Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Are "brows" disappearing?

I make no secret of my love for the TV spectacle otherwise known as "The Bachelor." We have had some incredible journeys together. And yes, I'm in it for the right reasons.

What I love about "The Bachelor" is that it manages to transcend its utterly insane premise (man/woman searches for love by dating 25 people simultaneously, publicly breaks up with each one at a "rose ceremony") with a mix of sincerity, self-awareness and psychological spectacle.

"The Bachelor" is widely regarded as the ultimate of lowbrow culture, and yet there's this strange fact: it's the most widely watched show among 18-49 year olds who make more than $150,000 a year.

As Fifty Shades of Grey dominates the box office and critics largely dispense with trashing it in favor of a spirit of, "Whatever, it does what it's supposed to do well," I'm wondering if we're entering a time when there's no such thing as highbrow or middlebrow or lowbrow.

Is this the era of the unibrow?

I'm not the first to wonder this, a few months back the Bookends column at the New York Times debated just this topic (as well as revealing the etymology of "highbrow," which got its start in the eugenic-leaning "science" of phrenology. Yikes!)

Thomas Mallon argues that culture has benefited from the collision of art at all levels, noting for instance, "does anyone believe that the American short story has improved by making its initial appearance in literary quarterlies never seen by any brows but the highest?"

Pankaj Mishra argues that the profit motive has leveled out the brows, forcing auteurs to be crowd-pleasers, and obliterating individuality.

Personally, I think the explosion of voices in the world brought to us by the infinite choice of the Internet means that anyone hoping to be heard must also, by necessity, entertain. Even those aspiring to be highbrow and express complexity of thought and emotion must also bow to the reality that they need to capture eyeballs.

Think of John Oliver, wrapping serious advocacy journalism in comedy, or the recent trend of literary genre fiction like Station Eleven.

What do you make of this? Are we worse off because it's hard to imagine a Proust, or even a David Foster Wallace, gaining cultural ground in 2015? Or is a muddling of brows a sign that culture is democratizing?

Art: Retrato del Cardenal Inquisidor Don Fernando Niño de Guevara by El Greco


Magdalena Munro said...

I don't watch it and am guilty of a lip snarl-eye roll when people talk about the show. Now I feel guilty. There is a part of me that will always be snobby about literature and philosophy and it's hard to turn that button off, however, I'll try harder so that I'm neither alienated from the real world nor an alien in today's world.

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

I don't watch the The Bachelor or the Bachelorette, because the concept makes me squirm. I certainly watch some reality TV, but only shows about home remodelling or home buying or things that are not so incriedbly personal. Even the Real Housewives franchise is just too much for me. Watching people bare their souls in exchange for celebrity isn't entertaining to me. But it's not that I feel above it; it's just that I don't enjoy it. However, I certainly know people who do.

"Cable" TV with its hundred of channels has introduced a plethora of viewing choices that span a huge range of appeal-- something for everyone. I don't think it's so much a matter of people being less judgemental as there being so much out there that individual shows get less attention over all, and therefore less scorn. But maybe that's what you were saying?

Ray Robin said...

The unibrow you speak of was brought about by cable and the internet. Now impoverished youth can sit in the slums and keep up with the kardashians and vice versa. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing you are looking at the cause.

Hayley said...

To expand on what Carmen said, I think either you enjoy it or you don't. There are a couple of reality shows I truly enjoy, but there are others than make me itch. (Since you were honest about your love for The Bachelor, I will admit to my love for Dancing with the Stars and Say Yes to the Dress.) I think balance is probably the key- watch your gloriously trashy shows and revel in them, then go and read something worthwhile or create something worthwhile. Ultimately, I don't think reality television is going to bring about the end of the world.

Maria Ribas said...

I see a lot of this uni-browing happening across all the creative industries. You can open a copy of Bon Appetit and see an article about Daniel Boulud alongside a sidebar on why the BA staff still loves Miller High Life. People are multifaceted, and there's nothing wrong with liking both the finer things and the simpler things in life. Sometimes you want to escape into a YA book; sometimes you want to be stimulated by a political theory book. I hope we see more experimenting with high/low themes in the publishing world.

Terin Miller said...

I'd almost like to believe you're right, Nathan, but I don't.

Just as I am for the elimination of bullying, but I don't believe it can really be eliminated.

I wish Mira were back on your blog to argue or agree with me!

There seems to be in human nature, in general, a cliquishness that leads some people to consider themselves "better" or "more informed" or "more knowledgeable, more or better educated" than others.

It is this "cliquishness" that has always managed what in the past was referred to as taste. The cogniscenti, the literati, the elites, whatever you want to call them, always manage to act as if joining them is something to aspire to.

We do it with celebrities: does Jay Z or Beyonce's money make them any more or less knowledgable about world affairs than perhaps someone without it? Money and knowledge do not necessarily follow. But money and power do.

Because media companies--the television producers of The Bachelor, or major publishers, or movie companies--devote large numbers of dollars to convince ALL BROWS to read or watch their product does not, to me, imply in any way that there is merit (other than financial) in the product.

As a classic example (and the examples I seem to always be using for reference), look at how much money, how many people, from all walks of life (including Jay Z) have made off of The Great Gatsby? It is and has been taught as a pinnacle of American writing in colleges not only in the U.S. but elsewhere. Yet it never sold well enough to make up the advance paid the writer for it. It was even produced as a play in New York in 1926, the year after it was published.

Until F. Scott Fitzgerald died. And then, the "elites," the "cognescenti," or anyone who had been told it was a great book, touted it to the heavens and made what, 3 movie versions and at least one television mini-series out of it? And a ton of money for its publisher, which had actually been disappointed by its sales upon publication.

My point is, whatever you or I or anyone might designate as "high brow" or "low brow" or "unibrow" is really largely based on advertising. Is a $1,000 wool Armani suit really better than a $199 Jones New York on sale off the rack at Men's Wearhouse?

If your down jacket doesn't say 'NorthFace,' should you wear it in the coldest weather we've had in years? Does anyone REALLY need to "look" active by spending on "active wear"? I could go on. But I won't.

What is considered "low brow" today could become "the thing" for the next generation. Because a) everyone always wants to be one of the "cool kids," and b) the true artists of today are not pandering to masses the way the mega corporations (and some politicians) are, they are deliberately mocking and flying in the face of what the "high brows" consider "elite" or "good taste" today.

Like Picasso and Braque, and Matisse, who couldn't be displayed in the Paris Expo because their work was seen by nearly all as "not art." Until the Steins picked them up, cheap, and brought friends to view them in their salon in Paris.

There is and will be a lot of dreck published now with self-publishing and ebooks etc so readily and handily available to writers--much more so than ever has been access to the artibters of taste, the major media companies. But there are also likely gems.

Was "50 Shades" one? From a literary standpoint, probably not. From a financial standpoint?

I'm sure the Gladiator fights made some people a lot of money as well.


Anonymous said...

Truly, I think it's always been this way. In every generation you can find cultural critics having this same discussion. Only the names and titles change.

Chris Bailey said...

I think of this issue as the flip side of democracy. The premise of our government of the people and by the people emerged from deep philosophical thought. In practice, when the majority rules and most (if not all) speech is protected, you're going to get something of a unibrow. Nice phrasing!

Greg (G.P.) Field said...

I think of this as the 'spoonful of sugar' problem. As a student teacher & a genre author, I often reflect on the similarity of the demands in both jobs: You need eyeballs/attention from your readers/students and you need to be creative and smart enough to shove some edutainment into their brains without them protesting too much. (I don't watch reality TV unless my wife forces me to.)

Unknown said...

(À propos of not this, I SO appreciate your careful and à propos use of the world's most interesting art images to illustrate your posts. You're a good read for many reasons, but you give good imagery as well.)

Wendy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wendy said...

I admit to loving The Bachelor especially the Australian version as it's more culturally specific. The people who appear are, for the most part, interesting, decent and complex characters; although they all tend to speak in strangely similar cadences and rhythms.

About the highbrow question, I rarely read literary fiction as I prefer speculative fiction. (Stations Eleven sounds like it might be interesting, though.) For me, Disney provides wonderful entertainment because it's uplifting, decent, fun, charming and provides a window into a 'fantastique' kind of location compared to the dirty realism of the one we're surrounded by every day. However, characterization isn't the complex nature of literary fiction, of course. But often these complexities involve dramas and shocking tragedy that I don't find pleasant or entertaining. Sure, we all want to lift our games and understand the world we live in and those in it, but if we have to plow through debauchery to do it, then I find this not only depressing but doesn't really portray human in a true light only increases paranoia.
I find people to be amazingly kind and wonderful if not in the grip of negative emotions or addictions or lacking awareness. I mean, we can only do as well as we know how at the time and within the parameters of what we know and understand to be true. When we can overcome these, then we have the potential to be amazing. Any fiction which doesn't recognize this and portrays people in black and white - rather than fifty shades of grey - does its readers a dis-service whether it be light entertainment for children or literary fiction.
I can't say whether highbrow entertainment is decreasing in popularity or not. However, as it is being introduced to a wider range of fiction, then I'd be interested to read/watch it. But I wonder if many people don't wantto work too hard at activities where they are seeking relaxation and escapism.

Anita Estes said...

Hi brow, low brow, or mini brow doesn't matter that much to me. What's disheartening is the plunging of morality into the depths of deprivation, so that what was once considered porn is now almost put at a high brow level. I've read the classics and liked most of them, but it's great that there's room for more voices in the literary world. It use to be rather stuff in there anyway, but I still have my standards. The rest of the world can go unibrow, but I'll still prefer individual, creative talent.

Art Rosch said...

There are now more than seven billion sets of brows in the world. We live in the "niche" era, when every brow can find what it likes, and perhaps begin a civil war between brows on the same face.

Alana Roberts said...

Money doesn't mean cultivation, and cultivation doesn't mean money. The Bachelor is a show about rich people so of course rich people watch it. To gain cultivation now, you need to stumble on the right books, and even that will only be a second-hand culture because real culture comes from being surrounded by people who are already cultured.

Culture is a live thing - it has to be nurtured and fed and protected and it needs to reproduce. Whatever culture we had has been all but stamped out the bizarre philosophy that we should all pretend there are no differences between one thing and another and that this will somehow bring a gold age of tolerance.

But only cultured people can truly be tolerant, and the golden age of tolerance is already degenerating into a sulfuric age of Twitter mobs and bitch hunts - of true intolerance, of a vicious thoughtless pseudo-orthodoxy of nothing.

I was homeschooled. I never graduated from college. I'm dirt poor. And I will never, EVER apologize for my disgust with "reality" tv.

abc said...

I don't quite agree. I think there is definitely high brow culture still in existence, as well as lowbrow. And in between. And people that see themselves as high brow--they laugh the loudest at the Woody Allen movie showings, but aren't necessarily. They wouldn't sit through the 3 hour experimental film, probably. I mix it up. I love a good art film, scholarly article, etc. but I've been known to take in a good chunk of Bravo.

I think this is also just wanting to be part of the zeitgeist. I want to know what is going on and what people are talking about. Still, I can't handle Dance Moms, or Honey Boo Boo, and I have no desire to see most of Adam Sandler's films. Yes, because I think they are probably stupid and boring because they are stupid. I'm bored by cliche stories. A lot of people think I'm a snob, but that's not true, either. Because Vince Vaughn makes me laugh no matter what he does. I have quite a soft spot for Bob's Burgers. But I also really liked Ida--which is a slow moving, black and white Polish film about a nun having an existential crisis.

In conclusion, I think high brow and low brow still exist. I can't see my father-in-law (the gold wing loving, diner eating, Zorro obsessed man that he is) getting that excited about a Matisse exhibit. And there's no way in hell you could get me to attend a Monster Truck show. Which isn't to say people shouldn't get to enjoy what they enjoy. But, yeah.

There is definitely room for another DFW (who many people--hubby, included--find wildly entertaining) and Franzen (I love that snobby bastard), and Zadie Smith and even a Proust. And they won't sell to my father-in-law, but they'll have the place in our culture and in history. I don't think Station Eleven is such an anomaly. We have plenty of literary genre fiction. I mean, isn't Cormac McCarthy all about literary genre fiction?

However (so, maybe not in conclusion), I think the modern global existence we all tend to live in makes for more unibrow among us. And I also think that is kind of cool.

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