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The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You're not the first.
William Shakespeare. (Photo: tonynetone/Flickr)

William Shakespeare. (Photo: tonynetone/Flickr)

Pop culture is making us dumber, crasser, more immoral, and, especially, less adult. Such, at least, has been the claim of a number of articles over the last year or so. At Slate, Ruth Graham skewered YA fiction as catering to "escapism, instant gratification and nostalgia," and the non-children who read it: "Fellow grown-ups, at the risk of sounding snobbish and joyless and old, we are better than this." A.O. Scott, more ambivalently and convolutedly, echoed that sentiment at the New York Times, where he sees the rise of Y.A. literature and a host of other factors as leading to the "death of adulthood.” William Giraldi at the New Republic declared the success of 50 Shades of Grey a sign that "We’re an infirm, ineffectual tribe still stuck in some sort of larval stage.” Fredrik DeBoer, in a similar tone of sorrow and anger, declaimed:

The only part of adulthood that really matters is the part where when you finally grow up, if you ever really do, it’s because you recognize that there’s other people in the world and that they matter and their needs matter and you need to set aside your self-obsession for long enough to recognize that other people’s needs are often more pressing or important than yours and to act accordingly. Every frame of Guardians of the Galaxy exists to tell you that you are the only human being in the universe.

All of these critics feel that pop culture, variously defined, is infantilizing and stupid. The writers also all share a sense that the ascendency of pop culture is new and dangerous. DeBoer's language verges on the apocalyptic when he insists that "Pop culture such as comic book movies, sci-fi, pop music, and genre TV shows has become the most powerful force in the history of human culture. There has never been a cultural force of greater economic power, artistic hegemony, media ubiquity, or social enforcement than today’s pop confections." He adds: "There is no such thing as high culture. There probably never was but even if there was it died long, long ago.”

"Pop culture such as comic book movies, sci-fi, pop music, and genre TV shows has become the most powerful force in the history of human culture."

That "probably" is interesting. It's hard to know exactly what DeBoer means by it, but the suggestion that high culture might have changed over time, or might not have meant the same thing in the past that it does now, is intriguing. And, in the highbrow spirit, rather than just speculating about such changes, it seems worth doing some research. If there have been histories of highbrow culture, maybe we can read them.

ONE OF THE MOST famous discussions of the history of high culture is Lawrence W. Levine's classic 1988 volume Highbrow/Lowbrow. At first glance, the book seems to offer ammunition to DeBoer, Graham, and others who claim that we are on a long, slippery slope from high culture to low. Levine's first chapter is devoted to the place of Shakespeare in 19th-century culture—a thing which, it turns out, was absolutely, almost unbelievably, central.

Folks in the mid-1800s didn't read lowering YA fiction or deface their brains with The Avengers or 50 Shades. Instead, they read, wrote, and even memorized the Bard. In Philadelphia, Levine writes, there were 65 Shakespeare performances in the single year of 1835.

It wasn't just Philadelphia either, as Tocqueville testified: "There is hardly a pioneer's hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare." Levine writes that even illiterate men, like the famous scout Jim Bridger, would have Shakespeare read to them so they could memorize passages. In San Francisco, following the opening of the Jenny Lind Theater in 1850, "Miners ... swarmed from the gambling saloons and cheap fandango houses to see Hamlet and Lear." If the miners couldn't come to the big city, Shakespeare came to them; major Shakespearean actors like Edwin Booth traveled out to mining camps where they acted from cobbled together stages. Contrary to DeBoer's claim that high culture has "probably" never existed, in 19th-century America, high culture was everywhere. Shakespeare was The Avengers of the 19th century.

"There is hardly a pioneer's hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare."

To say that Shakespeare was The Avengers, though, is to say, in part, that Shakespeare was not high culture at all. Instead, Shakespeare was popular culture—and treated as such. Shakespearean plays, Levine writes, were advertised the way big-budget movies are advertised today—as spectacular draws filled with gore, melodrama, and special effects. Acting styles of the 1800s were broad and explosive; Whitman said that Edmund Kean's performance "blinded and stunned the beholders, appalled the imagination, and chilled the blood." Shakespeare's plays were treated as popular culture—they appeared on the same bill with farces, acrobatics, and minstrel shows. Just as studios feel comfortable reworking stories about Spider-Man or Batman ad infinitum, so did the theater producers of the time feel comfortable rejiggering Shakespeare, adding a happy ending to Lear, moving characters from play to play, shifting soliloquies or incorporating them into minstrel pastiches.

So was the cultural elite in America thrilled to see their countrymen reading, watching, memorizing, and reveling in Shakespeare, rather than in some inferior literature for children? No, Levine says, they were not. Instead, the elites distinguished the popular Shakespeare—the melodramatic, pulp Shakespeare who gouged out eyes and made dick jokes—from the philosophical, genius Shakespeare. DeBoer tells pop culture fans that "Outside of your fantasies, there is no group of intellectual elitists looking down their noses at the music or TV you like. Such people do not exist.” But (in addition to DeBoer himself) Levine has lots and lots of evidence that these people did exist, and that even an enthusiasm for the apogee of English literature was not sufficient to stem their scorn. And over time, the intellectual elitists won; Shakespeare was purged of his pop associations, and became an elite pleasure.

This was in part because of changes in technology and preference—the growth of literacy, for example, ironically sapped the oral culture in which Shakespeare performance and recitation had been so natural. But the sacralization of Shakespeare was also, Levine says, pushed along by highbrow critics and patrons, who wrote against lowbrow theater-going habits, and created venues where Shakespeare was presented seriously, without melodramatic advertisements or farces.

What's different is not the conflict, but the fact that the antagonism occurs in a landscape where highbrow and lowbrow have split into more clearly defined camps.

THE MOST SHOCKING BATTLE in the struggle over Shakespeare, according to Levine, was an actual battle. In New York in 1849, a feud between rival actors—one of the old melodramatic school, the other a proponent of the quieter art approach—escalated into a riot outside the Astor Place Opera House during a self-consciously highbrow performance of Macbeth. Ten thousand rabble rousers gathered outside, and, unable to gain admittance, shouted: “Burn the damned den of the aristocracy!” They threw paving stones and stormed the entrance. They were only stopped when the militia shot at them, killing 22 and injuring more than a hundred. DeBoer calls contemporary pop culture a dangerous distraction from the "desperate need for total economic revolution," but at the Astor theater, pop didn't stop class-based revolution. It spurred it on.

DeBoer also states that, in the present day, "those who like any kind of art or media that has not been blessed to receive the bullshit, self-serving mantel of 'pop culture' are subject to a never-ending stream of disdain, dismissal, and abuse.” The mob attack on the Astor Theater could be seen as a preview of the bullying heaped on writers who dared to give The Avengers a negative review, or on critics who question the misogynist imagery in pulp video games.

The antagonisms between highbrow and lowbrow aren't new, and have arguably even diminished somewhat in comparison with the Astor Place riot. Highbrow has long sneered at lowbrow, and lowbrow has long sneered right back. What's different is not the conflict, but the fact that the antagonism occurs in a landscape where highbrow and lowbrow have split into more clearly defined camps. The masses were pushed away and/or drifted away from Shakespeare and opera, and instead gravitated toward wholly pop forms—jazz, photography, comic strips, movies.

Both sides, it seems like, could stand to recognize that crushing the opposition—as the elites managed to do when they defeated the pop Shakespeare—just makes everyone poorer and more isolated.

The result, as Levine says, was that high and low ceased to talk to each other. This, according to Levine, "made it so difficult for so long for so many [highbrow critics] to understand the value and importance of the popular art forms that were all around them." And just as it cut high art fandoms off from low art forms, the separation cut low art fandoms from high art ones, resulting in the rarefied, self-consciously elite modernisms of Abstract Expressionism, Ezra Pound, Arnold Schoenberg, or Theater of the Absurd. Figures like Shakespeare or Dickens, who had bridged high and low with complex themes, elevated language, gore, and/or transparent melodrama, became impossible.

LEVINE'S STORY CONCLUDES IN the '80s, at which time, he says, high art and low art had again begun to converge. That's still the case today; those 19th-century miners would appreciate the spirit, at least, of the Hip Hop Shakespeare project. Similarly, as Andrew Hoberek writes in his new Considering Watchmen, highbrow authors like Junot Diaz, Jonathan Lethem, Jennifer Egan, and Colson Whitehead "have all more or less permanently moved into territory that blurs the line between literary and genre fiction." In film, directors like Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, and the Coen Brothers slide cheerfully from art to genre and back again, sometimes in the same scene; on television, high-quality shows like Game of Thrones and Mad Men deliberately tackle serious issues in the format of serial melodrama.

Still, the resentment of, and anxiety about, popular culture which prompted militias to shoot at crowds outside the Astor theater persists—mirrored by the kind of resentment of, and anxiety about, highbrow culture, which led those crowds to chuck paving stones at the theater. Those anxieties and resentments will probably never disperse entirely until the revolution happens, social classes wither, and the millennium of cultural amity arrives. In the meantime, though, history can perhaps rob the battle of at least a little of its frantic apocalypticism. Elites from the 19th century through Henry James and Alan Bloom have always worried about the decay of civilization; YA and 50 Shades aren't going to debase the polity any more than did putting a farce at the end of Shakespeare. By the same token, we have historical evidence that confused fulminations against comic book movies, no matter how pompous or historically ignorant, aren't going to end pop culture as we know it.

And both sides, it seems like, could stand to recognize that crushing the opposition—as the elites managed to do when they defeated the pop Shakespeare—just makes everyone poorer and more isolated. Art thrives on connection, and society is better off when people of different backgrounds and interests are able to talk to each other. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Titania and Bottom may be an ill-matched pair, but would anyone want to cut one or the other out? The mortal grossness and the airy spirit: We're better off with both.