Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (review: 5/5)

In 1800s America, Shakespeare productions had juggling and singing amidst the acts, and theatergoers would cheer the heroes, boo the villains, shout out lines along with the actors, even walk about on the stage. Opera divas would sing “Yankee Doodle,” “Home Sweet Home,” Irish ballads and other folk songs, and take requests from the audience. Orchestras would choose a few excerpts from Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and mix them in with popular reels, jigs, and other dance tunes. It was a different world:

An African Monkey
and several
Come One Come All

I dog-eared Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America more heavily than any book in recent memory. Lawrence Levine doesn’t argue that the old ways of interacting with art were necessarily better. But it is important to know that it was different. The book gives a whole different history and perspective on our inherited rituals, kind of like hearing a whole new arrangement of a familiar melody.

Levine opens the book with a focus on Shakespeare in American cultural life. Shakespeare was really popular. At home, in books (like Mark Twain’s parodies in Huckleberry Finn), on the road, in the theaters. Even the illiterate mountain man Jim Bridger knew it was worth hiring someone to read it to him enough that he could recite long passages.

In performance, this popularity and relevance made it fairly common for the actors to shorten or lengthen the monologues as they saw fit, and companies would commonly rewrite the endings. In a typical account from a local newspaper, when the audience disapproved, “Cabbages, carrots, pumpkins, potatoes, a wreath of vegetables, a sack of flour and one of soot, and a dead goose, with other articles, simultaneously fell upon the stage.” What’s cool is not only that the audience was carrying vegetables to the show, but also that they knew Shakespeare well enough to know the difference when changes were made to voice their opinion. And audience and performers alike weren’t just mutely receiving the Greatness of Shakespeare, but participating and engaging with it.

Events like the Astor Place Riot in 1849 helped mark the growing division between the audiences for art (the Cultured and the Masses), and the “sacralization” of the works themselves. A lot of it was tied to the economics of the art industry. Amateur actors and musicians were gradually replaced with professional payrolls. Wealthy patrons became the primary financial support for the organizations, so the programming was less reliant on popular approval and ticket sales at the door. With the Masses weeded out, the new superstar conductors began to program entire works, instead of just excerpts.

And along with that came programs of behavioral control (dimming the lights, refusal to encore, training audiences in when to clap, etc.). Levine ties in “the taming of the audience” to a broader cultural change that separated public and private space, and public and private behavior. As art became more hierarchical, the classes weren’t attending the same types of performances or sharing the same spaces. The cultural institutions were active in “teaching their audiences to adjust to the new social imperatives, in urging them to separate public behavior from private feelings.” By the early 1900s,

the masterworks of the classic composers were to be performed in their entirety by highly trained musicians on programs free from the contamination of lesser works or lesser genres, free from the interference of audience or performer, free from the distractions of the mundane; audiences were to approach the masters and their works with proper respect and proper seriousness, for aesthetic and spiritual elevation rather than mere entertainment was the goal.

In other words, it changed to the modern, frosty atmosphere that lingers in performance halls and museums today. No more audience outrage, no more spontaneous celebrations. The groups were transformed “strove to concentrate on the music rather than the performance.” The orchestra plays, the audience receives. You see a similar transformation in museums and libraries at the same time. They change from the fantastic freak shows and cabinets of curiosity to sacred archives, filled with carefully curated items for preservation or quiet contemplation.

One really interesting bit that Levine touches on is how knowledge of these cultural manners (like knowing when to clap) helps classes distinguish themselves. In this way, knowledge becomes both a status symbol and a barrier to entry:

Thorsten Veblen constructed his concept of conspicuous consumption, he included not only the obvious material possessions but also the “immaterial” goods—“the knowledge of dead languages and the occult sciences; of correct spelling; of syntax and prosody; of the various forms of domestic music… of the latest proprieties of dress, furniture, and equipage”; of the ancient “classics”—all of which constituted a conspicuous culture that helped confer legitimacy on the newly emergent groups. This helps explain the vogue during this period of manuals of etiquette, of private libraries and rare books, of European art and music displayed and performed in ornate—often neoclassical—museums and concert halls.

It’s a really fantastic book. Levine to close it out:

When the art forms that had constituted a shared culture for much of the nineteenth century became less accessible to large segments of the American people, millions of them satisfied their aesthetic cravings through a number of the new forms of expressive culture that were barred from high culture by the the very fact of their accessibility to the masses: the blues, jazz or jazz-derived music, musical comedy, photography, comic strips, movies, radio, popular comedians, all of which though relegated to the nether world culturally, in fact frequently contained much that was fresh, exciting, innovative, intellectually challenging, and highly imaginative. If there is a tragedy in this development, 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.

One thought on “Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (review: 5/5)

  1. […] ideas came up a lot in my review of the excellent book Highbrow/Lowbrow. Great stuff. Makes me wish I’d heard of Fringe *before* the last concert of the season. […]

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