Ron Hogan (grifter) Thu 25 May 00 20:19
John Seabrook is the author of two books, "Deeper: My Two-Year Odyssey in Cyberspace" (Simon and Schuster, 1997), and "Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture" (Knopf, 2000). As a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine since 1993, Seabrook has written on a wide variety of topics, including pieces about the Internet -- "E-mail from Bill," "My First Flame," and "Home on the Net" -- and on pop culture ( MTV, George Lucas, and David Geffen, etc.). In the course of writing the later series of pieces Seabrook developed his theory of Nobrow: how modern commercial culture has changed the old hierarchy of high and low culture that has endured for nearly a century in the U.S. His most recent New Yorker pieces include "Sleeping with the Baby," concerning where babies should sleep (parents bed or their own?), and "Selling the Weather" (in the April 3, 2000 issue), an essay about the Weather Channel and why it's so enjoyable to watch weather on TV. I'm Ron Hogan, and I'll be your host for this discussion. I'm one of the hosts of the inkwell.vue conference, and I also edit and publish an online literary review called Beatrice.com. By the way, you can hear John Seabrook reading from Nobrow online. Just go to <http://www.mp3lit.com/nonfiction/seabrook.html>.
Ron Hogan (grifter) Thu 25 May 00 20:21
John, perhaps the first thing that we could discuss is that although in the course of Nobrow you offer a personal look behind the scenes of the Tina Brown New Yorker, this book is so much MORE than another New Yorker memoir. What is this look at the magazine's inner workings a jumping point towards?
The Mayflower Modem (seabrook) Fri 26 May 00 17:21
The Nu Yorker was xhibit A in my larger argument for Nobrow, the place where culture and marketing converge. I had a front row seat at Brown's New Yorker, and in fact I was a willing participant in it. As I saw it, Brown's New Yorker was taking place within the context of a larger coming together of the old elite culture and the new mass culture. Nobrow is very much about this, on various levels. But at the heart of it I guess it's a memoir, and so the New Yorker is naturally a part of it.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 26 May 00 19:50
Hmmm. I'm idly wondering how this relates to what David Talbot calls the "smart tabloid" style. That collision point between trashy and classy in news coverage is an example of Nobrow, perhaps.
Ron Hogan (grifter) Fri 26 May 00 21:17
"at the heart of it I guess it's a memoir" One of the things that appeals most to me about Nobrow, in fact, is that rather than simply reprint several New Yorker articles from the last few years, you've provided a personal context for how those articles came to be written, one which also has a broader cultural reflection to it as well. That's not really a question, I guess. I'll try to come up with one soon.
John Ross (johnross) Sat 27 May 00 08:03
Maybe I missed the point, but as I read the book, I'm having trouble understanding how "nobrow" differs from what Jean Shepherd used to call "slob culture", which fits into a distinct place in the Highbrow-to-Lowbrow continuum. The obsession with showbix celebrities in Tina's New Yorker, MTV and Lucas' Star Wars mythos are all certainly examples of culture created in the interest of commerce, but is that any different from, oh, Walteer Winchell as an arbiter of taste?
The Mayflower Modem (seabrook) Sun 28 May 00 06:41
My basic thesis is that taste has changed. That taste for some century or so served in the US as birth served in Europe -- as something to build a class system around. So there was elite or high taste, and there was low or mass taste, and people who patronized each were highbrows and lowbrows respectively. The rise of our current mass culture, of which MTV and Star Wars and Tina Brown's New Yorker are all examples, ended that old system, because what was formely contained on the lower end rose and spread everywhere. So now you have elite insisutions like the Minneapolis Insitute of Art putting on the Star Wars exhbit, oon the theory that that's the only way to get the youngsters into the museum, and once they are there perhaps theirt tases will improve. There is still elite taste, obviously, but it is no longer universally recognized as elite -- "subculture is the new high culture and high culture is just another subculture" is a line from the book. In place of that old system of taste, I would aruge, we have a system of brands. But brands were all pretty lowbrow in the old taste system.
The Mayflower Modem (seabrook) Sun 28 May 00 06:45
"When it comes to the arts, Gov. Jesse Ventura thinks Stone Cold and Mankind compare quite favorably with Shakespeare and Chekhov." --Saint Paul Pioneer Press writer in an article about Gov. Jesse Ventura arguing with students over arts funding. (The state legislature recently overrode a Ventura veto and gave $3 million to the Guthrie Theater.)
Scott Underwood (esau) Sun 28 May 00 08:14
I really resonated with your thought that "taste is power"--the first thing I thought of was kids playing loud music from cars. A lot of money and time goes into making cars ever more loud--they even have sound system "drag races" now, using dB meters instead of stopwatches--all in order to reinforce the notion that MY TASTE RULES! So, you're sitting in traffic listening to something pleasant at a normal volume when suddenly a car goes by that is apparently filled with percussion grenades going off at timed intervals. I will force you to listen to my music because this makes me feel important and powerful. All the better if you don't like it; I can feel smug and superior, too.
Ron Hogan (grifter) Sun 28 May 00 08:20
The "spread everywhere" aspect is important, too. I should have checked to see how much of the media imagery and sound in your opening segment actually came from David Geffen, I guess...but it's plain that Geffen's influence on our culture is enormous.
Linda Castellani (castle) Sun 28 May 00 12:08
If you have questions for John Seabrook, post them here if you are on the WELL, or e-mail them to email@example.com if you are not on the WELL...
Ron Hogan (grifter) Sun 28 May 00 19:20
Like John Dentino did! He writes: "John, is it really news to you that an "oceanic" experience can be had on the cheap, outside of "highbrow" museums and the literary canon? Come on. I submit that America has been a nobrow culture for a long time now. For those of us brought up in the middle class with a public school education, pop culture has always offered us some degree of richness, although more often than not the experience of pop-culture art is one of immediate, emotional gratification rather than of "oceanic" depth. John, when you are swept up in a Chemical Brothers show, keep in mind your head is already filled with Homer, Shakespeare, Joyce, Brahms, Blake, Goya, et al., from your education. Your mind is pre-loaded with the best software Western Civilization has to offer. You're able to read a lot into the music. Pop stuff isn't meaty enough on its own for people steeped in high culture - not enough layers to it. I'll wager your experience at the concert was likely an entirely different one from the unschooled street kid next to you. You got symmetry, terror and pity -- he achieved an erection. Yes, when a good education was the province of the rich, the separation between highbrow and lowbrow was at its height. The democratization of education has blurred the line. Comparing computer-sequenced measures in the Chemical Brothers with the structure of a 17th century sonnet is what the university is all about now. I haven't read your book, but it seems as if you think this democratization is mostly a great thing. I'm not so sure. I think it might be better to keep pop culture studies to more of a minimum in an academic environment, because it's already pervasive in students' lives . The smart ones are going to interpret and find great popular works on their own. You can't stop them. Why do the academics and the museums - the "elite" - have to prove they're hip? Running exhibitions and teaching courses on current pop stuff seems largely a waste of time. A student is saturated with pop. He is hungry for the old, the wise, the proven. He'll then take the stuff of the classics and mix it with a contemporary sensibility. He can do it on his own, naturally, without the patronage of "art" schools and "cutting edge" curriculums."
The Mayflower Modem (seabrook) Tue 30 May 00 06:44
I think I mostly agree. The whole book is less sanguine about pop cultue than the part I read for the MP3 file (which I assume it what you listened to). But I am also thinking of the Homer and Joyce and Eliot I studied in college, not to mention the Arnold Tennyson, Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I'm wondering whether I wouldn't have been better served spending that time on Miles Davis or Ornette Coleman, or Krazy Kat, or Preston Sturges. When I was getting my high education (late 70's early 80's) there defintely was not much mix of the pop and the high. You say it has changed, and perhaps it has in osme places, bt I doubt they're studying much Chemical Brothers at Oxford. Certainly for my line of work, an education that dealt with pop culture would have been more useful than an education that pretended pop culture was mostly a passing fad. I'm not suggesting term papers devoted to Beverly Hills 90210, but...well. you know what I mean. Why not teach kids the Beatles, and then when they're adults they'll want to read Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, rather than forcing them to read Beowulf, when all they want to do is listen to the Beatles?
Ron Hogan (grifter) Tue 30 May 00 08:21
While I never had to write term papers on 90210, when I was in film school (BA and MA) I did end up writing papers on Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, DC comics origin stories, and Yahoo Serious. Oh, and we had to read "Neuromancer" for class one time--three years after I'd read it in high school. It was exciting, in a way, to have my taste for comic books and SF "validated" like that. Of course, the department was still bogged down in a bunch of Lacanian and post-Lacanian theory, but what can ya do?
surrounded by mini-pumpkins (scarf) Wed 31 May 00 13:52
I'm just about finished with _nobrow_ and I'm wondering how "Outsider Art" would be seen from a nobrow perspective. It's a bit of an anomaly. As I've come to understand it, the term is a high-culture term used to define art made by unschooled (often religiously-inspired) artists like Howard Finster - who's best known (or widely known) for painting the cover of a Talking Heads album. Further, outsider artists are often referred to as "naiive" or "visionary" which makes their talent seem on loan, rather than practiced or practical. In a strange twist, these terms seem derogatory, and yet outsider art is a part of highculture. There are exhibits and galleries and collectors. The interesting flip side is that many outsider artists embrace the idea that art is for the people and to that end, the artist's role is to create as many works as possible. Plus, the pieces must be affordable. Ultimately, these are lobrow artists validated by highbrow culture. The artists use highculture to "get their message out" while at the same time releasing their work (cheaply) to whoever's interested. The art exists in both highbrow and lowbrow worlds. This may have little to do with nobrow, but it somehow seems fitting.
(pholk) Thu 1 Jun 00 00:11
The Mayflower Modem (seabrook) Thu 1 Jun 00 06:19
Yes, indeed. Maybe I could copy and paste that into the paperback? In Nobrow I was thinking more about mass culture or commercially produced culture, not naive or outsider art. It seems to me that the phenomenon you're describing above has existed at least since the Impressionists, whose work was outside the Academy and deliberately naive and unpainterly in the neoclassical sense. In our time we have graffiti artists like Basquait and Haring and Scharff, and more recently you have people who are not from street who deliberately affect a street style, like Tracy Emin. But I also think context is important here. As soon as the work is taken off the street and placed in a gallery, it ceases to be lowbrow in the sense that, say, the WWF is lowbrow. When you walk into that gallery you're looking at it a totally different way than you'd look at it on a subway wall. It becomes highbrow. In the same way that Warhol's work derived from lowbrow sources but became highbrow. But this is different, isn't it, from, say, walking into Times Square at night at being struck by the beauty of the Nasdaq sign. That is more what I'd call Nobrow, because the work is not removed from its lowbrow context. But now my wife says she has to use this line...I'll put up more later.
Michael W. Martin (michael-martin) Thu 1 Jun 00 07:17
I would say that at least some of the rise of the Nobrow phenom is related to the ascendancy of a new wave of nouveau-riche. I don't mean this only in the narrower sense of 90's "dot com" money, although the size and attention lavished on this new upper-middle-class certainly accelerates the trend. Rather, I would situate the rise of Nobrow (as I understand it) with the general postwar economic elevation of all Americans (1945-2000 and beyond), which has been interrupted by various recessions, but which has served to create a more wealth than in any other 50 year period I can think of. Access to books, free time, college, and now the web has been made possible due to relief from the pressing need for survival and subsistence, opening up "culture" to millions who never would have experienced it in another century. This opening has naturally expanded the previously more narrow definitions of what taste and culture is, and created the subtle rills of feedback in terms of guilt, snobbishness, nostalge-de-la-boie, and "level-crossing" that have been the hallmarks of Nobrow.
The Mayflower Modem (seabrook) Thu 1 Jun 00 07:41
> This opening has naturally expanded the previously more narrow definitions of what taste and culture is, and created the subtle rills of feedback in terms of guilt, snobbishness, nostalge-de-la-boie, and "level-crossing" that have been the hallmarks of Nobrow. I could use that too. What I am trying to talk about in Nobrow is more about the way audiences receive/culture, not the way artists make it. There has been a shift away from respect for the elite, toward the popular, not in a highbrow way but is a mainstream middleclass way. Instead of the authority of elites there is the authority of the market. So, in fashion, Vogue is being supplanted by In Style as a bible of mass taste, because In Style is more populist. In Style is not abot one style being in -- ie, fashion -- it is about many diferent styles, which are made popular by celebrities. Taste is the best one word description of this area, which is very complicated and difficult to write about, because it's all around us and mixed up in our way of seeing reality.
Michael W. Martin (michael-martin) Thu 1 Jun 00 07:51
Interesting. It almost seems that the old-line, white protestant cultural elite has dismantled itself over the past 50 years through some combination of self-loathing, idealism, curiosity about other ideals, and guilt. Alot of the aesthetic paradigm-smashing that went down in the 60's was not a cultural force emenating from outside the elite, but was rather orchestrated by the elite itself, especially the youngest members (rebellion as a symptom of generational wars/ demographics?). Ditto current artistic/cultural modes (eg, ivy-league multiculturalists, etc).
Ron Hogan (grifter) Thu 1 Jun 00 08:37
Hmm. John, have you read David Brooks' "Bobos in Paradise" yet? I haven't had a chance to do more than glance at it, but from received reports it seems like what he has to say about "bourgeois bohemians" might tie into what you just said about the shifts in consumption/reception of culture. I wish I could be more detailed than that...
Scott Underwood (esau) Thu 1 Jun 00 09:03
How much of this is simply due to increased communication? More pictures and more data from more sources has alerted people to the wide variety of choices of things to have "Taste" about. And rather than following the extremism of the '60s--where one wholly embraced, say, being a hippie or moving to India--as you rejected the Taste of your father, now we temper it with a little bit of this, a little bit of that. We have an enormous number of ingredients to make our own recipe of individualism.
Scott Underwood (esau) Thu 1 Jun 00 09:07
Slippage. I have a review of Bobos in Paradise right here, and it really sounds great. There's a line here about shopping in an upscale supermarket (I imagine like Whole Foods) that "has taken the ethos of California in the 1960s and selectively updated it. Gone are '60s-era things that were fun and of interest to teenagers, like free love, and retained are all the things that might be of interest to middle-aged hypochondriacs, like whole grains."
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 1 Jun 00 09:37
A weird thought. I am remembering a college paper I wrote for a UC Berkeley undergrad course in cultural geography, many moons ago. I had to take some innovation and chart how it spread geographically at two historic points in time. You would laugh if you saw how I dressed then -- or now -- since I am no plumage wiz, and don't care all that much, but I chose fashion as the innovation. There is some docuemtation of styles arriving from the continent by sea in the 19th century on the east coast, then being copied and slowly diseminated towards the hinterlands (geographers liked the hinterland concept it seemed) by drawings in newspapers, and imitation of the clothes of upper class travelers by small town seamstresses. The folks on the frontier WERE hicks, and you know if they came to town because they wore a strange kind of rumor-relayed knock-off of last year's cool clothes. In the first part of the twentieth century it just got faster, and the more affluent in remote places were more able to keep up. But something revolutionary happened in London in the mid-sixties. Designers started to look to the streets for style, and Carnaby street shops turned the class influence relationship on its head. Paris was soon imitating working class London women who defined urban style on the cheap, who hemmed their own skirits shorter and shorter, and who prepared the fashion world for a strange adoption, morphing and co-option of various aspects of hippie garb. Though of course if you were part of the subculture, the fringed beaded models in the magazine photos looked like they were from some virtual hinterlands of wanna-bes. I post this mainly because it was so unlikely that I stumbled accross a reason to read about fashion dissemination history that I presume few others have. It may have been part of the same "brow" shifting of the late 20th century. Fashion and decoration relates to music culture, but runs its own course. Like I said, a weird tangential memory.
Michael W. Martin (michael-martin) Thu 1 Jun 00 09:48
The "get it in the streets" phenom you mention above is a hallmark of the late 20th century, and a big part of the nobrow ethos. It is interesting to note that it has happened elsewhere and elsewhen. There were young Regency period London aristocrats called "rakehells," with their fashions adopted from coachmen's cloaks, who indulged in a form of street-violence they crudely associated with caracatures of lower class life. There are tales of fabulously wealthy Ch'ing dynasty Chinese aristiocrats being bourne to sumptuous banquets dressed in rags and smeared with filth as per the dressing down aesthetic of the day. There is my favortite- a spoiled M. Antoinette who had master craftsmen build her a faux milk-maid's cottage (she chastised them for not making the worm-holes in the wooden beams look authentic) so she could play at being poor. Apparently this urge exists and surfaces in humanity from time to time.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 1 Jun 00 09:55
However, the Marie Antoinette example, at least, is distinctly different because Marie would have never gone slumming to the barn. That was part of the shift. It was not simply a desire to shock, but ultimately a need to pass.
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