WHEN A HIGHBROW MEETS A LOWBROW

They say that when a high brow meets a low brow
Walking along Broadway
Soon the high brow, he has no brow
Ain’t it a shame and you’re to blame
*

A few days ago I was looking over some of my past postings on this blog; I’ve let it go far too long! And I am still working on the ten arguments for the elimination of school. You can look forward to number five, coming soon (maybe), entitled “Teachers.”

However, that’s not why I’m writing this. While perusing my posts, I remembered the fun I had writing “Art and Age.” Apparently, it created quite a stir, though of course no one spoke directly to me about it. Needless to say, the workshops that were being talked about at the time never materialized. And that’s also not why I’m writing this.

If you look at the bottom of the post, you’ll see a response from my friend Seth McDonough. While his comments are mostly favourable, he points out that my recommendations for ways in which people, especially old people, might be spending their time are, by implication, “highbrow.” I quote:

One quibble: you focus mostly on traditional art (theatre, classical music, literature, art galleries) as one’s best option for passion, but I submit that there other not-so-highbrow arenas too that can also form the basis for a more enjoyable life… perhaps sports (viewing and participating), movies, strategy game tournaments, and, yes, even television (if one chooses truly entertaining television – and has the right water cooler friends with whom to discuss it afterwards).

That started me thinking about the song quoted above and about the meaning of “highbrow.” My Random House Unabridged says:

 highbrow [I’ll assume you know how to pronounce it.] n  1. a person of superior intellectual interests and tastes.  2. a person with intellectual or cultural pretensions; intellectual snob.  3. the crestfish.

In case you were wondering, Crestfishes are Lampriform fishesin the family Lophotidae. They are elongate ribbon-like fishes, silver in color, found in deep tropical and subtropical waters worldwide. Their scientific name is from Greek lophos meaning “crest” and refer to the crest (part of the dorsal fin) that emerges from the snout and head; this structure gives them their other name of unicorn fishes. They possess ink sacs that open into their cloaca from which they can produce a cloud of black ink when threatened (as in many cephalopods). Thank you, Wikipedia. I don’t know, does this have anything to do with the more common usage of “highbrow”? (By the way, the adjective, Seth, is “highbrowed.” But I suppose fussing about grammar is just another example of being a highbrow.)

When the term is used as a pejorative—which, I believe, it usually is—it would seem to imply that pursuing intellectual endeavours—following contemporary art, reading poetry, listening to classical music—are pretentious activities to be abjured by regular folks who, needless to say, do not live in the ivory towers occupied by the intelligentsia.

Canadians will remember how, during the last two federal elections, the leaders of the Liberal Party, Stéphane Dion (2008) and Michael Ignatieff (2011) were portrayed in Conservative “attack” ads as being professorial and intellectual, hence out of touch with ordinary folks. That is to imply that anyone who can put two words together or might have read a few books and thought about them is not to be trusted. Far better—and perhaps Seth would agree—that our political leaders occupy their spare time with movies, sports, games, “and, yes, even television.” If so, we can rejoice in our current prime minister. Hey, he attends a good ol’ protestant fundamentalist church, too. This is a far cry from the thoughtful, educated, and articulate, sometimes outspoken prime ministers this country has known: Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, Louis St. Laurent, and Wilfred Laurier to name but a few.

American presidential hopeful Rick Santorum recently lambasted President Barak Obama’s stance on making higher education more available: “’President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college – what a snob!’ he said [in Troy, Michigan] to laughter and cheers from the audience. ‘There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day who aren’t taught by some liberal college professor.’” (Lindsay Boerma, CBS News) Okay, so Americans are less subtle than Canadians, but the implication, greeted with “laughter and cheers,” is that an educated person is neither decent nor hardworking, and, by further implication, anyone “taught by a liberal college professor” would not dirty their hands in the workplace.

All right, so I suggested that people, especially older people, with nothing to do might profitably occupy themselves with visiting art galleries, libraries, and listening to, for example, Beethoven. Why? Because I believe you can find intellectual and emotional challenge in these activities, and I also believe that intellectual and emotional challenge is good for people. I suggested Beethoven because, especially in the later quartets, he pushed at the boundaries musical form and expression. This music is complex and difficult and requires full attention, engagement, and repeated hearing. However, the rewards are great; hearing this music is the closest you’ll ever get to another human soul. Why shy away from things you don’t understand or, for that matter, challenge you mentally or emotionally?

But what about the “not-so-highbrow” activities that Seth recommends? Of course there is nothing wrong with watching or playing sports,—though I notice that while arts people often promote sports and fitness, sports people do not promote arts—playing games, going to movies, and watching television. These are mostly fun and entertaining, offering little beyond the comfortably familiar. This is not enough.

Though my recommendations were specifically for the aged, many of whom seem at a loss to find meaning and purpose in life, they apply equally to the young. However, in a blog of August 2010 “Art–Who needs it anyway!” I referred to a 1948 essay “The Dehumanization of Art” by the Spanish liberal philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. Decrying the overemphasis on sport (in 1948!) he wrote:

Cult of the body is an infallible symptom of a leaning toward youth, for only the young body is lithe and beautiful. Whereas the cult of the mind betrays the resolve to accept old age, for the mind reaches plenitude only when the body begins to decline. The triumph of sport marks the victory of the values of youth over the values of age.

Great art pushes our boundaries into the unfamiliar, the unthinkable, sometimes uncomfortable, realms of human existence: love, grief, joy, honour, ecstasy, jealousy, anguish, wonder, despair, duty, astonishment, and, yes, the very meaning of life and death. To discount such endeavours as highbrowed or élite is to deny the relevance of art to anyone, young or old, who cares to live life more than one degree either side of zero.

 ***

 *Crazy Rhythm

 If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll want to know where the verse at the top of this effusion comes from. After all, it’s what started me thinking about this whole matter. Maybe you know already that it’s from the delightful song “Crazy Rhythm,” a swing show tune written in 1928 by Irving Caesar, Joseph Meyer, and Roger Wolfe Kahn for the Broadway musical Here’s Howe. It has since become a jazz and pop standard, performed and recorded by the likes of Tony Bennet, Doris Day, and ‘Whispering’ Jack Smith and numerous jazz bands. This song is also featured in the Steve Martin movie: The JERK! (With help from Wikipedia)

Here are the complete lyrics:

Crazy rhythm, here’s the doorway
I’ll go my way, you’ll go your way
Crazy rhythm, from now on, we’re through

Here is where we have a showdown
I’m too high and you’re too low down
Crazy rhythm, here’s goodbye to you

They say that when a high brow meets a low brow
Walking along Broadway
Soon the high brow, he has no brow
Ain’t it a shame and you’re to blame

What’s the use of prohibition
You produce the same condition
Crazy rhythm, I’ve gone crazy too

There are numerous recorded versions available on YouTube. I’ve chosen two of them which I hope you’ll enjoy. I suppose liking these recordings brands me as hopelessly lowbrowed—or maybe nobrowed.

The first one is by Roger Wolfe Kahn & His Orchestra on a 1928 Victor Orthophonic Record. As you might guess, it is played here as an upbeat jazz/swing piece with infectious rhythm and some wonderful solos: I especially like the short piano riff near the end.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_jxPUshgRc

Then there is this head-spinning performance by the great Django Reinhardt, guitar, and Stéphane Grappelli, violin, with the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. The virtuosity and musical sophistication of these players is simply dazzling. Recorded November 28, 1947 by Radiodiffusion-Television Française, Paris

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWcIaJbAY-4&feature=related

Listening to this song and these performances, you may well ask yourself, “What ever happened to popular music?” Well, that’s a different topic altogether, though I did address it partially in the 2010 blog mentioned above.

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About tdurrie

An aging radical with thoughts about society, education, arts, politics, and food.
This entry was posted in Aging, Beethoven, Crazy Rhythm, Highbrow, Lowbrow, Ortega y Gasset, Senior citizens, Seth McDonough, St. Laurent. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to WHEN A HIGHBROW MEETS A LOWBROW

  1. Dear Mr. Durrie:

    I’m honoured by this Seth-starring post!  I am very pleased to see my name in your lights.

    I think you have dealt with my objection effectively.  I feel my brow rising already. In fact, you may have persuaded me.  Not necessarily that Beethoven is the key to happiness, but that perhaps my objection was missing your point.  My concern was that your suggestions for bringing meaning to people (aged and otherwise) might exclude those of us who tend to more lowbrow tastes.  If, that is, the goal of your essay was to persuade us to get out and mingle with the world, as opposed to sitting at home by a warm television, then I suggested that lowbrow pursuits such as movies and strategy game tournaments might achieve those same results for those of us who lack your affinity with John Adams and Alban Berg.

    I see now, however, that I have perhaps misunderstood you and that your idea for bringing meaning to our collective existence is more than just a pursuit of engagement and enjoyment, but is meant to incite challenges to one’s mind and soul.  And it seems you believe that there is no better place for such an education that the highbrow arts. Fair enough.

    (Note: by “highbrow” I was not intending the anti-intellectual tone that some do when rolling their eyes at brainy politicians such as Stephen Dion and Michael Ignatieff.  I am a fan of many highbrow pursuits, even if my brow has not yet achieved the high rank itself.  More importantly, when it comes to my political leaders, I want them to have cranial access to all levels of thought!  It disturbs me, then, that Dion was dismissed for his well-endowed mind, while Ignatieff and the late Jack Layton seemed to hide theirs to avoid offending the everyman voters.

    However, I see by your unabridged definition of “highbrow” that I may be misusing the term.  I meant it neither to refer to someone of “superior intellect” nor of “snobby” traits; instead I simply intended to identify that arena of culture generally caught under the umbrella of “the arts”.  As you, along with my associate, Natalie, and I have discussed, it seems nearly impossible to exactly define what belongs in that group, but I think we tend to know it when we see it.  I was hoping, then, that “highbrow” would simply point in that general direction (no castigation intended).  By whatever term you would refer to it, I believed that most of your ideas for improving one’s life seemed to fit into a particular category not normally accessible to all of us.)

    So, correct me if I’ve misunderstood once again, but it seems to me that your advice for finding substance in life has three components: (1) interacting with one’s neighbours (as opposed to sitting solo on one’s couch interacting with the images on the television), (2) awakening one’s soul, and (3) challenging one’s brain.

    It seems to me that finding an experience that achieves each of these for every person at the same time is a daunting task.  There are many community experiences that would qualify for category (1), but which would not necessarily meet the requirements of (2) and (3).  

    I assume you would say that opera, when done well, achieves all three, but I can say from my own experience that, while I have enjoyed going to the opera since you introduced it to me nearly a decade ago, I have yet to find that it has produced the sort of spiritual, emotional, or intellectual epiphany that others appear to be undergoing.  Certainly, I have occasionally felt something (interestingly, my two most emotional reactions were provoked by Dialogues of the Carmelites and Lillian Alling, both of which were inspired or at least extrapolated from true events), but no production so far has dramatically altered my understanding of humanity.  I suspect that, because I arrived at classical music well after childhood, it is too far beyond my understanding to grasp anywhere near the same level as those of you who have been breathing in the stuff since you were nine.

    I don’t know if that means that I am incapable of soul-affected reactions to artistic productions, but I do need some sort of access key, do I not?  I can assure you that the less highbrow movies and television that I take in have sometimes provoked emotional responses within me.  Perhaps they lack the richness that Beethoven could effect (or should I say affect?), but if emotional discovery is the goal, then, for an emotional novice such as myself, perhaps it is still worthwhile.

    Similarly, could it not be said that there is a distinction for each of us to what challenges our brain? Moreover, as my associate Natalie notes, in certain cases, perhaps brain-work may be best achieved by engaging in the unfamiliar.  For me that may mean Beethoven, but for the likes of the opera aficionado, perhaps going to a hockey game or a math lecture, and trying to understand their nuances would be the great challenge.

    Once again, perhaps your point is that only the arts can truly evoke the results you think would benefit us all.  I do not mean to dispute that, since I have yet, in my awareness, to acquire such a success, so I can’t claim confidently that it can be found elsewhere.*  Nevertheless, if the highbrow arts requires a key too intricate for many of us to open, would it really be achieving your hopes for us any better than the lowbrow arts? Instead, perhaps the lowbrow could challenge themselves with medium brow, while the highbrow should test their mettle with lowbrow. (Certainly, you must admit that you would find it challenging to watch TV for a few hours. 😉

    *I do dabble in English literature and I am confident that the best in television comedy writing, Seinfeld, News Radio, Frasier (to name of a few of the greats) can stand wit for wit with anything Oscar Wilde or W.S. Gilbert ever wrote, while M.A.S.H., at its best, possessed pathos as good as any writing I’ve so far met in a book.

  2. Tom Durrie says:

    Dear Seth,
    Thank you for your carefully considered reply and reflection. I troubles me to read that you seem to believe that certain arts or levels of art are inaccessible or unattainable. Quite the opposite is true, especially in this age of digital access to almost everything. As an example, in Mozart’s day, the only way to hear music was live. You either attended a concert or played it yourself. The only way you could see any art was to go to a museum, church, or palace. Now, we have five or more centuries of music available on recordings; there are books, videos, and websites of all the world’s great art. Literature? As you know, all you have to do is go to a library or to a website. We are, in fact, inundated with art and culture from every age and every country. It is all readily accessible.
    Whether or not one chooses to access it is another matter. As I think I stated, great works of art can be challenging and intellectually and emotionally demanding. Unfortunately, many people shy away from those demands. I am reminded of a quote from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784): “Mankind have a great aversion to intellectual labour; but even supposing knowledge to be easily attainable, more people would be content to be ignorant than would take even a little trouble to attain it.” (James Boswell: The Life of Samuel Johnson, p. 203) A sad comment, though I don’t think it has to be true.
    You mention my “breathing the stuff since I was nine.” This is true because I heard classical music from a very early age. We had a recording (12-inch 78 rpm) of the “Blue Danube Waltz” that I played over and over again at the age of five or six. You may recall my admitting that at the age of around ten or twelve, the “Poet and Peasant Overture” was for me the greatest music of all time. (Well, it’s still pretty great but for different reasons.) My love of music led me to visual arts and, quite a bit later, to reading. Maybe, however, the age at which one encounters great art does not matter. Yes, it takes a bit of doing. Why not, for example, get a CD of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and listen to it until it becomes familiar? Then move on to the Seventh Symphony, the Fourth Piano Concerto, etc. You could just as well start with Tschaikovsky, what ever grabs you. In this way, a person would probably like Renoir before moving on to Braque. (One is not better than the other, just different.) I also think that you would find much much more to like and to be moved by if you were to get a recording of “Dialogues of the Carmelites” and listen to it, following the text, until you knew it well. (e.g. I’ve seen this opera at least five times and have listened to it at least ten times, maybe more. I still can’t claim to know it well.) Again, great art is not “easy,” but if you have a brain, why not use it?
    Finally, let’s agree to stop using terms like “highbrow” and “lowbrow” because they do classify in a pejorative way. You may be amused to know that in my high school days classical music was referred to a “longhair” music. I guess we can thank the Beatles for the reversal of that term.
    I hope you had a chance to listen to “Crazy Rhythm.” Listen to it a few times and I guarantee you won’t be able to get it out of your head.
    Thanks again for your comments. Greatly appreciated.
    Tom

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