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Both high and low culture have produced masterpieces and works of mediocrity. It is our task to find beauty in unexpected places. [Jun 2006]

Related: culture war - cultural pessimism - eclecticism - elite - hierarchy - 'high culture' - 'low culture' - mass - paracinema - paraliterature - postmodernism - good taste and bad taste

Academic theory on mass vs elite: Walter Benjamin - Stephen Bayley - Patrick Brantlinger - John Carey - Tyler Cowen - Robert Darnton - Leslie Fiedler - Herbert Gans - Bernard Gendron - Joan Hawkins - Andreas Huyssen - Lawrence Levine - John Mullan - Camille Paglia - Andrew Ross - John Seabrook - Alan Swingewood - Susan Sontag - Raymond Williams

Supposedly nobrow art movements: Pop Art

Nobrow writers and artifacts: The Simpsons - Stephen King

In music:
The "postmodern" 1960s were by no means the first period in which the boundaries between popular music and high culture had been seriously challenged. Rock was not the first popular music to cross the divide between high and low. We need only recall the Jazz Age of the 1920s when the avant-gardes of Paris and Berlin were enthusiastically consuming jazz and attempting to assimilate its aesthetic into their own practices. --Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club (2002) - Bernard Gendron, page 2

In literature and the visual arts:
The notion of one art for the 'cultural,' i.e., the favored few in any given society and of another subart for the 'uncultered,' i.e., an excluded majority as deficient in Gutenberg skills as they are untutored in 'taste,' in fact represents the last survival in mass industrial societies (capitalist, socialist, communist - it makes no difference in this regard) of an invidious distinction proper only to a class-structured community. Precisely because it carries on, as it has carried on ever since the middle of the eighteenth century, a war against that anachronistic survival, Pop Art is, whatever its overt politics, subversive: a threat to all hierarchies insofar as it is hostile to order and ordering in its own realm. What the final intrusion of Pop into the citadels of High Art provides, therefore, for the critic is the exhilarating new possibility of making judgments about the 'goodness' and 'badness' of art quite separated from distinctions between 'high' and 'low' with their concealed class bias. --Fiedler, 1971

Focused on genres: The discussion of high and popular culture does not suppose that individuals possess knowledge of particular cultural objects, but only some knowledge of a hierarchy of genres. I have argued that one of the most widely shared elements of modern culture consists in the awareness of which kinds of cultural objects are highbrow and which are popular. Therefore, the most important questions of cultural mediation center around differences between highbrow and popular genres. --Fringe and Fortune (1996) - Wesley Monroe, Jr., page 73

Concepts in flux: Although theater is now a highbrow form, this was not so until the nineteenth century. --Fringe and Fortune (1996) - Wesley Monroe, Jr., page 73


Nobrow is a neologism derived from high-brow and low-brow.

The term highbrow denotes a "person of superior intellect and taste," first attested in 1902. Lowbrow is a "person who is not intellectual" is also first attested 1902, said to have been coined by humorist Will Irwin. (source: Etymology online)

In the words of John Seabrook, who coined the word in 2000:

Nobrow is my word for the end of the old cultural categories of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" culture. High and low have been absorbed by a new, supercharged pop culture. In this world I'm calling Nobrow, pop culture serves the purpose of both the old high and low culture. You can have refined highbrow pop conversations about indie rock, with references to bands like Pavement and Black Flag, or you can can go crazy for Britney Spears. The book is my attempt to describe this new landscape. --John Seabrook

Paraliterature, paracinema and the nobrow concept

Related: paraliterature - paracinema

Since both paraliterature and paracinema seem to be about the appreciation by intellectuals of low culture in cinema and literature, it straddles high culture and low culture and is a basic tenet of the nobrow concept. One may also call it paraculture or the paracultural. [Jun 2006]

Fredric Jameson on nobrow postmodernism

Postmodernism in architecture will then logically enough stage itself as a kind of aesthetic populism, as the very title of Venturi’s influential manifesto, Learning from Las Vegas, suggests. However we may ultimately wish to evaluate this populist rhetoric, it has at least the merit of drawing our attention to one fundamental feature of all the postmodernisms enumerated above: namely, the effacement in them of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture, and the emergence of new kinds of texts infused with the forms, categories, and contents of that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologues of the modern, from Leavis and the American New Criticism all the way to Adorno and the Frankfurt School.

The postmodernisms have, in fact, been fascinated precisely by this whole “degraded” landscape of schlock and kitsch, of TV series and Reader’s Digest culture, of advertising and motels, of the late show and the grade-B Hollywood film, of so-called paraliterature, with its airport paperback categories of the gothic and the romance, the popular biography, the murder mystery, and the science fiction or fantasy novel: materials they no longer simply “quote” as a Joyce or a Mahler might have done, but incorporate into their very substance. -- Fredric Jameson (1991) in Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism via http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/jameson.htm [May 2006]

See also: Fredric Jameson - postmodernism - High Modernism

Arnoldian and Williamsian views of Stephen King

There are two contradictory views of culture. The first holds that culture is the very best that a society produces, the second holds that culture is everything a society produces, even ordinary and ugly phenomena. In my opinion, both views are right.

Matthew Arnold says culture is the best of culture, providing the definition of high culture. But his view of greatness is a social construction influenced by trends and fashions, conditions of power, intrinsic characteristics of the work, historical accidents or a combination thereof.

The opposite view is taken by Raymond Williams who states culture is ordinary; culture is what is popular as defined by sales and mind share.

If we apply these two views of culture to 20th century English language literature we get:

In both views, these writers are successful. The Williamsian writers' success can be measured by calculating the number of times they have been translated. The Arnoldian writers' success is not that easy to measure but it can be done by using lists of 'lists of novels that have been considered the greatest ever' and other literary canons. I have largely based my shortlist of writers on the recently published books 1001 Books You Must Read Before you Die.

It would be interesting to find out if there are writers who sold well -- even very well -- but are still critically acclaimed. The answer according to the index translationum is William Shakespeare. He is currently the 7th most translated author in the world. This was not always the case. Lawrence Levine remarks that "By the turn of the nineteenth century, Shakespeare had been converted from a popular playwright whose dramas were the property of all those who flocked to see them, into a sacred author who had to be protected from ignorant audiences and overbearing actors threatening the integrity of his creations."

So Shakespeare is both popular and critically acclaimed. Other writers in this category include, in order of appearance in the top 50 list of the index translationum:

If the history of literature excludes popular literature -- as it does in the Arnoldian view -- it cannot be taken seriously, it is no more than a case of historical revisionism, an historical falsification, an illegitimate manipulation of literary history.

But then again, one can probably think of enough interesting things to say about Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton. But what on earth is there to be told about writers such as Danielle Steele and Barbara Cartland? Although I must say that The Myth of Superwoman (1990) by Resa L. Dudovitz did a good job at explaining and defending women's fiction.

Are writers of the Williamsian category culturally significant? Is this category of literature one we wish to preserve or forget?

Coming back to Stephen King, who I consider central in this discussion regarding cultural significance and ephemerality, will King's name really be forgotten in 100 years? Not if we believe Petri Liukkonen, the author of Kirjasto, a site I've mentioned before. She writes: " Like Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens or Balzac in his La Comédie humaine, King has expressed the fundamental concerns of his era."

Balzac and Dickens are certainly not forgotten, they respectively rank number 38 and 26 on the index translationum. So is King really the Balzac or the Dickens of the 20th century?

Still, a final question remains. We've mentioned Balzac and Dickens, but we left out Sue. Both Balzac and Sue were both very popular. Balzac is remembered and Sue not. Is it the Arnoldian dynamic at work that has given eternity to Balzac and oblivion to Sue? Is King the 20th century Sue or the 20th century Balzac?

Todo: the perpetuation of low and high literature, perpetuation as antithetical to ephemeral:


Masstige is a marketing term meaning downward brand extension. The word is formed from the words mass and prestige and has been described as prestige for the masses. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masstige [May 2006]

Raymond Chandler

Chandler's finely-wrought prose was widely admired by critics and writers from the high-brow (W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh) to the low-brow (Ian Fleming). Although his style was inspired largely by that of Dashiell Hammett, his use of lyrical similes in this context was quite original. Turns of phrase such as "The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips" (The Lady in the Lake, 1943) , have become characteristic of private-eye fiction, and he has given his name to the critical term Chandleresque. His style is also the subject of innumerable parodies and pastiches. --http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_Chandler

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