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Upper Middle Brow

William Deresiewicz is right about the “upper middle brow”:

But now I wonder if there’s also something new. Not middlebrow, not highbrow (we still don’t have an avant-garde to speak of), but halfway in between. Call it upper middle brow. The new form is infinitely subtler than Midcult. It is post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies).

The upper middle brow possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity. It is genuinely good work (as well as being most of what I read or look at myself). The problem is it always lets us off the hook. Like Midcult, it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb — the definition of a true avant-garde — our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world. (Think, by contrast, of some truly disruptive works: The Wire, Blood Meridian, almost anything by J. M. Coetzee.)

Deresiewicz concludes by arguing that the purpose of upper middle brow art and entertainment “is to make consciousness safe for the upper middle class,” whose “salient characteristic” is an “engorgement with its own virtue. Its need is for an art that will disturb its self-delight.”

But the cultured upper middle class is what almost every educated person seems to aspire to these days: not the vulgarity of the very rich, but something beyond life in the suburbs — a brownstone in Brooklyn that’s just small enough to make you feel non-ostentatious, say, and a set of cultural touchpoints (Deresiewicz gives a good list) that you can check off with your friends over a nicely hoppy microbrewed IPA at what you like to call “my local.” Challenge any of those aspirations, or suggest a wholly different set of touchpoints, and you’re instantly excluded from the Inner Ring. And who can bear that? All I know is that I rarely manage it.

So where do we turn for “an art that will disturb [our] self-delight,” an art accomplished enough to demand respect but offering a serious challenge to complacency? My usual recommendation is to look for books from the past, since the past is, after all, another country, and its thoughts are full of challenges for us if we will listen without condescension. But what about art of today?

UPDATE: The general view of my followers on Twitter seems to be that by endorsing W. D.’s post I have, more or less, kicked all their puppies. Didn’t expect to get so much heat. Let me just say, in response, first, that I love puppies and would never kick them, and, second, it might help if we distinguish four points:

  • Has Deresiewicz rightly identified a currently prominent aesthetic position?
  • Has he rightly named it as “upper middle brow”?
  • Has he given convincing and useful examples of it?
  • Has he given convincing and useful counter-examples, that is, examples of a more useful aesthetic tendency?

I think it’s the fourth point that he’s weakest on; most others seem to agree as well. I repent in sackcloth and ashes for not saying this when I first posted. Please forgive me, y’all.

[Ed. – Noah Millman and Jordan Bloom respond here and here.]

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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