Sunday, January 15, 2006

50BC06 #2: Highbrow, Lowbrow

Review of Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America by Lawrence W. Levine. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.)

Academia often will mark anything dated ten to fifteen years prior to the present as “dated” simply by the mere fact that its conception took place more than a decade ago. Levine’s 1988 tome testifies that this attitude is shortsighted and moreover, erroneous. Levine has written a book that serves both as a history lesson as well as a hopeful plea to reconsider our cultural biases as constructs of our own doing. Levine does not simplify the situation by presenting a black and white portrait of the American development of high vs. low culture. Instead he offers a well-researched argument supporting a flux in cultural ideas wherein we travel through various redefinitions of culture, both high and low.

Investigating the societal milieu surrounding Shakespeare, opera and orchestral music in nineteenth-century America, Levine aptly demonstrates how we arrived at our current struggle to accommodate contrasting ideas about culture. Bravely decrying the rhetoric of extremists on both sides of the debate, Levine warns:
“In defining and redefining the contours of culture, we are not merely dealing with intellectual abstractions; we are dealing with lives and minds, we are dealing with people, and we owe them more than the hubris of narrow self-defense; we owe them no less than the adoption of an open search for and a careful understanding of what culture has been in our past and can become in our future.”

One need not be an expert in the arts to appreciate the severity of Levine’s message. The comprehension of “cultural hierarchy” is absolutely fundamental to understanding our societal existence. One can moreover applaud Levine for tackling the subject in a way that is accessible and easily comprehended by those not ensconced in academic dialogue. His writing is bold and charismatic, making this book a refreshing change from many academic missives which aim to keep the discourse within the walls of the ivory tower. Levine invites us outside those walls by presenting us with an uncracked mirror by which we can clearly see our own responsibilities and reactions to culture in America.

Actually posted here 9/8/08, original post 1/15/06.

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