Monday, November 12, 2012

"Upper Middle Brow" and Suspicious Hermeneutics

I'm frustrated with a series of short cultural analyses I've read today. It all starts with an essay by William Deresiewicz entitled "Upper Middle Brow," in which the author attempts to identify a strand of culture-production designed to "make consciousness safe for the upper middle class" by "approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices." A step above "midcult" (a term I hate and thought had fallen out of fashion), "upper middle brow" consists of cultural products that possess "excellence, intelligence, and integrity," but that "always let us off the hook" by failing to disrupt our assumptions and challenge us. The "us" in question refers to a nearly-new creative class of college- and postgraduate-educated professionals whose tastes verge on the downright literary.

Who is implicated in this sophisticated, stylish, post-ironic pat-on-the-back party? Apparently: Jonathan Lethem, The New Yorker, Wes Anderson, This American Life, Lost in Translation, and GIRLS. Also, "the films that should have won the Oscars." But not all of them—a handy list of midcult artifacts ("peddling uplift in the guise of big ideas") includes Malick's Tree of Life. Who else is on the midcult list? Franzen, Jonathan Safran-Foer, Middlesex. (Just separating Lethem from this company seems a microscopically fine exercise in hairsplitting, and attenuates the explanatory power of the typology.)

So what does Deresiewicz suggest as an antidote? Upper middle brow is, after all, a problem framed in a way that implies a particular solution. The suggestion he offers is that we need a return to an art that will "disturb [our] self-delight", because we are "engorged on our own virtue" and allowed, by our choices of aesthetic consumption, to remain complacent and untroubled.

Does art have a function? This questions is one step below Deresiewicz's analysis; his working premise is that it does, and that art's primary function is (or, should be) to disturb and challenge. But this is hardly a given, as John Wilson points out. In the first place, "art" is hardly a univocal phenomenon. For a century now, its identity has included the forever-repeating act (or gesture) of posing the question of what it is to itself. Its multivalence is a key to its power and the security of its place in human life. Forcing "art" to fit upon a single plane, while allowing for analyses and prescriptions such as Deresiewicz's (ok—D, from now on), is destined to fail to comprehend art's range, and leads to screwy interpretations of artworks aiming for targets that fall outside the evaluative grid.

Jonathan Fitzgerald at Patrol understands this well, referencing John Gardner's On Moral Fiction.  Gardner's characterization of the "traditional" view of art involves that which "seeks to improve life, not to debase it." And although Wheaton professor Alan Jacobs has written in praise and defense of Tolkien on the same point, against "middle-to-highbrow" critics—Tolkien is interested in courage and weakness of will given a clear moral context, thus affirming conservative values in his own way, which wrongfully strikes liberal critics as na├»ve—Jacobs approves of D's typology and conclusions, saying that we need to look to books of the past for the suggested antidote. (Perhaps he sees moral realism a la Tolkien as truly transgressive in this day and age, against a widely-accepted kind of fundamental and inescapable moral ambiguity.)

Other essays in response to "Upper Middle Brow" affirm the basic thrust of its analysis. Several of these pieces, interestingly enough, are posted at the American Conservative—in addition to Jacobs' brief response, Noah Millman questions whether UMB is more a type or a style, but agrees that it exists, and has the problem of being "self-involved without being self-examining." On the same site, Jordan Bloom explores its "pernicious" effects upon music and musical taste.

I suppose one of the biggest bees in my bonnet over this whole conversation is its elitist bent, which is inescapable given the basic terms in which the conversation is framed. (I do, however, appreciate the self-implication of D, who admits that he mostly "reads and looks at" upper middle brow things.) Literary critics and cultural commentators sometimes play this game, in which a hermeneutic of suspicion (a ubiquitous touchpoint for me of late) is invoked in order to get at the "real" reasons for the creation and consumption of a particular brand of cultural product. Maybe the diagnosis is sound, albeit in a qualified way. Perhaps there really is a need for disruptive art, and a new avant-garde with a warrior mentality who will take on the bourgeois mores of my self-satisfied demographic.

But it's not the whole story. And another problem with D's original piece and several of the followups is that they seem to take the concept of "upper middle brow" and employ it as a metanarrative that accounts for the success and relative merits of a huge and disparate assortment of artworks, indexing them to a set of qualities and motivations that the artists themselves could not have been privy to in the moment of creation, nor the audience in its moment of engagement. Suspicion, see?

I have two questions for D's account to close. The first concerns the work of the avant-garde he hopes will come back from their forever lunch. It is difficult to understand what foil they would find to push against. Is there a fixed, moored shape that the "creative class" finds for its values? Is one necessary?  

The second is a related intake problem. With values privatized and in perpetual flux, without clear hills to collectively die upon, D's disruptive art could likely find itself consumed just as though it were another "upper middle brow" product, absorbed into projected versions of ourselves that include cutting-edge artistic tastes. Who's to say if anything is able to shatter our glittering self-regard? Perhaps its resonating frequency has become impossible to reach. In that case, can there really be anything that arrives "beyond" upper middle brow? "Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the horizon?"

But at the end of the day, maybe the problem is simply that I hate feeling as though I need to defend my tastes against people who suppose they can lay a claim to the subterranean reasons for them. And yes, I am open to the idea that maybe, just maybe, that is a sign that I could use a little disrupting myself. But probably not.


  1. Lots of good thoughts here, especially your questions.

    D's typology has been applied before in arenas other than art—for instance, religion. D is making a case in favor of Puritanical or Pharisaic self-flagellatory faith: that faith is best which enjoys pain. He who suffers most brutally is most sincere. It only counts as beauty if it's ugly.

    D's critique also seems to suggest that, when an artwork encourages certain beliefs or attitudes, all members of its audience must always already in error about those beliefs and attitudes prior to engaging with that artwork. If the artwork agrees with what someone already thought, it can't be art, at least for them.

    D overstates the role of the artist's intent in the function of art. His analysis supposes that our generation is full of Kincaids whose work is purposely tame. (And besides, how does one measure how challenging an artwork is so as to rank them? In how many respects does it need to challenge? All respects, so that it's not even recognizable as art? This standard leads straight through Duchamp's "Fountain" to the suicide of art.

    I do think there's a problem, but it's not self-congratulatory art, exactly; it's our cultural tendency to apply irony to that art, whether intended by the artist or not. It's more our resistance as an audience to having our attitudes challenged, because we don't hold any firm attitudes in the first place. It's not that there isn't an American avant-garde, it's that we upper-middle-class ironists have adopted "being challenged" as part of our MO, so that we can't feel challenged by or about much of anything, including our attitude toward challenge.

    The really important art for us, then, is art that can dispel the very notion that art should always challenge. I say this because such an attitude inherently begs to be adopted only ironically, with a grain of salt or psychic distance, because of its impossibly high standard. D himself admits to doing so. The Pharisees demonstrated that faith becomes camel-through-needle difficult not despite but because of our own concern for having the best taste and having ourselves constantly improved.

    When we encounter God or the sublime, sometimes we tremble, sometimes we weep, sometimes we dance. Sometimes the Muse leads an artist to make art that challenges; other times the Muse leads an artist to make art that comforts. The impossibility of prescribing this, of applying our own prism to the spectrum of beauty, is inherent to art. What we and D desperately need is the faith of children, the faith to obey when we're asked to make children's drawings, sing children's songs, pure joy.

    1. Dan: thank you. I agree wholeheartedly with your final three paragraphs. I think your bit about irony and its uses is seriously important for understanding why there probably is no cultural parousia, if you will.

  2. One of my favorite quotes about art is from Andrei Tarkovsky’s autobiography, Sculpting in Time: “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.”

    Such art, as Tarkovsky said, requires sacrifice on the part of both artist and audience. And sacrifice, I think, can be the occasion of struggle or of joy, viz. Daniel’s last paragraph.

  3. For me, the most interesting aspect of the conversation is the question of whether the avant-garde that is art that 'challenges' is possible anymore. I think what Dan wrote about the ironists adopting 'being challenged' to the definition of art robbing it of its power may be true, but we would have to figure out the essence of art. But this is a side point I want to return to. Returning to challenging and your post: it seems like if we've given up objective standards/values/aesthetics, or clear hills on which to die, then being challenged has no thrust. Wouldn't it be as if there is no strong evaluation, and therefore no central position from which to navigate--are we all lost in aesthetic space? That's an honest question, by the way.

    Onward to the essence of art. I know that eidetics has fallen out of fashion in the realm of aesthetic theory (thanks, Kant), but it seems that if we are going to be dividing and creating distinctions within art, so as to have categories, we are going to need a working definition of the essence of art. Perhaps I've just been reading too much Husserl lately, but in order to do this regional research, the essence of the region has to be delimited. Obviously, it--as all other regions do--has an open horizon, but its indeterminateness is only additional to its determinateness. Is anyone doing this work? And if so, cool! Who? And if not, why not?