[JPL] David Brooks: What happened to culture?

Doug Crane dcrane at comcast.net
Sun Jul 31 23:58:46 EDT 2005

I thought this was an especially interesting op-ed by David Brooks who, as 
a conservative, still "gets it correctly" a great deal of the time.  Given 
the recent discourse on JPL about Jazz Police, Jazz Purists, Smooth Jazz, 
etc., I thought this piece germane.  One only need to change the names of 
the authors in the very last paragraph to Ellington, Miles, Trane in the 
jazz genre or perhaps Stravinsky, Shostakovich or Copland in the classical 
sphere to realize how universal Brooks' fears for the future of culture 
truly are.

Doug Crane
dcrane at comcast.net
Volunteer Jazz DJ
KUVO Denver 89.3 FM

What happened to culture?
By David Brooks The New York Times
FRIDAY, JUNE 17, 2005

  It was not a great moment for cultural optimism.

I was emptying some boxes in my basement the other day and I came across an
essay somebody had clipped on Ernest Hemingway from the July 14, 1961, issue
of Time magazine. The essay was outstanding. Over three pages of tightly
packed prose, with just a few photos, the anonymous writer performed the
sort of high-toned but accessible literary analysis that would be much
harder to find in a mass market magazine today.

The Hemingway hero, Time's essayist wrote, adheres to a personal code.
Conduct "is a question of how the good professional behaves within the rules
of a game or the limits of a craft. All the how-to passages - how to land a
fish, how to handle guns, how to work with a bull - have behind them the
professional's pride of skill.

"But the code is never anchored to anything except itself; life becomes a
game of doing things in a certain style, a narcissistic ritual - which led
Hemingway himself not only to some mechanical, self-consciously 'Hemingway'
writing, but to a self-conscious 'Hemingway' style of life."

The sad thing, from today's perspective, is that this type of essay was not
unusual in that era. If you read Time and Newsweek from the 1950s and early
1960s, you discover they were pitched at middle-class Americans across the
country who aspired to have the same sorts of conversations as the New York
and Boston elite.

The magazines would devote pages to the work of theologians like Abraham
Joshua Heschel or Reinhold Niebuhr. They devoted as much space to opera as
to movies because an educated person was expected to know something about
opera, even if that person had no prospect of actually seeing one.

The newsweeklies would have six-page spreads on things like Abstract
Expressionism. There was a long piece in 1956 in Time, for example, about
the Kitchen Sink School of British painters, as well as analyses of painters
who are not exactly household names, like Charles Burchfield and Stanton

That doesn't happen today. And it's not that the magazines themselves are
dumber or more commercial (they were always commercial). It's the whole
culture that has changed. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, middlebrow
culture, which is really high-toned popular culture, was thriving in
America. There was still a sense that culture is good for your character,
and that a respectable person should spend time absorbing the best that has
been thought and said.

The middlebrow impulse in America dates at least to Ralph Waldo Emerson and
the belief that how one spends one's leisure time is intensely important.
Time spent with consequential art uplifts character, and time spent with
dross debases it.

It's true there was a great mood of take-your-vitamins earnestness about the
middlebrow enterprise. But it led to high levels of mass cultural literacy,
to Great Books volumes on parlor shelves and to a great deal of accessible
but reasonably serious work, like Will and Ariel Durant's "Story of

Middlebrow culture was killed in the late '50s and '60s, and the mortal
blows came from opposite directions. Intellectuals mounted vicious assaults
on what they took to be middlebrow institutions.

Clement Greenberg called the middlebrow an "insidious" force that was
"devaluing the precious, infecting the healthy, corrupting the honest and
stultifying the wise." Dwight MacDonald lambasted the "tepid ooze" of the
Museum of Modern Art and the plays of Thornton Wilder. Basically, these
intellectuals objected to the earnest and optimistic middle-class arrivistes
who were tromping over everything and dumbing down their turf.

At the same time, pop culture changed. It was no longer character-oriented;
it was personality-oriented. Readers felt less of a need to go outside
themselves and absorb works of art as a means of self-improvement. They were
more interested in exploring and being true to the precious flower of their
own individual selves. Less Rembrandt, more Maine. Fewer theologians, more

As a result, we are spared some of the plodding gentility that marked
middlebrow culture. But on the other hand, serious culture matters less now
than it did then, and artists and intellectuals have less authority.

Today more people go to college. They may be assigned Rimbaud or Faulkner or
even Hemingway. But somehow in adulthood, they tend to have less interest in
that stuff than readers 40 years ago.

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