midcult353

Patron saint of the Upper Middle Brow: Jon Stewart.

Browsing the shelves of a newsagency used to be a pleasantly distracting experience but nowadays it leaves me feeling a little uneasy.

While I undoubtedly lack the symmetry and style of the cover models, it's also because so many A3-sized lifestyle/fashion/art/interiors/travel titles seem to suggest they know something I don't and never will ... unless I buy them.

It's a simple matter to ignore the mass-market, mass-culture mags that implore you to get a beach body, check out Pippa's beach body or redesign your wardrobe to embody the beach.

Newer, hipper titles are subtler, however - what writer William Deresiewicz recently described as mass culture "masquerading as art: slick and predictable but varnished with ersatz seriousness ... peddling uplift in the guise of big ideas".

As mentioned last week, in 1960 the American essayist Dwight MacDonald coined the term "midcult" or middle-culture, which he used to mock the artistic pretensions of the "middlebrow".

Neither highbrow intellectuals or lowbrow plebs, the middlebrow had copped a pasting as far back as the 1940s from writer Virginia Woolf who described them as "of middlebred intelligence ... in pursuit of no single object, neither art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige".

The middlebrow neither search out art for its intrinsic value or lowbrow entertainment for distraction, they want "midcult"; books or movies invariably recommended by others as "classic" or "cool" and offering "a high-minded sentimentality that congratulates" them for their "fine feelings", says Deresiewicz.

Not as crass as the mass-culture output of the Kardashians, Beiber and Big Brother, the rising-tide of midcult lifted high the careers of artists as diverse the Beatles, Steven Spielberg, Ernest Hemingway and Annie Leibovitz.

Of course, such cultural demarcations have become more difficult - perhaps even irrelevant - in an age where authors mash-up Emily Bronte and zombies, musicians snatch Bach to enliven their beats and even humble newspaper bloggers borrow ideas to dress up their own thin education.

In his recent American Scholar piece, however, Deresiewicz wonders if we've not seen the emergence of a new sub-species, the Upper Middle Brow; "its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool".

"It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, John Stewart, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars."

He argues that as mass culture grew from mass literacy and the post-WWII boom in tertiary education produced an expansion of middle-culture, the Upper Middle Brow is now the refuge of the "mass elite".

"This is the root of the so-called creative class, the bourgeois bohemians, the liberal elite," writes Deresiewicz and its' great conceit is you have to be educated enough to get the joke.

In Australia, the Upper Middle Brow would probably capture all those wits tweeting on Q and A, the entire audience of The First Tuesday Book Club with Jennifer Byrne and anything 'produced' by Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton.

So what does this demographic want for its money?

Says Deresiewicz, the Upper Middle Brow "affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the 'quality' media ... it doesn't tell us anything we don't already know, doesn't seek to disturb ... our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world," writes Deresiewicz.

What's disturbing for me is I can't decide if those new, edgy magazines I recoil from are Upper Middle Brow or middlebrow and thus, just how truly inadequate my taste is.

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