The long death of the middle-brow

The Oscars do not give awards for the most popular movies — that would simply be redundant. The Oscars also do not give awards for the best movies — they will make their presence felt over time. The Oscars instead operate in the uncertain terrain of the middle-brow. They have to hit a mark that’s snobbish enough not to simply endorse popular taste, but not so snobbish as to be a serious engagement with cinema as an artform. In short, they have to make moderately educated people feel smarter than average without accidentally making them feel dumb.

This dynamic has become clearer since they expanded the list of best picture nominees, as this has made more room for the genuinely popular (Avatar) as well as for the genuninely artful (Amour) — making it that much easier to plot the incoherent middle course (Argo). There is no plausible definition under which Argo is actually the best film that was released last year. But it speaks to the power of film (hence minimally meta), it has a political element, it’s set in a foreign culture — all of that adds up to something that’s just right for the NPR set. The Hurt Locker hits a similar sweet spot of making people feel like they’ve thought about serious issues without actually making them do so. Etc., etc.

It seems that the Oscars are the last place in American culture where the specifically middle-brow has any particular cachet, and that’s presumably because film is the one contemporary art form that combines mass appeal with a relatively unified field of “high art” aspiration — i.e., where there is still some kind of unity to the art as such that overcomes the centrifugal force of genre diversification. The Grammy awards have so little cultural authority because their task seems inherently meaningless. Who could presume to judge, out of all the many genres of music, what was the “best music” of that year? The choices aren’t frustrating so much as irrelevant. The same could be said for other types of awards, ranging from the Emmys to the National Book Award. Sure, the choices often don’t seem to make sense, but who honestly cares?

The Oscars, by contrast, are still frustrating to people, because it seems as though they have a coherent task, ranging over an important field of cultural endevor, and that they could conceivably fulfill that task well. It could even turn out, in fact, that the Oscars are something like the katechon, holding the field of movies together against the chaos of genre dissolution — making it plausible that Thor and Chinatown are, in an important and meaningful way, the same kind of thing.

A similar katechontic effect can be seen in the Oscars’ specifically American focus — if not for that focus, the field of film would again seem to be radically heterogenous. A film award aspiring to universality that simply omitted foreign film would be farcical, however, and hence we see the deployment of the category of “Best Foreign Film,” which carefully filters out all but one film from each country each year. Surely this is the dangerous upper limit of the middle brow, where it threatens to turn into genuine artistic discernment and knowledge — but it must be included as a kind of innoculation against exploring further. If I’m not satisfied with seeing all the regular nominees, I can go for something really edgy and advanced and see all the foreign films! Imagine how smart I’ll look at the Oscar party!

It’s unclear how long this awkward synthesis can continue to exert cultural authority — but we see again and again how often a system’s pull becomes all the stronger as it breaks down. The phenomenon of live-tweeting, where people watch programs specifically in order to complain about them, may have breathed new life into the Oscars (though it seems that people in my timeline last night were struggling!). Behind all the criticism, though, there is still the underlying demand to do it right, to do justice to the unified field of film that the Oscars hegemonically establish, to tell us what to watch already.

There’s also the sense in which we’re all in on the joke now, in which we can all pick out which self-congratulatory mediocrity will be a serious Oscar contender — almost as though “Oscar contenders” is a genre all its own. But if we can predict the outcome so easily, why do we need the awards at all? And if the “Oscar contender” is often such an unwatchable genre, why don’t we just seek out things that we, you know, actually enjoy? That’s the problem, though. The middle brow subject isn’t seeking out something to enjoy. The middle brow subject is seeking out a way of signalling cultural prestige. Hence the self-congratulatory mediocrity is a feature, not a bug.

The real danger to their position isn’t that they continue to choose so poorly (by their own standards, they choose well!) — but that they risk undermining their tenuous cultural authority by, for example, having Seth MacFarlane host. If the show itself becomes unwatchable, then the spell is gone — because the ritual element of watching the show is part of the cultural authority as well. Indeed, one might take the risk of viewing the Superbowl and the Oscars as part of one coherent “holiday season” that includes Thanksgiving and Christmas. The events are spaced out more or less evenly, one per month; they all involve obligatory gatherings of some kind or other; and they all celebrate some kind of American ideal, with an undercurrent of American reality. (I leave the elaboration of this claim as an exercise for the reader.)

Perhaps it is telling that the “holiday season” continues to expand (beyond its expansion to include “adult Halloween”) — perhaps it takes more and more work to hold American culture together, to force it into some kind of coherence. The increasing militarization of the holidays is a symptom that plays out here with the elevation of more or less nakedly propagandistic films to the dubious level of “Oscar contenders.” And here one thinks of the prohibition of political protest at the first Oscars that occurred during the Iraq War — a prohibition that is clearly unnecessary now. If “official” Hollywood’s hold on American culture is more tenuous, its integration into the apparatus is becoming tighter and more ham-fisted.

In any case, I’ve written enough for now. Please let me know if I’m horribly wrong.

7 thoughts on “The long death of the middle-brow

  1. You’ve raised my estimation of the Oscars. I thought they were just bad. I didn’t realize that their badness had such a finely honed purpose!

  2. Your post has piqued my interest. I’m writing here in friendly disagreement.
    In your understanding of the “middle brow,” you seem to ignore people who are perfectly sincere in trying to express something or learn something but just happen not to be as talented as High Artists or who don’t have your refined tastes. As Thoreau asked, “Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can?”
    Maybe the place I disagree with you most is here: “That’s the problem, though. The middle brow subject isn’t seeking out something to enjoy. The middle brow subject is seeking out a way of signalling cultural prestige.”
    Pretending to be a better person than you are can be a way to grow into being that person. When you teach people math, you learn that very often they have to go through the motions first, and only start to understand the underlying significance of what they are doing later. There is nothing wrong with wanting more out of movies than “something to enjoy,” nor do I think it’s obvious that people don’t enjoy films like Life of Pi, Argo, Lincoln, Django Unchained, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and whatnot. Maybe it’s easy to feel they shouldn’t if you are someone who has, as it were, “been there, done that.” But let’s not be so precious about our refined tastes as to lament the flailing misfires of those not in possession of them.

  3. Adam, your response just seems intentionally cryptic to me, I’m sorry. I guess I’d be interested to hear you say more about why you believe there aren’t many “middle brow” people and how you would define “middle brow subject.” (Is it because everyone is low-brow in your view, and only pretending? But isn’t that an inherent part of the logic of the “middle brow” as such, and not an aberration from? And then we are back to some of the things I pointed out above.)
    I might just offer here that I feel the word “middle brow” has power, but I’m not sure what it is. It always feels like an indictment, sort of like “middle of the road.” It seems like you can make an argument that just about anything is “middle brow” as long as it doesn’t meet the criteria of successful art laid out by Adorno, but still has _some_ merit or message and is not, for example, Deuce Bigalow. In that way, it seems like “middle brow” is a word that, like “middle class,” becomes more and more applicable and non-specific, not less and less. But you aren’t talking about the artifacts, you’re talking about the subjects (or, I guess, viewers) — and maybe you think there is a gap between who we are and what we produce.
    Anyway, I’d be glad to hear more.

  4. I believe that the entire “brow” system has broken down. Genre diversification and artistic niches have multiplied to the point where the three-level system simply does not make sense for contemporary culture. Even unarguably “low-brow” stuff has emerged as a kind of “guilty pleasure” for people all along the scale — and there’s a mixing of brow levels, as in something like Archer that is almost scholarly in its elaborate citation of the pop cultural canon but engages in ridiculously gutter-level humor. So the “middle-brow subject,” the kind of person who looks to authorized cultural arbitrators and seeks to conform to the accepted consensus, is going to be more rare by necessity.

    Who bases their reading off of the New York Times book review section, for example, or even the best-seller list? Carmella Soprano, maybe, but not many real-life people. Or more precisely: who feels like they should be so guided, even if they guiltily indulge in sci-fi novels or something? I’m going to say that’s a vanishingly small group of people, perhaps limited to an “aspirational” demographic. (When I was more or less unconsciously aspiring to class mobility in high school, for example, I went through a phase where I took those kinds of gate-keeping institutions seriously — but it quickly became clear that I was going to be better off fending for myself.)

    In the wake of this breakdown and fragmentation in the cultural landscape, which makes something like the Oscars a bizarre anachronism, my question in this post was to ask what cultural function the Oscars are fulfilling. My goal wasn’t to make fun of individuals who dutifully watch all the Oscar nominees — if I had to put it briefly, the “middle-brow subject” is the subject presupposed by the awards, who may or may not closely correspond to anyone in real life. And if the Oscars are nominating movies to please someone who doesn’t exist anymore, that makes the problem of what they’re doing for our cultural life even more puzzling and pressing in my mind.

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