Hello! Kylie Dayton here. The question weighing on my mind in these first few weeks of research has been one of terminology. I am in Los Angeles investigating cultural hierarchy in art and entertainment, and, in homage to one of my favorite movies in my favorite poppy genre, the project is called “When Lowbrow Met Highbrow.”
Highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow as categories for arts, tastes, and culture in general originated in the early 20th century, with roots in the previous century’s popular practice of phrenology. According to phrenology, the study of a person’s skull could reveal the character of their mind. People believed that a high brow literally signified intelligence, and it was ideas such as this one that led some to use phrenology to validate the racism and classism of the period. “A certain whiff of racialism and eugenics should have been enough to do in this word by now,” muses Thomas Mallon in the New York Times, “but it has retained a smidgen of utility in a culture that still likes to rank the prestige of artistic endeavors.”We certainly do live in a culture that still enjoys its rankings. This is the culture that I have been examining as I interview LA-based culture-makers and -partakers, and that I will try to articulate as the summer goes on. Whether we identify those rankings as highbrow, lowbrow, pop, mass, or prestige, however, doesn’t seem to me to be the greater issue. Perhaps our discomfort with (and at times, as with Mallon, our begrudging acceptance of) these terms betrays a deeper insecurity about how we assign worth. Does the persistent hierarchical valuation of culture—entrenched even today in class, race, gender, and general condescension—look any better when we label the ranks differently? If we divorce hierarchy from the brows, are we denouncing an antiquated and disturbing means of understanding the mind, or are we comforting ourselves in avoiding a hard look at the way we actually process culture?
That’s for me to find out.