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Highbrow/Lowbrow : The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America

af Lawrence Levine

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338377,122 (4.06)Ingen
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. ... 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. --Publisher description.… (mere)
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In Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Lawrence W. Levine writes, “The idea that Americans, long after they declared their political independence, retained a colonial mentality in matters of culture and intellect is a shrewd perception that deserves serious consideration” (pg. 2). Levine argues, “Because the primary categories of culture have been the products of ideologies which were always subject to modifications and transformations, the perimeters of our cultural divisions have been permeable and shifting rather than fixed and immutable” (pg. 8). He further argues, “In the nineteenth century, especially in the first half, Americans, in addition to whatever specific cultures they were part of, shared a public culture less hierarchically organized, less fragmented into relatively rigid adjectival boxes than their descendants were to experience a century later” (pg. 9).
Levine argues that wealthy, established men viewed the dawn of the nineteenth century “with a sense of loss, looming disorder and chaos” due to their fears of losing cultural authority in an increasingly democratic society (pg. 173). Levine writes, “In an industrializing, urbanizing nation absorbing millions of immigrants from alien cultures and experiencing an almost incomprehensible degree of structural change and spatial mobility, with anonymous institutions becoming ever larger and more central and with populations shifting from the countryside and small town to the city, from city to city, and from one urban neighborhood to another, the sense of anarchic change, of looming chaos, of fragmentation, which seemed to imperil the very basis of the traditional order, was not confined to a handful of aristocrats” (pg. 176). He continues that immigration and new groups threatened the established order. According to Levine, “These worlds of strangers did not remain contained; they spilled over into the public spaces that characterized nineteenth-century America and that included theaters, music halls, opera houses, museums, parks, fairs, and the rich public cultural life that took place daily on the streets of American cities. This is precisely where the threat lay and the response of the elites was a tripartite one: to retreat into their own private spaces whenever possible; to transform public spaces by rules, systems of taste, and canons of behavior of their own choosing; and, finally, to convert the strangers so that their modes of behavior and cultural predilections emulated those of the elites” (pg. 177).
Turning to those who promoted high culture, Levine writes, “The desire of the promoters of the new high culture to convert audiences into a collection of people reacting individually rather than collectively, was increasingly realized by the twentieth century. This was achieved partly by fragmenting and segregating audiences so that it was more and more difficult in the twentieth century to find the equivalent of the nineteenth-century theater audience that could serve as a microcosm of the entire society” (pg. 195). Order played a key role in this transformation. Levine writes, “If order was a necessary prerequisite for culture it was also one of culture’s salutary by-products. If without order there could be no pure culture, it was equally true that without culture there could be no meaningful order” (pg. 206). He continues, “True art required standards and authority of a kind that was difficult to find in a country with America’s leveling, practical tendencies” (pg. 215).
Levine concludes, “The blurring of cultural classifications has been accompanied by the efforts of producers and performers of drama, symphonic and operatic music, and other forms of high culture, to reach out to their audiences in ways not known since the nineteenth century” (pg. 245). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Nov 12, 2017 |
The most useful and often cited book in my collection. Levine's tome and analysis have proven relevant through three college degrees. Highly recommended for anyone in the humanities or social science fields. ( )
1 stem sailordanae | Apr 27, 2008 |
Academia often will mark anything dated ten to fifteen years prior to the present as "dated" simply by the mere fact that its conception took place more than a decade ago. Levine's 1988 tome testifies that this attitude is shortsighted and moreover, erroneous. Levine has written a book that serves both as a history lesson as well as a hopeful plea to reconsider our cultural biases as constructs of our own doing.

Levine does not simplify the situation by presenting a black and white portrait of the American development of high vs. low culture. Instead he offers a well-researched argument supporting a flux in cultural ideas wherein we travel through various redefinitions of culture, both high and low. Investigating the societal milieu surrounding Shakespeare, opera and orchestral music in nineteenth-century America, Levine aptly demonstrates how we arrived at our current struggle to accommodate contrasting ideas about culture.

One need not be an expert in the arts to appreciate the severity of Levine's message. The comprehension of "cultural hierarchy" is absolutely fundamental to understanding our societal existence. One can moreover applaud Levine for tackling the subject in a way that is accessible and easily comprehended by those not ensconced in academic dialogue. His writing is bold and charismatic, making this book a refreshing change from many academic missives which aim to keep the discourse within the walls of the ivory tower. Levine invites us outside those walls by presenting us with an uncracked mirror by which we can clearly see our own responsibilities and reactions to culture in America. ( )
1 stem rebcamuse | Jan 11, 2008 |
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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. ... 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. --Publisher description.

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