Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America
Author: Lawrence W. Levine
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Release Date: September 01, 1990
In this wide-ranging study, spanning more than a century & covering such diverse forms of expressive culture as Shakespeare, Central Park, symphonies, jazz, art museums, the Marx Brothers, opera & vaudeville, America's leading cultural historian demonstrates how variable & dynamic cultural boundaries have been & how fragile & recent the cultural categories we have learned to accept as natural & eternal are.
For most of the 19th century, a wide variety of expressive forms--Shakespearean drama, opera, orchestral music, painting & sculpture, as well as the writings of such authors as Dickens & Longfellow--enjoyed both high cultural status & mass popularity. In the 19th century Americans (in addition to whatever specific ethnic, class & regional cultures they were part of) shared a public culture less hierarchically organized, less fragmented into relatively rigid adjectival groupings than their descendants were to experience.
By the 20th century this cultural eclecticism & openness became increasingly rare. Cultural space was more sharply defined, less flexible than it had been. The theater, once a microcosm of America--housing both the entire spectrum of the population & the complete range of entertainment from tragedy to farce, juggling to ballet, opera to minstrelsy--now fragmented into discrete spaces catering to distinct audiences & separate genres of expressive culture. The same transition occurred in concert halls, opera houses & museums. A growing chasm between 'serious' & 'popular', 'high' & 'low' culture came to dominate the expressive arts.
"If there is a tragedy in this development," Levine notes, "it is not only that millions of Americans were now separated from exposure to such creators as Shakespeare, Beethoven & Verdi, whom they had enjoyed in various formats for much of the 19th century, but also that the rigid cultural categories, once they were in place, made it so difficult for so long for so many to understand the value & importance of the popular art forms that were all around them.
"Too many of those who considered themselves educated & cultured lost for a significant period--& many have still not regained--their ability to discriminate independently, to sort things out for themselves & understand that simply because a form of expressive culture was widely accessible & highly popular it was not therefore necessarily devoid of any redeeming value or artistic merit."
Note: first presented as The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization in 1986,