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A Partial Answer

Posted by acdtest on October 10, 2003

A Partial Answer

n this piece from last January, I bemoaned the current pervasive overrunning of all the arts by pop culture, and asked how it happened, and who’s fault it was. In answer to the latter question, I placed the blame squarely at the feet of the cultural elite, but had next to nothing to say concerning how it all came about. Print journalist and weblogger Terry Teachout of About Last Night addresses a not the same but nevertheless connected question, and the answer he proposes for the how of it could serve as an at least partial answer to the question I raised. Terry suggests that the how of the matter is bound up with the disintegration of the middlebrow culture that prevailed in this country for most of the first half of the 20th century.

[T]hroughout much of the 20th century, ordinary Americans were regularly exposed as a matter of course to a remarkably wide variety of high art-and not by the public schools, either, but by the commercial mass media.


[T]he middlebrow culture on which I was raised [in the 1950s and ’60s] was a common culture, based on the existence of widely shared values, and it is now splintered beyond hope of repair. Under the middlebrow regime, ordinary Americans were exposed to a wide range of cultural options from which they could pick and choose at will. They still do so, but without the preliminary exposure to the unfamiliar that once made their choices potentially more adventurous. The rise of digital information technology, with its unique capacity for niche marketing, has replaced such demographically broad-based instruments of middlebrow self-education as The Ed Sullivan Show with a new regime of seemingly infinite cultural choice. Instead of three TV networks, we have a hundred channels, each “narrowcasting” to a separate sliver of the viewing public, just as today’s corporations market new products not to the American people as a whole but to carefully balanced combinations of “lifestyle clusters” whose members are known to prefer gourmet coffee to Coca-Cola, or BMWs to Dodge pickups.

The information age offers something for anybody: Survivor for simpletons, The Sopranos for sophisticates. The problem is that it offers nothing for everybody. By maximizing and facilitating cultural choice, information-age capitalism fused with identity politics to bring about the disintegration of the common middlebrow culture of my youth.

Sounds about right to me.


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