|High-Brow, Low-Brow - A Reminiscence|
Issue #19 (March 1983)
Like some Mensans, I got ahead of myself in grammar school and entered high school at the age of 12. After an unhappy semester as the Brainy Runt of the Ninth Grade, I was taken out by my parents and enrolled as a special student at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Officially, I spent a year and a half studying sculpture and design; actually, I [quoteright]took a memorable trip through woodworking, stone carving, welding, potting and silversmithing, all under the tutelage of sculptor Bob Winston.
Those were halcyon days for American artists. The war was over and the traditional European art centers were rebuilding. Over here, the GI Bill provided an access of patronage that the Medicis might have envied. It financed a whole generation of new bohemians.
Art was ripe for re-examination. "The reason we think a rose is beautiful," Winston declared, "is because our parents always told us it was." Traditionalism was out, Mondrians and mobiles and dribble paintings were in. Bauhaus lingered on only because of its respect for materials ("form follows function"). Now that the possibility of future wars had been eliminated, mankind could concentrate on freeing its "artistic instincts." My principal regret at this point was that I was still too young to grow a beard.
In the midst of this esthetic ferment, an extraordinary article suddenly appeared -- in Life magazine, of all places. It was titled "High-Brow, Low-Brow, Middle-Brow" and it seemed to crystallize all the things we had been saying. Within the microcosm of an avant art school, its appearance in April 1949 caused a sensation.
Based on some more scholarly observations by Russell Lynes, editor of Harper's, the Life article declared that America had become a "society of the intellectual elite, run by high-brows." O Millennium! It went on to describe how the high-brows - scientists, writers, artists - manage to protect their values from the hordes of established middlebrows, who they despise as "culturemongers." This was heady stuff for a bunch of starving artists.
The high-brow, it pointed out, gets along with low-brows; he "even envies their uncritical enjoyment of the things they like." He saves his ire for the invading upper middle-brows, who read Toynbee and the New Yorker and "by their pretended culture seem determined to coarsen high-brow treasures."
But the best part was the way Life fleshed out its cultural categories with actual examples. In a chart spread across two pages, it illustrated the tastes of the typical high-brow, upper middlebrow, lower middle-brow, and low-brow. Here, at last, we found our values triumphant.
In the beverage column, for example, the high-brow drinks "a glass of 'adequate little' red wine, which he buys for 90 cents a gallon"; the upper middle-brow drinks "a very dry martini with lemon peel"; the lower middle-brow drinks bourbon and ginger ale while the low-brow drinks beer. For entertainment, the high-brow favors ballet, the upper middle-brow live theater, the lower middle-brow Hollywood musicals, and the low-brow westerns. In sculpture, the high-brow contemplates Calder stabiles while the upper middle-brow enjoys Maillol nudes; the lower middle-brow is satisfied with carved animals and the low-brow buys a reproduction of the Venus de Milo with a clock in her navel.
Many of the esthetic edicts in that article stayed with me over the years. The high-brow's recordings are described (exquisitely) as "Bach and before, Ives and after." His salad consists of "greens, olive oil, wine vinegar, ground salt, ground pepper, garlic, unwashed salad bowl." (The upper middle-brow, not quite getting the point, eats the same but adds tomatoes, avocado, and Roquefort cheese). The high-brow wears a "fuzzy Harris tweed suit, no hat" and sits in an Eames chair. His coffee table sports a "decanter and ashtray from a chemical supply company" a Pyrex flask and a porcelain evaporating dish. He reads the Partisan Review. His favorite game is go.
In contrast, the culture-climbing but subtly ignorant upper middlebrow listens to Brahms and Chopin; he wears a Brooks Brothers suit and owns antique furniture. His coffee table is adorned with an engraved silver cigaret box. His favorite game is charades (bridge is for lower middlebrows). He subscribes to Harper's.
Rereading this article after more than 30 years, I realize that some of its judgments are dated. Does anyone, high-brow or not, still read Rilke? While the present-day high-brow might choose a Kurt Versen gooseneck floor lamp, wouldn't he be just as likely to covet the lowbrow's brass-plated bridge lamp with its fringed shade? And as a result of the march of technology, lowbrows have surely graduated from "pulps and comic books" to TV sitcoms. But these are minor flaws.
Although historians may say that the American intellectual elite lost its grip on the country some twenty years ago in Dallas, the other conclusions of this semi-serious article still ring true. There are high-brows and low-brows, and it is important to understand what they like and why they like it. While I am no longer personally concerned to Save The World From Norman Rockwell, I like to think that our discussions in those distant years are still alive today.
George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.