I suggested “upper middle brow” not long ago as a name for the level of cultural production that embodies the sensibility of the so-called “creative class,” or as David Brooks memorably dubbed them, the Bobos, bourgeois bohemians. Think Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, a lot of HBO and NPR and indie/Sundance-type movies, etc. I said that while there is a lot to recommend such smart and stylish work, it fails to rise above a certain level because it stays within the bounds of what its audience already believes. The problem is encoded in Brooks’s formulation: How do you make art that transgresses the assumptions of people who think that everything they do is transgressive? How do you create an avant-garde if everybody sees themselves as a rebel? How do you dissent when dissent is already commodified?
Brooks traces the roots of Boboism to the 1960s—the very decade, as Louis Menand has pointed out, when the old Masscult/Midcult/High Culture distinctions were being overrun in Pop art, rock ’n’ roll, and the New Hollywood. The culture of the ’60s really was an avant-garde, and not only for its formal innovations or its violation of stylistic decorum, but because it embodied the moral revolt of the time: the sexual rebellion, the contempt for institutional authority, the insurgencies of socially marginal groups.
But all that’s long since ossified by now. The baby boomers have become the Establishment; their morality has become the mainstream; and the sensibility of ’60s art has become the upper middle brow, the house style of the upper middle class. Irony is taken for granted. Formal innovation is expected. A mixture of aesthetic registers is de rigueur. Ridicule is aimed at what’s left of the cultural enemy. Nothing shocks, and nothing is intended to shock. Beneath the gestures of transgression there exists a moral consensus that is every bit as unexamined, as immobile, and as self-congratulatory as that which girded the ruling class the Bobos displaced. Somehow, the rebels of half a century ago have grown up to become the new Victorians. There’s a right way now to eat, vote, laugh, think.
Which means it really shouldn’t be that difficult to make an avant-garde. Here are some of the pieties that it might undertake to profane. That people are basically good. That freedom is the chief ingredient of happiness. That we control our fates. That society is slowly getting better. That we are more virtuous than those who came before us. That the universe coheres in a mystical whole. That it all works out in the end. In short, the whole gospel of self-improvement, progressive politics, ethical hygiene, and pantheistic spirituality. The upper middle brow is as committed to the happy ending as is Hollywood. Tragedy is inadmissible: the recognition that loss is loss and cannot be recuperated, that most people’s lives end in failure and emptiness, that the world is never going to be a happy place, that the universe doesn’t love us.
A new avant-garde would be not only experimental, but difficult. The upper middle brow is always inventive, but it is never difficult. Difficulty tells us there is something that we do not know, something that evades our mental structures. Instead of cutting the world to our measure—rendering it manageable, comfortable, and familiar, as the upper middle brow is meant to do—difficulty makes us recognize the narrowness of our experience, here on our little island of middle-class American normalcy. It starts with the truth and seeks to bring us to it, not the other way around. It isn’t fun, it isn’t soothing, and it isn’t marketable. It is only art.
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