My friend was singing some pop song from the 2000s a few days ago at Bethe dining hall when she turned to me and said, “You like trash, too, right?” I nodded, more focused at the time on my brownie than puzzling through the complex dichotomies between high and low art.
However, something about the idea of liking “trash,” or admitting to liking it, stuck with me. When it comes down to it, it’s pretty easy to say what many would consider “trash” — Keeping Up with the Kardashians, for one, along with the whole gamut of reality television. This is media that doesn’t seem to invite much in the way of critical or intellectual thinking. Still, you can brag proudly to most people about how many episodes of Real Housewives you binge-watched last night or blast pop music at top volume without much fear of shame.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the highbrows — here one imagines a man in a top hat looking through a monocle at a weathered copy of Finnegan’s Wake, or some other rarified and distinguished literary or artistic work. If you brag about your highbrow tastes, sure, people might find you pretentious, but there’s also a superiority about it that you can lord over others.
Less easy to define is everything “which is betwixt and between,” a.k.a. “middlebrow” art.
When Virginia Woolf first made a distinction between the “brows” in an unposted letter to the editor of the British magazine New Statesman, she defined a “highbrow” as someone who directed their intelligence to “gallop across country in pursuit of an idea.” In contrast, a “lowbrow” was someone engaged primarily in the day-to-day business of living — here Woolf cites train conductors, cooks, women with ten children. Woolf admired both but derided the “middlebrows,” whom she saw as people without taste, currying favor with both sides, concerned more with money and appearance than beauty and integrity.
Reading Woolf’s essay, it’s hard now not to view her comments as classist and pretentious. For one thing, the idea that there should be a class of people who do the cooking and washing-up and breadwinning and managing of day-to-day affairs while another class lounges around in their ivory towers looking at art is problematic. For another, Woolf’s reviews and essays themselves dealt with topics many might consider “middlebrow,” writing in a way that dealt with complex ideas using accessible language.
But does this matter at all? Is accessible even bad? In an age where all sorts of art are available at the click of a button, is it useful to make these kinds of distinctions anymore? I wrote about Rupi Kaur in a previous column, attacking popular poetry. I guess the question really is whether influence means doing something different with one’s art or reaching as many people as possible. If something is too highbrow, it’s arguably more for the critics than the average person. If something is too lowbrow, those enjoying it are shamed. Middlebrow, hard as it is to be defined, is probably that layer where both happen at once and some respectable viewing/reading/whatever is allowed.
This whole thing then goes to why we need art at all. Why we can’t resist it, why we can’t stop creating it. If art is for oneself, then it shouldn’t matter what “brow” it’s on. If art is for others, then whoever enjoys it matters most. Maybe some of it is just for entertainment. I’m not sure if we can get anything intellectual from Keeping Up with the Kardashians, but we sure as hell can bond with people over it. Perhaps this is precisely the value of middlebrow art: that it allows us to engage with meaningful art in a way that is direct and accessible for both us and people we can connect to.
As for the friend I mentioned? I told her I love trash. In all shapes and sizes. In all of media. We then linked arms and skipped off into the horizon to keep up with the Kardashians. But we knew that we never could keep up because their eyebrows are too on fleek.
Ramya Yandava is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ramy’s Rambles runs alternating Tuesdays this semester.