Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Furrowing Brows

By Allen Smalling

JUNE 26, 2000: 

Nobrow by John Seabrook (Knopf), $23, 213 pages

In his controversial new book "Nobrow," author John Seabrook argues that traditional canons of culture--the "brows," if you will, of high, middle and low--have become obsolete in an age of all-pervasive media buzz and a nearly insatiable public. At one time there were sensible arbiters of public taste, elite institutions like the New Yorker magazine of the 1980s, which exercised "hegemony: taste as power pretending to be common sense."

But that hegemony has been broken, and it no longer makes sense to advocate that classical music is of a higher order than jazz, or jazz higher than rock, or rock higher than hip hop, etc. All are subject to marketing, media buzz and the whims of the marketplace, in which struggling acts ("small grid") seek to burst into world attention ("big grid").

Just as traditional arbiters of culture are waning, traditional venues of high culture can be usurped: "In Nobrow, paintings by van Gogh and Monet are the headliners at the Bellagio Hotel while the Cirque du Soleil borrows freely from performance art in creating the Las Vegan spectacle inside." Seabrook's gray eminence of the interplay between culture and marketing is George Lucas, who, with "Star Wars" was "the first wholesale appropriator of world culture... Or you could see Lucas as an early sampler, a groundbreaker in what would become the essential Nobrow aesthetic: making art out of pop culture." Lucas studied world myth to create "Star Wars" characters, then made a movie out of them, then the movie created tie-ins, which reinforced the need for more movies, and so on. Is it legend? Well, clearly Darth Maul is a diabolical figure worthy of Jung, but most of us just find Jar Jar Binks irritating.

Nonetheless, Seabrook is on to something. How on earth to categorize a TV show like "The Simpsons," which mixes fart jokes, Eudora Welty's supposed belching contest and a reference to Jacques Derrida in an episode? At times, though, the book's reporter-hanging-around origins shows through; this is especially apparent in the chapter on MTV. And you've gotta wonder if the New Yorker was really that elite; after all, Paul Fussell, in his wonderful book "Class" (1983), called the New Yorker merely middle-class, and few have dared challenge him. Despite lousy CD sales, the apocalypse has not come for classical music: The Carmina Burana is used to sell Irish beer and "O Mi Bambino Caro" flogs software--which both embraces and rejects Seabrook's thesis. After all, why wouldn't an ad agency want to use the best music?

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