For a year, I’ve appraised items in Paradise, Calif. that were destroyed in the fire of 2018.
I’m amazed at the variety of objects treasured and collected by many folks in that community. I experienced the type of objects I don’t appraise much: baseball cards, stamp collections, mineral collections, coin collections, cast iron toys, matchbooks, vintage rock memorabilia, beanie babies, NASCAR stuff, model cars and taxidermy.
Other appraisers before me turned down Paradise jobs because the objects collected were not “highbrow” enough. This classification (judgment) of collections into either highbrow, middlebrow or lowbrow both intrigued and disgusted me.
A collection is a life-affirming structure, and to me, it doesn’t matter what is collected. A collection is a passion, a sentiment, and a reach into history and into a personal past. Objects in a collection form cultural connections, enable structure building and celebrate the thrill of the hunt.
Costco’s magazine, “Connections,” this month featured a story about what Costco customers collect, such as full-service gas station memorabilia, matchbox cars, ceramic owls, ceramic honey pots, a world of patented mousetraps, Presidential memorabilia, Pez candy containers, souvenir coffee mugs, ceramic snails, locks and miniature perfume bottles.
Writer T. Foster Jones perhaps was not selecting collections based on refinement, money, connoisseurship and rarity. Selecting such “highbrow” collections for this publication may have compromised the “fast consumer” mentality that Costco symbolizes.
Who originally designated objects as “highbrow?”
First, in 1880-1900, “highbrow” literally meant a high forehead to a group of “scholars of the head” called phrenologists. These scholars studied the shape of facial features and heads at the turn of the last century. The term applied to the phrenological belief that the higher the brow, the more intelligent the person.
In 1946, a brilliant editor for Harper’s reinvented the term highbrow to apply to a range (high, middle and lowbrow) of what collectors consumed during the tenure of President Harry Truman.
This young editor, Russell Lynes, published a lighthearted satirical analysis of the state of culture for the post-World War II era, when the median American income was $3,000. The state of culture, he said, was stratified and always had been, and fell into three main taste segments: high, middle and low. The three categories, he believed, were permanent cultural standards.
The electricity generated by Mr. Lynes’s article, accompanied by his fantastic socio-diagram cartoon graphs, resulted in a book still worth reading today: “The Tastemakers” (1954).
Mr. Lynes famously said in his book that what marks the group “highbrow” was not American heroes, but American thinkers. After World War II he said, we needed oracles, and the closest we came to oracles were scientists (example: Albert Einstein).
How each of us developed a high, middle, or low “brow” taste level depended on whose ideologies we consumed.
In the 1960s a sociologist posited that the American invention of the book of the month club is a marker that shows a “certain people’” (middlebrow) do want high culture, but they want it in an easy manner.
In 1990, another genius, Lawrence Levine, rethought “high, middle and low BROW-NESS” and published “Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America” (The William E Massey Sr., Lectures in American Studies).
His book upended the paradigm of high, middle and lowbrow, and states that cultural boundaries are shifting and fragile, NOT natural and eternal. (However, we still use the comparison of a certain group’s appreciation of “art and culture” as a marker of rank/status/brow-ness, today.)
The New York Times features articles that deconstruct the high, middle, lowbrow ranking system. Creatives and intellectuals today, according to the Times stories, watch Netflix and fashions on the street. Intellectuals and creatives purchase and operate middlebrow technology.
Sociologists who study the arbitrary divisions of class and taste say we have so many visual images and noise around us that there’s little distinction between high, middle or lowbrow art. They cite today’s creative mashups, compilations, and resonant sharing of music and images across many artforms as proof. To polarize a group of Americans because of one’s judgment about taste is a crime in this rich creative landscape.
To judge cultural capital is to polarize others. As Diana Vreeland said, ‘I would rather have bad taste than no taste at all.’
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Saturdays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.