William Deresiewicz’s essay Upper Middle Brow – The culture of the creative class, has helped me begin to articulate an idea that has been gnawing at me lately: the way that we are quickest to criticize work that we experience as having a lot of merit for not encompassing enough, not challenging enough, or not being enough, and the way that this criticism seems to serve, in some ways, as an acknowledgement of societal disparities and/or privilege that allows the consumption of the aforementioned meritorious work to continue to be our art of preference while making us feel virtuous. We have to say what we see as lacking in order to assuage our fears that we are trying to oversimplify a world that is very complicated. And we point out what’s “wrong” in the people who are closest to doing what we feel is “right,” both because we want to experience our own intellect at work and we want them to go all the way and be perfect for us – but that’s not their job.
What is the goal of this kind of criticism, a criticism that, recently, is exemplified in the flack Lena Dunham has caught about the lack of racial diversity on Girls? Is the goal to encourage diversity, to express distaste at one person’s chosen subject matter, or to allow us to experience ourselves as more sophisticated than the artist? I’m not underestimating the importance of the forces that collectively create our drives, as artists and individuals, to focus on one subject over another, but why should a person be limited to what is “inclusive” or more challenging to cultural norms, when specificity of experience, or another impulse, might be propelling them towards their art?
It is one thing when we critique art that is built on capitalism, which I would argue that Dwight Macdonald’s Masscult, as cited by Deresiewicz, is, even more so than being a reaction to mass literacy. It is another to recognize that much of what Deresiewicz describes as upper middle brow, though built from capitalism and often coming from wealth, does not have as its primary intention the perpetuation and building upon of that wealth by dissemination of the product and associated advertising (unlike Masscult). Critiquing Masscult as art is almost unnecessary or impossible; it’s not purporting to be art, it’s existing as advertisement. But when it comes to upper middle brow, which, in the essay, includes a very wide swath, although money and class, even before popular success (again Lena Dunham, and Sofia Coppola), play a massive role, we plead with this group, through our criticism, because we know it hits them where they live. We understand these artists to be driven by a desire for their art to be, if not well-received, ingested as art. Blockbusters, Masscult, don’t give a damn.
The problem, or at least a problem, is that this kind of criticism is a wrestling with privilege, class, race, our emotional lives as humans, and that needs to happen, but it is misdirected. An artist, writer, filmmaker, musician can only do the work that reflects their own passions, obsessions, path, desire for exploration. Perhaps this is not entirely true, everyone can work within constraints, and we are all already very much constrained by our experiences so we are working with them already, but what I mean is: the flaw doesn’t lie with these targeted figures (the upper middle brow) quite so much as it does with the entrenched systems that determine, in a sense, who can have a voice, who will be promoted publically (and celebrity, the push towards fame, fame as the proof of success is another topic entirely that needs to be dissected), how we understand art, what stories we care about as a culture, and what stories are deemed relatable. This is in some transition because of emerging technology, but it seems to me that some of the democracy of even the internet is nothing more than myth (again, another –albeit related- topic).
What is necessary, more than criticism of the upper middle brow, is more diversity in the field. What is not necessary is a push for those who are already producing (in the sense of completing) and, I shudder to use the term, bringing to market, work that meets their aesthetic intentions to change what they are doing in order to make us feel better about ourselves. We don’t need the upper middle brow, as they have been classified, to change their intentions. What we need are more voices, not that the existing few attempt to represent a wider view of the world in their work.
This isn’t to say at all that individuals, when working on creative projects (I lack a term for all art forms), are unable to persuasively move beyond their own experience into the world of another, but there is this thing of the drive to tell a certain story, in whatever way, and while the artist as craftsman should certainly be able (should have the skill to do so) to do this, do we want artists to feel they are required to meet certain quotas in their work as they represent a world, whatever that world may be?
Transcendence through story, or even, merely, real emotion, as opposed to the sentimentality that Deresiewicz cites Dwight Macdonald’s “Masscult and Midcult” critiques, seems to become possible when artists go to the places that are messy, difficult, painful, complicated, specific. Might we need ample stories from diverse voices first in order to experience this anywhere? Is this where the discomfort that leads to the criticism Deresiewicz levels comes from? Is it an intuition that if we had more and more varied stories, there would be more safety (in the sense of openness, and a place for each person to be themselves) in the culture and a permeation that would safely let us see our experience in various forms, rather than seeking out examples of ourselves tied to the broaching of specific topics. Of course, this assumes (probably incorrectly, definitely subjectively) that a goal of art is a kind of touching on real deep emotional experience, and transcendence through story as a way to know non-duality and universality.
Deresiewicz claims that upper middle brow work is meant to flatter and cites Macdonald as saying the same about the Midcult work of previous generations. Is it possible that what is being interpreted as flattery is actually an attempt (perhaps unsuccessful) at saying anything in a larger culture so reluctant to engage in self-reflection? Is sentimentality the best we can do (no, it isn’t, but maybe…under some circumstances) when we live in fear of our own emotional lives and eventual death?
Is what is here classified as flattery in fact an invitation into an elite that we somehow believe we don’t deserve to be a part of? The Daily Show is mentioned as an example of the upper middle brow, and by extension of this kind of elitism and flattery, and yet that show seems to me a bit like zucchini bread – sneaking vegetables into something sweet. Stewart’s aim is to challenge and educate the viewer, he just does it in a way that most people find more engaging than the traditional news. He doesn’t talk down to us and moves with the assumption that we’re on the same side, even when he is, in a sense, breaking news to his audience.
Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is mentioned as an example of Midcult (disclosure, I worked on Malick’s To The Wonder). I loved the film, although it has its flaws, but the goal of art is not to be flawless. Tree of Life was released at around the same time as Miranda July’s The Future, which I would venture would fall under the upper middle brow classification, and I have found those two films to be, essentially, an attempt at considering time and connectedness, and yet Malick’s comes in the voice of the established male, and July, who is about as established as one can be, but also young, beautiful, unapologetically personal, and female, gets at the subject in a decidedly different way.
A sticky issue with Deresiewicz’s position is the seeming implication that somehow we were better off in terms of art when we had high culture under an aristocracy. This sounds like criticism of mass not being held in Latin.
Is the implication that education means less when more have it? Or that art is not for the masses? This is, or seems to me, a morally messy proposition.
Says Deresiewicz, “There is a sociology to all of this. As Clement Greenberg pointed out in “Avant-Garde andKitsch” (1939), the predecessor to Macdonald’s essay, high culture flourished under the aristocracy. Mass culture came in with mass literacy, while Midcult is a product of the postwar college boom, a way of catering to the cultural aspirations of the exploding middle class. Now, since the ’70s, we’ve gone a step further, into an era of mass elite and postgraduate education. This is the root of the so-called creative class, the Bobos, the liberal elite as it exists today. The upper middle brow is the cultural expression of this demographic. Its purpose is to make consciousness safe for the upper middle class. The salient characteristic of that class, as a moral entity, is a kind of Victorian engorgement with its own virtue. Its need is for an art that will disturb its self-delight.”
There is plenty of smug, wink-wink, work out there, but I don’t believe that it is the self-delight of the upper middle brow that needs to be disturbed, because I’m not sold on the idea that it is so comfortable with a sense of its own virtue. I believe that consciousness is never safe and yet it is a human birthright. I also believe that some to many of these upper middle brow artists and their works are not pointing directly towards consciousness at all. It’s a scary place to go.
We are all capable of consciousness. Is the job of the artist necessarily to engender consciousness in the community at large?
What really “lets us off the hook,” contrary to what Deresiewicz claims, is exactly the kind of criticism he has written here. It offers no alternative vision but allows us to supposedly face our shortcomings vis-à-vis our own preferences. There’s a touch of puritanical self-hatred to it (maybe I’m reaching now…).
Art is not politics, although it, as everything else, is very much political in the sense that none of us has the ability to extract ourselves, or any one element of our lives, from the web that is our world. If a change, progression is too loaded a term for it implies improvement, happens in some of the work the artists here targeted creates, fine, but the point isn’t to suddenly be able to say, “isn’t it great that the new Wes Anderson is so emotionally raw and centers on the Harlem Riot of 1964.”
We undeniably need more (and not just more of the same) out there, but there’s nothing wrong with liking any of what’s out there for what it is. The key, what protects the self, is understanding the limits of each work – be it JustJared, US Weekly, The New Yorker, BOMB, Taylor Swift, Sheila Heti, Zadie Smith, or Parks and Recreation. There may legitimately be a question of whether we can safely ingest all of this culture without it damaging us (or improving us…) – but, again, another topic.
In much the same way that we can appreciate that there are some very smart, talented, creative people working in advertising and that in that role, they are selling us something, it is difficult to be a recipient of messages from the outside without acknowledging how those messages are created, who is behind them, and what, if anything, they are trying to sell us on. When we try to sell ourselves on something, or when we fail to see the connections between an individual artist’s work and the greater culture, when we willfully ignore the existence of those connections, and the fact that they don’t necessarily, although they may, undermine the work, that’s when we really begin to lose consciousness, because we trick ourselves into thinking we’ve attained it. Perhaps it isn’t something to be attained, perhaps consciousness, too, is a process.