The jazz art world and American culture
The highbrow's friend is the lowbrow. The highbrow enjoys and respects the lowbrow's art – jazz for instance – which he is likely to call a spontaneous expression of folk culture. The lowbrow is not interested, as the middlebrow is, in pre-empting any of the highbrow's function or in any way threatening to blur the lines between the serious and the frivolous… When, however, the lowbrow arts get mixed up with middlebrow ideas of culture, then the highbrow turns away in disgust.
Russell Lynes, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middle brow, ” Harper's February 1949: 23, 25
Harper's Magazine editor Russell Lynes in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek essay on the workings of cultural distinction in America certainly painted a less than flattering picture of the highbrow jazz enthusiasts who embraced “genuine” jazz in the 1930s and 1940s. As editor of Harper's, he probably was aware of the conflict between traditionalists and modernists in the early years of the jazz art world. His magazine in 1947 published “The Jazz Cult” by jazz critic Ernest Borneman that addressed this very conflict. Lynes, however, was addressing the whole notion of cultural distinction and cultural legitimacy in America at mid-century. He suggested to his readers that America was divided into a world of highbrows, middlebrows, and lowbrows, a world in which middlebrows reigned in numbers and wealth while highbrows – few in number and declining in cultural influence – reigned mostly in their own pretentious imaginations.
Historian Michael Kammen (1999) argues that Lynes was not alone in seeing the decline of the highbrow at mid-century. Critics Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg, for instance, also wrote at the time about the demise of the authority of highbrow culture. Unlike Lynes, who rather enjoyed the less than bright future of highbrows, Macdonald and Greenberg were more or less appalled by this unfortunate development. The fall of highbrow culture was part of what Kammen calls the “democratization” of American culture – the “blurring” of the boundaries of high art and popular art that reigned during the first half of the twentieth century. Kammen notes that the blurring of such boundaries of