In this unusually wide-ranging study, spanning more than a century and covering such diverse forms of expressive culture as Shakespeare, Central Park, symphonies, jazz, art museums, the Marx Brothers, opera, and vaudeville, a leading cultural historian demonstrates how variable and dynamic cultural boundaries have been and how fragile and recent the cultural categories we have learned to accept as natural and eternal are.
For most of the nineteenth century, a wide variety of expressive forms—Shakespearean drama, opera, orchestral music, painting and sculpture, as well as the writings of such authors as Dickens and Longfellow—enjoyed both high cultural status and mass popularity. In the nineteenth century Americans (in addition to whatever specific ethnic, class, and regional cultures they were part of) shared a public culture less hierarchically organized, less fragmented into relatively rigid adjectival groupings than their descendants were to experience. By the twentieth century this cultural eclecticism and openness became increasingly rare. Cultural space was more sharply defined and less flexible than it had been. The theater, once a microcosm of America—housing both the entire spectrum of the population and the complete range of entertainment from tragedy to farce, juggling to ballet, opera to minstrelsy—now fragmented into discrete spaces catering to distinct audiences and separate genres of expressive culture. The same transition occurred in concert halls, opera houses, and museums. A growing chasm between “serious” and “popular,” between “high” and “low” culture came to dominate America’s expressive arts.
“If there is a tragedy in this development,” Lawrence Levine comments, “it is not only that millions of Americans were now separated from exposure to such creators as Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Verdi, whom they had enjoyed in various formats for much of the nineteenth century, but also that the rigid cultural categories, once they were in place, made it so difficult for so long for so many to understand the value and importance of the popular art forms that were all around them. Too many of those who considered themselves educated and cultured lost for a significant period—and many have still not regained—their ability to discriminate independently, to sort things out for themselves and understand that simply because a form of expressive culture was widely accessible and highly popular it was not therefore necessarily devoid of any redeeming value or artistic merit.”
In this innovative historical exploration, Levine not only traces the emergence of such familiar categories as highbrow and lowbrow at the turn of the century, but helps us to understand more clearly both the process of cultural change and the nature of culture in American society.
We can all appreciate a scholar who bites the process that feeds him. Highbrow/Lowbrow sinks its teeth into our smug cultural assumptions and holds on for dear life.
Provides just the kind of balanced, historically informed assessment that can be of immediate value at a time when appeals to eternal truth fly thick and fast.
How we Americans came to treat symphony and chamber concerts and operas as if we were going to church is an interesting tale. For a most thorough and informative discussion, please read Lawrence Levine’s witty book.
Levine offers a fascinating account of the nation’s evolving artistic tastes and thereby challenges any aesthetic storm trooper who would try to enforce an oversimplified notion of Culture with a capital C… What [he] proves, compellingly, is that we should be less rigid in our aesthetic judgments.
Levine’s lucid, mind-stretching, and highly accessible scholarship describes how, by the late nineteenth century, American culture divided into high art and low, two warring camps.
[This book] provides depth and complexity to a debate that has degenerated into stale polemics. By unearthing a wealth of fascinating details about American culture in the middle and later nineteenth century, Levine shows us how much has changed en route to the twentieth. In particular, he reveals how recently the categories of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture came into being, and how thoroughly they were shaped by class prejudice and ethnocentric anxiety… Highbrow/Lowbrow is absorbing and provocative, clearly a product of humane judgment and mature reflection, and a pleasure to read.
This book, like all of Levine’s work, invites us out to play. His writing is highly engaging, his argumentativeness provocative. Even in his lament he gives us hope, for he has written a high-minded and very American defense of the unforeclosed and pluralist potential of democratic culture.
- 320 pages
- 5-5/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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