a regional house, adding that he refused to patronize them any longer. My god. Accomplished opera singers don't spring from the heads of opera gods, fully formed. And only a dolt would fail to see the connection between offering live opera performance outside of major US cultural centers and the profileration and growth of opera as an art form. Some of the most memorable productions I've ever seen weren't necessarily shows on Broadway. There are several community theatre productions that loom large in my memory for their freshness, artistic vision, and execution. They featured selected performances by *gasp* non-professionals so well hewn, they'll stay with me forever. There's no guarantee that one will have a spectacular experience with regional theater or opera. At the same, neither should you assume you're going to see perfection at the Met, La Scala, or any other world-class venue you can name.

Luciano Pavarotti: "It is sad how many people are in positions of importance in opera who don't know whether or not the singing is beautiful until they see the singer's name."

If you truly love opera, you can find something beautiful and worthy in every production, wherever it's being produced. If you don't, then let me spell it out for you: You are a selfish opera snob with no genuine regard for the art form as a whole.


Commentary: Americans don't resist high culture, just those who impose it on them

Neal Gabler, The Observer [UK], 1/29/11

A refusal to heed the advice of highbrow cultural critics is nothing new. What is less widely acknowledged is just how deeply this populist blowback is embedded in America and how much of American culture has been predicated on a conscious resistance to cultural elites. 19th-century Americans were, in fact, highly literate. Many of them were conversant with high culture. And yet even as they consumed high culture, they seemed to resent those who felt duty bound to impose it on them. Or put another way, it wasn't high culture they disdained so much as high culturists who, not incidentally, disdained them. Though it is impossible to prove with any certainty, it is likely that American popular culture, which is arguably the most ubiquitous and powerful culture in the world today, arose from this contrarian impulse: ordinary Americans would consciously create a culture that was everything the elitists detested. They would not only welcome the elitists' contempt; they would actively try to foment it. This was how America became engaged in its battle between high culture and low - not by accident but by design.


Commentary: Criticizing others' tastes because I have something to prove

Travis Taylor, "Middlebrow Milieu" post on, 1/14/12

I'm conscious of my shame at being raised in a small town where education and culture were overshadowed by sports and snowmobiles. I overcompensate. I criticize others' tastes in reading, music, fashion and films. I do this because I have something to prove. But to whom? I'm not sure. I know it is especially trying for my family, whom I criticize openly at times. I want to change my origins. Reimagine a life where literature and trips to the museum replace hours spent in front of the television and "special" dinners held at Burger King. This isn't a critique of my parents. They did a spectacular job raising my brothers and me. Still, I wonder... And maybe this is the very definition of middlebrow, this striving. I want to embrace a ubiquitous no-brow approach to life. To take it all in, whatever "it" might be, and find some appreciation for its existence, and then happily move on. That's not to say that criticism isn't important. It is. But blatant criticism of such small joys is pejorative to a fault, and I don't want to be like that. Least of all to myself.


Commentary: Why are critics all in love with middlebrow art?

Richard Godwin, Evening Standard [UK], 1/25/12

The BBC's adaptation of Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks's First World War romance is, by common consensus, the best cheese-on-toast accompaniment since Downton Abbey. "A triumph!" said the Daily Telegraph. "Glorious!" said the Guardian. Oh please. Since when did our critics become such suckers for the middlebrow? It was all very expensive-looking and pretty. But I felt betrayed by those critics who had dressed up middlebrow escapism as high quality drama. Why do we persist in equating posh with intelligent? Lavish with meaningful? The American critic Dwight Macdonald spent much of his career asking the same questions in the 1950s. He was gravely concerned to see "middlebrow" art promoted as great. "Mass Culture breaks down the wall, instigating the masses into a debased form of High Culture, and thus becoming an instrument of political domination," he wrote in a famous essay. Nowadays, we all enjoy our guilty pleasures and like to mix the high and the low. That's what postmodernism is about. Still, it is the critics' job to expose mediocrity as much as champion their art form. It may not win you friends, but it is an important task. I seem to remember that, as part of the BBC's Big Read programme in 2003, William Hague MP appeared on our screens to say that Birdsong was the greatest novel ever written. Is it any wonder we have ended up with middlebrow politicians?

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