In Celebration of Middlebrow Culture

In David Brooks' June 16th New York Times article, "Joe Strauss to Joe Six-Pack," he laments the loss of middlebrow culture, arguing, "Time spent with consequential art uplifts character and time spent with dross debases it.... an educated person was expected to know something about opera." We have been down this road before. The barbarians are always at the gates.

If Modernist artists were relentlessly anti-bourgeois, unsparing in their critique of capitalism and its colonization of everyday life and savage in their rejection of philistine values, the working class often dug in to preserve its own culture (Joe Six-Pack). They understood they had no place at the table, except for those who had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps - vertical invaders that Ortega y Gasset characterized as those who should have no role on the stage of history.

For far too long the working class had been put in its place for its ignorance of Bach, Mozart, Shakespeare. Workers know how middlebrow culture is used as a club against those who lack it. They understand how education is used to emphasize the superiority of the dominant culture; that language becomes a means of social discrimination; and that culture reinforces ideas of race, gender and class. In "Radio Baghdad," Patti Smith says, you [Arabs] invented the zero, referring to the monumental Arab achievement in mathematics, but you are zero to us. Prospero is always there to lord it over Caliban.

Education can be a humiliating experience, and it is meant to be. If we do not know, we are stupid or ignorant, but what we are stupid or ignorant about is less clear. As much as education is a means to enlarge our world and change our lives, it is also a tool for rulers. It serves power. It dismisses dissent, which cannot be tolerated as ignorant: their argument is inarticulate, incoherent, and messy. What it often means is that they do not want to hear it.

We live in a world in which all of us are ignorant in one way or another. The question is not simply what we know and do not know, but what we choose to know. Ignorance, like silence, can be a means of refusal, resistance or adaptation. The boss asks what's going on, and no one says anything because they know to speak up is to call attention to themselves, and that is not a good thing. It may also be that what you know is not accepted as intelligence or knowledge by the dominant culture.

Culture is what you know, and there are no cultures that are more primitive than others as once was thought. A Chippewa verb may have as many as 7,000 forms. Jazz is no less complex than Mozart. A Jackson Pollock is as intricate as fractals. "Culture is what is what the poet comes from," Kamau Brathwaite notes, "and returns to over and over and over again.... It may be in English, but often it is in an English which is like a howl, or a shout, or a machine-gun, or the wind, or a wave."

When I played football at Lakewood High School, the team was released from Friday afternoon classes to rest up for the Friday night games. I spent the afternoons listening to the week's Top 40 on the radio, and Chuck Berry became my main man. By game-time, I was high on Berry. I went to college and came to appreciate Bach and Mozart, putting Berry aside for the most part. I was 30, before I was 18 again, and Chuck Berry could call me home again. Call it the return of the repressed - Chuck Berry would always speak to me more than Bach could.
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Volume 1, Issue 3, Posted 10.08 AM / 27th September 2005.