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 naïve—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.