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Give it 30 years and the overstuffed chair becomes hip and high brow...
June 14, 2014 7:35 AM   Subscribe

Spread from a 1949 issue of LIFE magazine charts what is low-brow, high-brow and inbetween
posted by The Whelk (185 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Just to get it out of the way the distinction between town and country is no longer followed as everyone dresses for the "country" now. *smiff*
posted by The Whelk at 7:36 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]


I never realised that high-medium-low brow referred to the shape of your skull!
posted by Joe Chip at 7:40 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]


For a book-length version of this along with some amusing analysis, check out Paul Fussell's Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. It's from the early eighties, so the class signifiers are different, and the last chapter on "the X Way Out" is a bunch of self-congratulatory nonsense, but it's a great and insightful read regardless.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 7:45 AM on June 14 [8 favorites]


Ha ha, you mean some people DON'T have a decanter and ashtray from a chemical supply company?

I had no idea.
posted by ernielundquist at 7:45 AM on June 14 [9 favorites]


Unwashed salad bowls are highbrow?
posted by yellowbinder at 7:47 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


Joe Chip: I never realised that high-medium-low brow referred to the shape of your skull!

Yes, and it's unbelievably racist. (See Charles Morris's The Aryan Race for the origins of the terms.)
posted by tzikeh at 7:49 AM on June 14 [7 favorites]


Unwashed salad bowls are highbrow?

They call them "seasoned," but, yep.

I love the planned parenthood/PTA hierarchy. That does seem to be the main distinction between the upper and lower middle classes.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:49 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


The "upper middle brow" cause of planned parenthood is, IMO, a thousand times more useful than the highbrow cause of "art", and it would have had enormous impact on the present day if that became a common cultural idea. It always drives me nuts to see the amount of money that gets poured into snobby art instead of useful human causes because donating to the opera is a marker of class and status. Great link though, thanks @whelk!
posted by DGStieber at 7:52 AM on June 14 [5 favorites]


Yep, unwashed " seasoned" wooden salad bowls where a upper brow affectation well into the 70s, at for kind of people who could be said to be " serious" about food and up on all the latest trends. It's more or less the same now but with more raw vegetables and kale. ( the fact that glam-hippie chic from the 70s is back in style doesn't help. All the hip boutiques on Wyatt Ave and Mission Street look like places Liza Minelli would pass out in.)
posted by The Whelk at 7:53 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]


Unwashed salad bowls
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 7:54 AM on June 14 [22 favorites]


You know, I like almost everything on this chart in the right context. Except for ballet and adulterating bourbon with ginger ale.

And I think I might make myself an upper middle-brow salad with dinner tonight. That sounds delicious.
posted by 256 at 7:55 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


I wonder if part of the unwashed salad bowl thing was signaling that you would throw away the bowl every time the oil inevitably went rancid?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:58 AM on June 14


What's actually highbrow is not giving a damn what other people think because you know you're better than they are, possibly because of something your ancestors did. Actually caring about charts like this is about the least highbrow thing you can do.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:58 AM on June 14 [8 favorites]


I've seen this chart before - I believe it's from a book called The Tastemakers and it was in the context of trying to figure out how "taste" itself came to be a big deal in US culture and how this intersected with class. It's not a radical book, but it's a bit more sophisticated and interesting than the mere republication of the chart makes it out to be. Sadly, my vintage copy totally fell apart a couple of years ago, so I don't have it to hand.

I think it's really easy to look at this kind of thing and go "lol, those people in the past with their silly rules, I am a free spirit who likes All The Things" and basically miss out on the reasons why it was relevant to try to parse this stuff out at the time.
posted by Frowner at 8:02 AM on June 14 [8 favorites]


Actually caring about charts like this is about the least highbrow thing you can do.

That's probably why it was featured in a mass-circulation magazine.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:02 AM on June 14 [6 favorites]


(To wit, saying "highbrow people tend to like these things and claim that's Natural and Right" is a way of taking apart the notion that "what's actually highbrow is not giving a damn what other people think because you know you're better than they are, possibly because of something your ancestors did. Actually caring about charts like this is about the least highbrow thing you can do" is actually how people think. Everyone's all about the cultural capital - gaining, maintaining, etc. Class X as much as the rest.

It's interesting to see this chart again, too, because it reminds me of all the stuff that my dad learned to do in college and graduate school as class signifiers. His family were working class small-town people - hard-working, intelligent and relatively successful, but not moneyed or expensively educated. And of course, my family really didn't make it into the upper middle class, despite the PhD, but we didn't wash our salad bowl, either, and I did go to the ballet as a child.
posted by Frowner at 8:06 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Wow, sorry if that seemed unnecessarily judgmental; I just re-read it and I feel sort of badly. I do enjoy charts like this because I think they're amusing, but I also dislike the fetishization of "highbrow". I come from a background that fits in well with the "highbrow" stuff here, and it's just a way to codify the idea that people from certain socioeconomic backgrounds are better and that there's something superior about them and their tastes.

What I said above was more meant to be commentary on the unthinking arrogance of a certain type of person (to whom I am related) than an endorsement of that worldview. I hope that came across.

On Preview:

That's probably why it was featured in a mass-circulation magazine.

Yeah, exactly. It's just a way to keep telling people that they aren't good enough but that they can become good enough through certain types of consumption and it just isn't true. You don't buy your way to the upper classes and you're wasting your time and energy and money if you try.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 8:06 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


And in LIFE, part of the Luce Empire, practically the definition of mass market middlebrow at the time.
posted by The Whelk at 8:06 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


Does anyone know what "The Game" would be in this context?

I did Google it, and then I promptly lost it.
posted by Katemonkey at 8:08 AM on June 14 [24 favorites]


", I am a free spirit who likes All The Things"

Which is, in and of itself, a bit of a class marker.

I'm a vicious little social climber, I'm trained to notice these things.
posted by The Whelk at 8:09 AM on June 14 [25 favorites]


And to triple post: you wipe the salad bowl (which is a hard wood like olive) completely after eating the salad. If you're just using vinegar and oil, it doesn't seem to go rancid, or at least ours did not. If you start adding dairy to the salad dressing, then you have more of a problem. I was shocked - shocked! - to meet people who washed their wooden salad bowls. (Which then absorb soap and get all raggedy!) I now make my salad in a glass bowl. My parents switched to using a little bit of feta or parmesan in the salad and use a metal or glass bowl, depending on the occasion.

Now I'll stop!
posted by Frowner at 8:09 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]


Katemonkey, the American version of charades as popularized in the 1930s and 40s.
posted by The Whelk at 8:09 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]


Do you like Beer and ballet? Craps and avant garde lit?

http://hilobrow.com

( I haven't actually checked it out in years, but it used to be exactly this kind of thing)
posted by DGStieber at 8:11 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


"A painting. Moving. Spiritually enriching. Sublime..."High" art!"
posted by jedicus at 8:16 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]


The American version of U and non-U, laid out nicely in graphical format.
posted by immlass at 8:17 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I admit I'm kind of fascinated by class markers in the US. And not because I tend to 'pass' any of them, either. I am a slattern and a degenerate.

I think looking at outdated ones like these is probably the easiest way to acknowledge them. Paul Fussell's work was a little more contemporary, but still probably not tuned to modern sensibilities.

But whatever the markers are now, they haven't gone away. We still have weird little semiotic clues that hint at a vast, largely unacknowledged class structure.

I can never get enough of that stuff.
posted by ernielundquist at 8:20 AM on June 14 [4 favorites]


It's just a way to keep telling people that they aren't good enough but that they can become good enough through certain types of consumption and it just isn't true.

But isn't there also an expectation with these kinds of charts that most people are going to see themselves on various lines, and therefore be able to consider themselves broader and less rigidly class defined than the imaginary people who fit every class marker?
posted by Dip Flash at 8:21 AM on June 14


Basically the higher the barrier to entry ( cost, education, social network, not immediately appealing or popular flavors/designs/etc) the more High Brow something will seem.

You can see this directly in Anne Helen Petersen's writings, so popular here and elsewhere. The Scandals Of Classic zhollywood is written in an engaging, instantly appealing to younger or more casual readers and joke-filled format while her long history of Entertainment Weekly was intended for academic journal publishing, which had a denser, drier, and less instantly appealing flavor.
posted by The Whelk at 8:22 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


Chuckled at "Bach and before, Ives and after."

I love reading stuff from back when that was the "best" possible set of musical tastes. I'd probably have loathed it if I'd actually been around for it, but looking back from a safe distance it seems so adorably, optimistically Modern in such an old-fashioned way. Charming.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:23 AM on June 14 [5 favorites]


It's interesting to see this chart again, too, because it reminds me of all the stuff that my dad learned to do in college and graduate school as class signifiers.

Oh man, yes. My parents operated in the context of the class signifiers of this era, but they were also about ten years older than most of my friends' parents This meant I had to do all sorts of mandatory things to "give me culture" that none of the proverbial "Joneses" even cared about.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 8:25 AM on June 14


Agreeing with frowner: the 'unwashed salad bowl' was for wooden bowls only, not glass/china/etc. They were wiped dry (we used paper towels) after each use, never NEVER submerged in water. The idea was the same as with a good cast-iron frying pan, which you are also not supposed to do anything more than wipe out: both are seasoned by the oils used, and soap & water remove that seasoning. And no, they didn't go rancid.
posted by easily confused at 8:34 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I'm always interested in that sub-class, people with high socio/education value but who are quite underpaid and cash poor, like academics (and I imagine a chunk of Metafilter's readership.) They partake in high brow art and study but don't say, have the money to directly fund it and are in terms of buying power much closer to more "obviously" low status workers but are held in higher esteem because they're more worldly/educated.

It seems like in the past you could pull down a modest income living like this and slowly rise up the academic civil service as it where - but now, hoo boy the cost of student loans and the shrinking of grants and stipends means it's reserved for strictly the children of means.

Of course no one tells you that going in, the bastards want your tuition after all so you end up with a lot of members of this class working menial jobs if they can find work at all. I wonder what will become of this class.
posted by The Whelk at 8:47 AM on June 14 [17 favorites]


It always drives me nuts to see the amount of money that gets poured into snobby art instead of useful human causes because donating to the opera is a marker of class and status.

What's the point of being a human if you don't have art?
posted by Sara C. at 9:00 AM on June 14 [7 favorites]


What's the point of being a human if you don't have art?

Point taken. But when the latest auction of a Bacon tryptich brings more cash than the entire yearly budget of the National Endowment for the Arts, you know things are out of wack. There's no reason we can't have both good social policies and funding for the arts, and one way to reach that would be a dialing down (through, say, taxes) of the insane fine art market we have today.
posted by dis_integration at 9:11 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


That implies the goal of the fine art world isn't to launder money.
posted by The Whelk at 9:12 AM on June 14 [24 favorites]


This works as a brilliant guide to vintage shopping (especially furniture, books, art, and records) in 2014.

Stuff mentioned in the "low brow" grid: ubiquitous at garage sales and thrift stores.

Stuff mentioned in the "low middle" grid: the bulk of what you'll find priced affordably at flea markets.

Stuff mentioned in the "upper middle" grid: flea market finds and ebay/etsy, worth dickering on price if you're in a bricks and mortar vintage shop with a bigger markup.

Stuff mentioned in the "upper" grid: this is the stuff that is considered prestige high-value "antiques" today, and which you'll see people filling their homes with on sites like Apartment Therapy.

Also, re the grid in general, I guess the whole thing is built around the urban Northeast, but as a Southerner with deep farm roots, they seem to be missing a rung for my family. I mean where do overalls and straw hats fit? Fais do do? Church pamphlets? Art with Jesus in it? Tole painted watering cans? Ladder backed chairs with cane seats? Low brow would have been seen as fancy to my relatives who were contemporary with this chart in 1949.
posted by Sara C. at 9:18 AM on June 14 [12 favorites]


I mean, my "rich" grandmother whose father ran a car dealership would probably identify with the "lower middle" rank on here. Actually, now that I scan across with her in mind, OMG THIS IS HER EXACT AESTHETIC IN EVERYTHING, down to the bourbon and bridge.
posted by Sara C. at 9:20 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


The Game is charades. This article from Life says:
A new game is sweeping America. It is really an old game— our grandfathers called it charades
posted by RobotHero at 9:23 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


one way to reach that would be a dialing down (through, say, taxes) of the insane fine art market we have today.

I don't really understand what that has to do with the "but there are starving people" false dichotomy. Of course we should tax the hell out of art sales over a certain threshold. But if you're a wealthy person trying to decide whether to endow a museum or start a research foundation for malaria, both are worthy goals.
posted by Sara C. at 9:25 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


The Game is charades.

This explains a lot about Fincher's The Game.
posted by dis_integration at 9:25 AM on June 14


It's interesting how, from the midcentury onward, industrial aesthetics have been considered "highbrow" because they're not homey or welcoming, making your house an aggressive onslaught of Art Objects and found material seems curiously timeless as a signifier - there's even a great joke about it in Auntie Mame ( book, she runs a furnishing store where all the chairs are uncomfortable on purpose.)
posted by The Whelk at 9:26 AM on June 14 [9 favorites]


I also dislike the fetishization of "highbrow".

It's worth noting that most of the stuff on the high-brow rung of the chart are not even things that would be on the radars of people who fetishize the highbrow. The objects of fetishization are the middle brow things. Chippendale furniture, theater tickets, "the better novels".

All the high brow stuff is avant garde and weird. Modernist music, Go, not washing your salad bowl.
posted by Sara C. at 9:32 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I now make my salad in a glass bowl.

Yeah, in my 80s childhood in a household run by adults with "upper middle" aspirations, "lower middle" means, and "low" roots, it was basically a middle ground between the upper and lower middle salads (iceberg or romaine with store-bought ranch dressing, tomatoes, and maybe cukes) served in a glass bowl.

Avocados and real roquefort cheese must have been terrifyingly expensive in 1949.
posted by Sara C. at 9:39 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


My wife had a friend who was obsessed with status and class. She read and reread Paul Fussell but I don't think she grasped the essence of it. I recall her stating she had status because her husband was a pharmaceutical salesman and this somehow made them on the level of a physician. She's divorced now, blew through her settlement, and is a cashier at a Menard's. My wife and I do our best to not care about class and status because we're convinced it will come around and bite you on the ass. I'd rather just be atop the Geek Hierarchy.
posted by Ber at 9:39 AM on June 14


Class does not equal "dollar amount in bank account".

A lot of the high brow stuff on the chart is actually not that expensive, or not much more expensive than the stuff on the "upper middle" rung. There's nothing economically inaccessible about playing Go as compared to Bridge.
posted by Sara C. at 9:47 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


* off to buy an Erlenmeyer flask brb *
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 9:50 AM on June 14


The Florence flask is a joke, right?

Also what is "the game" the uppermiddlebrow folks are playing?
posted by bukvich at 9:51 AM on June 14


There's nothing economically inaccessible about playing Go as compared to Bridge.

True, and/but: you can spend a shit-ton on conspicuously lovely go kit.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 9:52 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


Exactly, I have a friend who is perpetually cash poor and struggling ( this is the first year he's had a bank account!) but because of his interests, education, and family name he's always rubbing elbows with museum curators and major donators and like, Stephen Merritt. On paper he makes less than a cashier but you'd never call him poor or lowbrow.
posted by The Whelk at 9:53 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


( on god I just remembered he was a nationally ranked Go player at one time.)
posted by The Whelk at 9:54 AM on June 14 [6 favorites]


At least in my experience (which is, granted, largely middle class), there is a huge, very popular normalization of middle class culture. So many things people regularly consider 'common sense' are just standard middle class ethos. And the cultural artifacts are normalized, too. There's this strange, narrow view of practicality and frugality, and an aesthetic that we view as a default. You know, you tuck away an emergency fund, you have stuff on your walls, but not too expensive stuff. You eat well, but not, you know, that weird cuisine stuff.

And when it's time to establish a uniform for your kid's school, you ask yourself, "What would a middle aged mid level manager at a mid-rated pharmaceutical company in the midwestern US wear to play golf on a public course?" which is, of course, chinos and a polo shirt (splitting the difference between a t-shirt and a button down, lol polo shirts). That is what we consider neutral and inoffensive.

Rich people are silly and impractical, and poor people are pathetic and misguided. If only everyone shared our common sense and practicality!

And it's not inextricably tied to income at all. A lot of traditional class markers actually devalue excessive spending as they're seen as blindly aspirational (see nouveau riche). And for the middle class manifestation, see the derision and pity heaped on lower class people who spend their money in ways that don't conform to middle class standards. Think of how so many people talk about 'bling,' and the common assumption that what we see as ostentatious displays are just misguided aspirations to impress us.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:10 AM on June 14 [9 favorites]


The objects of fetishization are the middle brow things.

Yeah, I came across this this list trying to get a sense of the distinction between book of the month club and so-called better novels. Even some of these book club offerings are pretty heady stuff. Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus?
posted by Lorin at 10:11 AM on June 14


Also those "nice normal middle class ethos" things are often the values of someone running a family farm or medium sized shop, the values of small c Capitalism and Protestantism .
posted by The Whelk at 10:16 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


Not sure if this is what's meant on the chart, but I've always assumed in my own personal high/middle/low taste nexus that contemporary literary fiction is higher brow than the canon. Making a novelized version of Doctor Faustus obviously more (comparatively) low-brow than Norman Mailer, which is (I think??) what is meant by "the better novels".
posted by Sara C. at 10:17 AM on June 14


Honestly, I have no idea what kind of bowl the servants use to make the salad. I wonder what class that makes me.
posted by jscalzi at 10:19 AM on June 14 [24 favorites]


I have an vented Erlenmeyer flask bong from the 70s... does that count?

And "bourbon and ginger ale"? This strikes me as being on the same level as champagne and V8.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 10:20 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


... trying to get a sense of the distinction between book of the month club and so-called better novels. Even some of these book club offerings are pretty heady stuff. Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus?

For the BOMC members that's known as a "break month". You get that book and you know you're not expected to read it, just put it directly on the shelf with all of the previous ones.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:29 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I know it as "jack and coke", but A) I'm southern, we love our co-cola, and B) I'm not sure if explicitly mentioning soda brands was part of LIFE's style guide at the time, or if coke was even a popular mixer back then.

Nowadays people are much more serious about high quality liquors, so, yeah, the done thing is either to drink the liquor unadorned or, if you're doing a cocktail at all, it should be something more elaborate than liquor + ubiquitous sweet mixer. A 2014 grid would probably replace "beer" with domestic macrobrews, "bourbon and ginger ale" with a cosmopolitan, the martini would probably stay the same but be sure to mention top shelf liquor and obscure artisanal components, and the wine, yeah, probably the same.

I'm also thinking that the specific drinks chosen reflect the venue and people's attitudes, in addition to just the basic beverage itself. Beer is shown in one of those big tavern mugs like you'd get at the local dive. Bourbon and ginger ale is obviously something you'd make at home. You can make a martini at home, but it's an added skill level, and something you'd also order in a bar. Wine before the revolution in New World wines in the 70s was much less accessible to the general public outside of church.
posted by Sara C. at 10:31 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


The unwashed salad bowl is a new one on me. But my mom would sooner serve deep fried cat poop than leave a dish unwashed. What that says about us, I don't know.
posted by jonmc at 10:32 AM on June 14


I guess there were probably alternate selections too? Those lists don't really make that clear. Anyways, it did give me a vaguely better idea of the distinction.
posted by Lorin at 10:33 AM on June 14


Another analog to "bourbon and ginger ale" would be "crown and seven", which is something a lot of people I grew up with drink at home. I've seen people order that in a bar, but it comes off as, yeah, kind of low-class. You could make that in the parking lot of the Circle K.
posted by Sara C. at 10:34 AM on June 14


And if you had asked me 10-15 years ago where my tastes fell I would have declaimed on how I was beyond all that and I just let my tastes run where they will. But looking at it now, (and accepting, for argument's sake, the distinctions made in the article) my tastes are pretty solidly Upper Middle-Brow, with multiple Low-Brow borrowings. And I think "doing low-brow stuff", a.k.a. slumming, is just part of upper-brow these days.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:36 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


I was about to respond to sandettie light vessel automatic's comments about expensive Go kits with a link to a $7500 Monopoly set (if you choose the silver-gilt pieces). But now I'm considering the extra layer of whether it is just offending my own middlebrow sensibilities or can I say it's objectively ostentatious to spend that much money on a Monopoly set?
posted by RobotHero at 10:38 AM on June 14


Monopoly is a totally middle-brow game, so no, you're not wrong. A $7500 Monopoly set is totally ostentatious. I hate the term "nouveau riche", but if there is any such thing, it's that.
posted by Sara C. at 10:41 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


I wonder to the extent that we're really that self-aware about this stuff. The wooden salad bowl thing, for example--my family totally had these! I had no idea they were any kind of status marker of any kind. Like, what do I have in my household now that I think I enjoy for aesthetic reasons, but in two or three decades will be painfully obvious was something I preferred because I enjoyed believing it somehow distinguished me from other people?

Another thing I'm struggling with is the idea of class markers for the lowest class. These are things that people choose to purchase and surround themselves with because they have no other choice, or don't know any better? I'm thinking here again, of my own family, especially the difference between my father's family where Christmas was 40 PBR-swilling, Salem-smoking, t-shirt wearing people packed into a double-wide, and my mother's, where later that same day, maybe a dozen of us would sit in a formal dining room inside a 4,000 square foot house drinking wine and eating from china. My mom's family had the ability to make a choice: had they wanted to, their Christmas celebration could have had the same spread as my dad's family. Not true of my dad's family, who arguably could have settled for fewer cases of domestic, canned beer in favor of a bottle of wine or two, but otherwise didn't have as much to say about how their celebrating would unfold.

I'm sort of rambling, but I'm interested in the distinction that occurs as you move up the chart, where people have more choice in how they're labeled, and the bottom of the chart, where the labels seem more descriptive than elective.
posted by MoonOrb at 10:43 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


The furniture in this chart certainly makes it very American. I remember coming across an anecdote in a (British) book where a Tory politician attempted to put his rival in place by sneering at the fact that his rival had to buy his own furniture. As opposed to, you know, inheriting centuries-old spoils of war from one's belligerent ancestors.

The thing about class markers though, is that they are fluid and rarely hold up to any amount of scrutiny; paying any amount of attention to them marks one as an aspirational "middle" (even upper-middle). The uppers and lowers, on the other hand, have more in common with each other as they tend to be more secure about their status and do not give a fuck about giving off the correct social signals.
posted by peripathetic at 10:48 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


These are things that people choose to purchase and surround themselves with because they have no other choice, or don't know any better?

It's worth noting that in this particular chart, "low brow" doesn't translate exactly to "poor", and for the most part all of the categories are aesthetic choices not tied to material needs. So they're all choices.

Of course, there's are economic reasons behind all of these things. But this list is a lot more respectful about these often being aesthetic choices rather than financial necessities.

And, yes, of course, none of us really "know any better" about any of our aesthetic tastes that are tied to class. High brow people aren't into Calder because they are a better class of people than everyone else. It's just what was hip to express interest in at the time, among their set.
posted by Sara C. at 10:51 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


True, and/but: you can spend a shit-ton on conspicuously lovely go kit.

Yeah, but you could spend a shit-ton on playing cards if you wanted. This isn't all directly about money — it's also about stuff that's gotten linked to money (or "education," meaning money; or "cosmopolitan tastes," meaning ability to travel and to ignore what your neighbors think of you, meaning money) via some sort of historical accident.

Like, getting into Japanese high culture in the 40s was a very "cosmopolitan" thing to do, because it cut against WWII-era prejudices, and because a bunch of fancy modernist artists and composers had already started getting into medieval Japanese aesthetics before the war. So playing go worked as a way of positioning yourself as An Intellectual, even though it's a thing you can do for absolutely zero money after reading a single page of instructions.

Or like how in the 50s and 60s, Eastern European folk dancing turned into a middle-to-highbrow interest when before it had been associated with immigrants and poor people. Communism itself was becoming a highbrow intellectual interest on the left (rather than, like, an actual serious movement that blue-collar workers were getting into) and appreciating canonical versions of Folk Culture from communist bloc countries got some highbrow cachet along with it, even though dancing is another passtime that costs zero money and has nothing inherently exclusive about it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:54 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


I remember coming across an anecdote in a (British) book where a Tory politician attempted to put his rival in place by sneering at the fact that his rival had to buy his own furniture.

Isn't this a scene in Downton Abbey? That rich newspaper magnate guy Lady Mary considers marrying is looking into buying a big old manor house that is up for sale in the area, which is of course empty. Mary is all like, "BUT WHERE WOULD WE GET FURNITURE???????? THIS IS MADNESSSSSSSS" and the dude says, "We buy it, duh", and that's pretty much where she realizes that he's too low class to marry.

(There's also a bunch of intrigue about what a terrible person he is, but honestly that comes off as kind of a convenient out when really she didn't want to marry him because he's the sort of person who wears the wrong tweed and would buy furniture.)
posted by Sara C. at 10:56 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


Dorothy Parker, in one of her hilarious reviews of etiquette books, mentions the "she acted like someone who had to BUY their silver." line. I think it's apocryphal at this point, but it does capture the idea very well.
posted by The Whelk at 10:59 AM on June 14 [5 favorites]


Well, I don't know about the rest of that stuff (bourbon and ginger ale sounds disgusting, ugh), but damn it all, if I don't like me some fuzzy Harris tweed.

Actually my tastes run all through these categories. Fuzzy harris tweeds! Eating green salads with avocado and Roquefort, yes, ok! Once I was able to buy my own food, though, I stopped eating iceberg lettuce and I've never looked back. Wine! It's great to live in a place where I can buy excellent wine for relatively little.

Stuffed chairs, yes - stuffed chairs are comfy for reading in! Movie musicals (well, the old ones, really), theater and popular favorites! Rilke? Sure. Calder? Meh. And I have no children, so the PTA is right out. And are there even any such thing as lodges anymore? I mean, I would watch The Flintstones as a kid and see the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes and wonder what the heck that was supposed to be about.

I've played all the games except one. Craps? Hahaha, no! Not craps! That's for dudes! You'd never catch a poor girl, as I was, in an alley shooting craps - ever!
posted by droplet at 11:01 AM on June 14


There is the idea of buying power but it's more what you choose to buy. Like the academic-y high socio-low-economic subclass mentioned above, they don't have a lot of money in sheer numbers but they spend it on the "right" things that are "worthwhile".

The old WASP standbys of Acceptable To Spend Money On are still Travel, Education, and certain Outdoorsy Hobbies - we've broadened this a bit but it's still basically the same.
posted by The Whelk at 11:02 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


(Real Estate kinda got in there but always seems like a Western/Midwestern thing and Faintly Suspect. Like ...why don't you already own property? Eh?)
posted by The Whelk at 11:04 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


but damn it all, if I don't like me some fuzzy Harris tweed.

The thing I didn't realize until seeing this chart is that all the things that were high class markers in 1949 have trickled down to normal "good taste". (I don't want to attach a "brow" to liking Calder and wine and MCM furniture, for fear of offending anyone and also because I like that stuff and don't know what brow I'm supposed to be.)

It makes me wonder what would be "high brow" in 2014, and exactly how the trickling down works.

For instance, I feel like those balsam stuffed pillows embroidered with cute sayings were a higher-brow thing in the gilded age. (I have dim memories of it being a kit you could get in connection with the American Girl doll who was upper middle class in 1904.) And Chippendale and Empire furniture would have been high-brow during some previous era.
posted by Sara C. at 11:12 AM on June 14


The uppers and lowers, on the other hand, have more in common with each other as they tend to be more secure about their status and do not give a fuck about giving off the correct social signals.

Yes, exactly -- I drink gin because I fucking like gin and I don't give a damn what you think, all of which might well be a lower class marker. It happens that my family came over on the Mayflower and I'm descended from the founders of Brooks Brothers and I have a ton of old family silver coming to me but it could just as easily be that I'm not aware of this aspirational class stuff. I am aware of it, I just don't think it applies to me.*

*This is an oversimplification, obviously, and I try very hard to be thoughtful and not rest on that privilege, but, to a certain extent, these are the values with which I was raised.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:15 AM on June 14


I have dim memories of it being a kit you could get in connection with the American Girl doll who was upper middle class in 1904.

Yes! It was one of the things that came with a set of Samantha's summer stuff! I had that! It said "I pine for you" and smelled like pine needles! It was great! That said, it wasn't embroidered, it was just printed on there.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 11:17 AM on June 14


It makes me wonder what would be "high brow" in 2014, and exactly how the trickling down works.

Ironically the production design of the TV show version of Hannibal has some very good examples of now-current-very-fashionable design concept stuff that I see replicated in places like Bloomingdales and little designer-y boutiques. It's very 70s but really over-designed, art house film kinda 70s. White ceramic, loud or bright prints, metallic everywhere, a vauge sense of experimental Scandinavian design mixed with "natural" fabrics and South American motifs. Also, animal motifs are still common - a great big antler display would make total sense in a Meatpacking District store, with Owls for women and the use of "masculine" knick-knacks like pinstripe pattern, leather, rivets, and yea animal parts (real or fake)

The Showrunner's long time partner owning a very chic and fashionable furniture and interior decor store may be part of this.
posted by The Whelk at 11:18 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


I think everyone thinks that their taste is just their taste. It's not limited to either upper or lower class people. I can promise you that the people crowing over granite countertops* just think those are the best kind of counters to have. People who name-check the most obscure indie bands** really think obscure indie bands make the best music.

The most fascinating part of all of this to me is that these distinctions are largely invisible to the people they apply to. Including me, I'm sure.

*something I'd put in "lower middlebrow" in 2014.

**probably "upper middlebrow" for 2014? Definitely a class marker.
posted by Sara C. at 11:19 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


places like Bloomingdales and little designer-y boutiques

Yeah, but I think anything on network TV is definitely not high-brow. Also, Bloomingdales and boutiques are upper-middle.
posted by Sara C. at 11:21 AM on June 14


It seems to me that personal electronics are an equalizer of sorts. Most everyone has a cell phone and more likely some sort of smart phone. Most everyone has internet access and a computer or tablet. Of course this breaks down immediately when you get to what they do with those personal electronics. And there will always be those who can't afford any personal electronics, and those Luddites that refuse to use or be seen with them.
posted by Ber at 11:21 AM on June 14


Regarding bourbon and ginger ale, swap the ginger ale for ginger beer and add a bit of lime juice, and you have a Kentucky Mule/whiskey buck/whatever you want to call it. A Moscow Mule with whiskey instead of vodka. They seem increasingly trendy around these parts. I've completely coincidentally seen something like that on three restaurant/bar menus in the last two weeks. And if you use good ginger beer (and don't waste too good of a whiskey), I think they're damn tasty.
posted by primethyme at 11:25 AM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Huh now I am legit curious and trying to think what the stores I know are pushing a high-brow "Well you need to really *appericate* this." line are selling. Getting away from the cost thing, maybe it's now the whole natural hand-made rustic look? Chips and dents! Authenticity! Rustic simplicity!

Cause, like with the ashtray from the chemical supply store, I think the effect is to make my Mom go "You paid MONEY for THAT?"
posted by The Whelk at 11:26 AM on June 14


Yes, exactly -- I drink gin because I fucking like gin and I don't give a damn what you think, all of which might well be a lower class marker. It happens that my family came over on the Mayflower and I'm descended from the founders of Brooks Brothers and I have a ton of old family silver coming to me but it could just as easily be that I'm not aware of this aspirational class stuff.

You do realize that drinking gin is as WASPy as serving cheese and saltines to guests and wearing threadbare J.Press OCBDs, right?
posted by leotrotsky at 11:38 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


Mad magazine skewered this at least once.
posted by brujita at 11:41 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


There's always New York Magazine's Approval Matrix.

That said, New York Magazine is hopelessly middlebrow. If they think something is highbrow, is that because it is, or because it's what upper-middle striving type people aspire to?

In the linked matrix, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Durer, Arcade Fire, David Foster Wallace, James Joyce, and a ballet composed by Sufjan Stephens are name checked as "highbrow". So, indie rock people who are aspiring to more (Arcade Fire is mentioned in re their controversial video's impact in the ongoing trans* politics conversation), obscure dead non-modernist artists, ballet, and "the right sort of novels".

For middlebrow, they've got Snoop Dogg and Seth Rogen, Mad Men, Bill Murray, Dave Chapelle, Citi Bike, J.Law, and True Detective. So prestige TV, upper-level celebrity gossip, and bike politics.

For lowbrow, they've got fast food and rollercoasters, and some Russian reality TV star I've never heard of.
posted by Sara C. at 11:45 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


I like to drink beer at the ballet.
posted by jeffamaphone at 11:49 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I remember one of my earliest brushes with class consciousness of a sort was when my grandmother told me about her allergies to impure gold jewelry. When I was a kid, I couldn't understand why she would never wear the cheap trinket jewelry I'd inevitably buy as gifts for her. Then one day she explained that she broke out in a rash anytime she wore jewelry that was less than a certain carat of gold, and she somewhat boastfully attributed this fact to our family's alleged aristocratic roots and obviously took pride in it. To me, as a teenager in the late 80s and early 90s that idea seemed absurd because to me, gold was a tacky aspirational thing that only lower class people wore conspicuously or viewed as an upperclass marker.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:49 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


NY Mag is solidly aspirational, their concept of high-brow maps onto the 1949 chart pretty well.
posted by The Whelk at 11:50 AM on June 14 [1 favorite]


The Approval Matrix for the same week in 2013 gives:

High: Alan Greenspan, Michel Houellebecq, the TKTS booth, and David Rakoff. (Finance, theater, and "the better novels", though I guess Rakoff was more of an essayist.)

But, wait -- they've got performance art and McSweeneys down at middle brow, totally throwing off my theories about class, taste, and culture in the twenty-teens!

Luckily middlebrow also has Tom Petty and Game Of Thrones, so all is not lost.

Lowbrow has homophobia, Rihanna wearing a denim thong, and Papaya King.
posted by Sara C. at 11:53 AM on June 14


Another thing I'm struggling with is the idea of class markers for the lowest class. These are things that people choose to purchase and surround themselves with because they have no other choice, or don't know any better?

It's not always either one. Take something like donk cars. Those don't seem to have anything at all to do with middle or upper class values or markers, and I'm pretty sure people who are into those don't think they do. They're a cultural marker in themselves. I'm pretty sure nobody spends their time and money on that because they don't know better, or because they have no choice.

But there's a distinct invisibility to middle class privilege that tells us that we're the baseline, so we can stand around in our stupid polo shirts taking shit about everyone else as though it even makes sense to be wearing a t-shirt with a collar on it.

Most of those subtler middle class markers aren't done consciously, which is why they start to fall apart once you articulate them. It's also why, if you're going to try to talk about them, you need to focus on ones that are largely obsolete. Middle class people will go to the ends of the earth to prove that their class markers aren't class markers but some kind of eminently practical and self-directed preferences. They get very emotionally invested in proving they're not emotionally invested.

It's like thinking you don't have an accent or a dialect.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:54 AM on June 14 [12 favorites]


People haven't heard of bourbon & ginger, really? It's a handy highball when you're stuck with cheap bourbon. Just don't put a lime in in fer crissakes (bartenders south of the Mason Dixon know this; those north do not-- you probably don't want cheap bourbon up there anyway because FRUIT FLIES. seriously.)

I've heard B&G described as the "winter highball" in contrast to a summer one which would be vodka or gin & tonic. Source = a college friend who used to hang out with debutantes. Probably totally made up then, lol
posted by travertina at 11:58 AM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I like to drink beer at the ballet.

Once, during an intermission at the old Guthrie theater, my wife and I spotted Mikhail Baryshnikov heading towards the bar. Being it was Minnesota the other attendees were very Minnesotan and gave him a wide berth so we could see him make his order. Yup, it was a bottle of beer. He fucking slammed it before intermission ended. I don't think he gave two shits about what drink held status either.
posted by Ber at 12:04 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


the common assumption that what we see as ostentatious displays are just misguided aspirations to impress us

Very well stated.
posted by gimonca at 12:05 PM on June 14


McSweeny's moment as darling is past - too acessable
posted by The Whelk at 12:07 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


Mikahil Baryshnikov is Russian and as such probably has a different class consciousness than Americans do. The drinking culture is definitely very different.
posted by Sara C. at 12:07 PM on June 14


It's like thinking you don't have an accent or a dialect.

The accent thing is especially funny. People automatically feel that whatever their particular accent or dialect is, it's the only natural one in the world--the rest are all "wrong."

Growing up in Bayou George, Florida, a profoundly deep Southern sort of place, I was one of the only kids around that didn't have a southern accent, because I only learned English later in childhood, after the age of 5, from American television when I moved to the states. At stores and in public on an almost daily basis, people would comment on my strange accent, and insist that I must be British. The funny thing was they always thought it was a British accent, even though in reality, it was that generic white middle-American accent from the Midwest preferred in the entertainment industry. I was always tempted to think it had something to do with the cultural divide between the North and South and that Southern sense of being oppressed by the North and seeing that condition as being of a piece with the anti-colonial spirit of the revolutionary war. I got the sense for some people it wasn't clear I could be trusted because I spoke in a way that seemed to signal upperclass pretensions to them.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:08 PM on June 14


As Sara C points out

It's worth noting that in this particular chart, "low brow" doesn't translate exactly to "poor", and for the most part all of the categories are aesthetic choices not tied to material needs. So they're all choices.

Exactly! Think of it this way: A college professor, (back in the day when they made a decent living) would be high-brow, and a rich businessman upper-middle. "High brow" food today would be "foodie" food, not necessarily what the 1% eat.

I think it's interesting how everyone has jumped on this to equate "brow" with "bank balance."
posted by tyllwin at 12:18 PM on June 14 [4 favorites]


... maybe it's now the whole natural hand-made rustic look? Chips and dents! Authenticity! Rustic simplicity!...

You wouldn't believe how many "faucets that looks like a hand pump" I've seen in recent remodels.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:23 PM on June 14


saulgoodman, there is definitely a sense that talking like a Northerner makes you some kind of snob.

I don't really think it's related to the Civil War or "colonialism" or anything of the kind. There's just a total inferiority complex in the South, where even being reminded that anything outside the South exists is some kind of judgment. Every single thing about living in whatever particular part of the South you're in at the moment* is objectively the best thing that could ever exist. Any other taste, interest, religious denomination, political view, institution, or tradition that does not exist indigenously wherever you are right now is the worst thing ever, and in mentioning it in a positive light, you can be doing nothing but trying to act better than everyone else.

I mean, I grew up Episcopalian in a strongly Catholic/Baptist area, and everyone in town thought we were total snobs for being in some weirdo denomination they'd never heard of.

The South is probably its own entirely separate thing in the "brow" conversation, simply because the signifiers are so narrow, and any other way of doing anything is considered so hopelessly foreign.

I know someone from the South who on vacation in London right now, and to hear her talk about the trip, it might as well be Botswana. This is why someone in Florida can hear a Midwestern accent and think you're from another country. It's just that insular.

*It's actually way more complicated than North vs. South, because there are various spheres of influence within the South, and it's really just a general "what, you think you're better than me?" impulse.
posted by Sara C. at 12:24 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


That belligerent attitude of "you think you're better than me, don't you?" is definitely an unavoidable part of the culture in the South...
posted by saulgoodman at 12:27 PM on June 14


I think it's interesting how everyone has jumped on this to equate "brow" with "bank balance."

I find it interesting that that's the way it seems to work in an American context. My exposure to the idea of highbrow and low brow was from English rather than American sources so I've always seen it as a classification on a totally different axis from the class one, so it's possible to be upper-class and anti-intellectual (low-brow) or a working-class intellectual (high-brow).

Look at the P.G. Wodehouse Jeeves and Wooster books - Bertie Wooster is upper class with low-brow tastes (I'm fairly sure that he makes references to brainy chaps with bulging foreheads). Lord Peter Wimsey is both upper-class and highbrow (see, he plays Bach!) while his brother the Duke of Denver is fairly low-brow in his tastes, and generally suspicious of brainy chaps.
posted by Azara at 12:43 PM on June 14 [5 favorites]


I find it interesting that that's the way it seems to work in an American context.

It's really, really not.

For example, that faucet that looks like a water pump thing someone linked upthread. That fixture is undoubtedly expensive, impractical, and designed in an ostentatious manner. However, it is also tacky. It's meant to go into a garish McMansion in suburbia, not a WASPy "cottage" in Newport.

Just because something is expensive doesn't mean it's for upperclass highbrow types.
posted by Sara C. at 1:00 PM on June 14 [4 favorites]


the way it seems to work in an American context.

The items they have on the chart do have a financial divide between the lower and the top half at least, don't they?

For some items that's enforced: Most people couldn't choose, for instance to always wear fuzzy Harris Tweed, and many couldn't afford regular trips to see live theater, or imported French wine and cheese. So yeah, here in the US there's definitely a lot of overlap, even now, between high-brow and rich.

I think that may be eroding a bit as the pool of "rich" is shrinking, and becoming more a function of your parents economic class. That makes me wonder if maybe the overlap was true here because for a long time, we had really good socio-economic mobility and a wide middle class. It was perhaps easier for "high-brow" folks to rise to at least middle-class status. We're getting more poor intellectuals: My God, look at our adjunct professors.
posted by tyllwin at 1:00 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


yeah, remove the money part and have it be more like the choice between Craps and Go. Roughly the same expense, vastly different cultural baggage. (or, for example, a night out at Lincoln Center for a recital will cost me about as much as a night out drinking or going to be 3D IMAX movie with a friend, but you get way different reactions depending on who you're telling your plans to.)

Hi-Brow seems to have a few linking features, not part of the current Acceptable Canon (stuff you get assigned in high school) but trendy for one...
posted by The Whelk at 1:15 PM on June 14


It's worth noting that the most expensive item on the whole chart -- depending on what "Calder" means exactly -- is the Empire furniture in the upper-middle section.

And even if you take "Calder" to mean buying a piece by Calder, as opposed to mass produced things that look like something Calder would make or going to see works by Calder in museums, it's definitely possible that someone with a passion for antiques would spend more on that than someone with a passion for abstract art would spend on even an important work by an up and coming artist. In Calder's 1941 show, he only sold a few pieces, and one of them went for $233.
posted by Sara C. at 1:15 PM on June 14


(that being said I suspect part of our fine-grain sorting is cause we're mostly a user base with middle-upper-middle tastes and likes but no one wants to be seen as hi-brow cause that's snooty)
posted by The Whelk at 1:16 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


You all have made me very self conscious about ordering Jack and Gingers. Maybe they should come with a flashing "lo-brow" swizzle stick?
posted by Biblio at 1:20 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


(Like mentioned above, going to a Calder show NOW is firmly middle to upper-brow cause critical consensus has gelled that Calder Is Important and Worthy Of Learning About and you're the type of person who is interested in learning about the history of art a bit. More Hi-brow would be keeping tabs on current, not quite firmly established artists, I think it's cause it requires you have an opinion on it and that invites the idea you may be Wrong.)
posted by The Whelk at 1:28 PM on June 14


You all have made me very self conscious about ordering Jack and Gingers.

That's okay, Jack Daniel's isn't bourbon. Or so the purveyors of "real" bourbon are saying, and why oh why would they lie?

(On a barely related note, today I noticed that, apparently in response to makers of "real soap" like Dr Bronner's et al., The Body Shop is shooting back by marketing a lot of its sodium laureth sulfate products as "soap-free.")
posted by Sys Rq at 1:28 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


for example, a night out at Lincoln Center for a recital will cost me about as much as a night out drinking or going to be 3D IMAX movie with a friend

The outlay for that particular night out might be the same, but the outlay for the education/training/experience you (ostensibly) need to appreciate the Lincoln Center recital is very high, so in total paying enough to enjoy an evening at Lincoln Center is much more expensive than paying enough to enjoy an evening at an IMAX movie.

Acquiring a taste doesn't come cheap.
posted by rue72 at 1:29 PM on June 14


Which is why education (or taste development if you will) seems to become a bigger and bigger requirement for determining which end of the brow you're at.

Oddly this links back to our previous Mefi discussion about sweetness and "simple" flavors.
posted by The Whelk at 1:31 PM on June 14


I think that taste development is more of a U-shape in terms of highbrow/lowbrow.

If you think that art is impractical or a waste of money, you might as well be wearing a sign that says, "Hi! I'm Middlebrow."
posted by rue72 at 1:38 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


AKA will it make my Mom go "You PAID GOOD MONEY FOR THAT?"
posted by The Whelk at 1:39 PM on June 14


Cars can be great class examples. A jacked up new truck with a big Monster logo in the back window will cost about the same as a new Audi, but we classify them very differently.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:41 PM on June 14 [3 favorites]


the outlay for the education/training/experience you (ostensibly) need to appreciate the Lincoln Center recital is very high

I think this is a lot more true now than it was in 1949, though.

I mean, look down the Music column, and it's all stuff in the classical idiom until you get to lowbrow. The average person with a little education and a basic level of exposure to culture was expected to be able to grok classical music 75 years ago.

I think that's why ballet is listed as highbrow, whereas theatre is upper-middle. Ballet is pretty esoteric, and you do have to know a lot of stuff to really get it. Theater is much more accessible, and if we're talking Broadway, it would have been no harder to grok than the average Oscar-nominated film is today. Charades is a much easier game than either bridge or craps.

A lot of this stuff really is down to taste. I don't say that to claim that class doesn't exist, or that this wasn't ultimately all about status. And in a time before the internet, a lot of it was simply down to access and knowing about things. But ultimately it's hard to even say "oh it's just that education is a stand-in for money". I mean it kind of is, just as this is all kind of about money, but it's much more complicated than that.
posted by Sara C. at 1:43 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


Acquiring a taste doesn't come cheap.

I don't know about that. It definitely takes effort to seek out cultural enrichment, but then, there's a reason we mythologize Lincoln educating himself on old books by firelight in a log cabin. In the past, we tended to view cultural acievement as a path to class mobility that was accessible to anyone. Granted, in practice, many elites never really accepted Lincoln as anything more than a puffed up hillbilly who didn't know his place. Growing up, we bought used books in bulk. To my grandmother, reading and education were self-evidently virtuous. But then again, there was no ballet around for many miles, and definitely, some forms of high brow culture have historically been less accessible to those lower on the socioeconomic ladder. Not sure if that still has to be true with the internet in the mix, though.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:53 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


If you do have access to information technology, it's easier than ever before
posted by The Whelk at 2:04 PM on June 14


I can promise you that the people crowing over granite countertops* just think those are the best kind of counters to have.

Maybe the people crowing? But there is definitely a part of me (which I have successfully ignored) that wants granite countertops because that would mean I'm finally "comfortable." My awareness of the world beyond my own childhood poverty was forged first by hometown friends' parents buying low-end McMansions. Only later did I add in a weird soup of artfully-shabby NYC prewar 5's, filled with books and LPs and wood floors, a la Hannah and Her Sisters.

Most of the apartments I have lived in fall much closer to the Woody Allen aesthetic, which is technically the higher-brow one (but cash-wise, a lot cheaper to wrangle, at least in the Midwest). But still, every time I rent an apartment with regular ol' laminate counters I cringe a little with shame. I don't even freaking like how they look; but I know what they represent, and it's a thing that I want.
posted by like_a_friend at 2:24 PM on June 14 [3 favorites]


That's true. As usual, the really poor--without access to public goods like libraries and quality public schools--are still at a disadvantage.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:25 PM on June 14


I hate the term "nouveau riche"

Better than no riche at all, said my dad, the first one in his family to go to college, all the time.
posted by shothotbot at 2:30 PM on June 14


I don't even freaking like how they look; but I know what they represent, and it's a thing that I want.

er...where "they" = granite counters
posted by like_a_friend at 2:35 PM on June 14


wants granite countertops because that would mean I'm finally "comfortable."

Well, yes, there's that angle of it, too.

But if you were building a house, and if you were financially comfortable enough to choose which type of countertops to get, and it was entirely about taste, what would you get? I'm sure that whatever you picked, you would see it as just the kind that you liked and not really any particular signifier. Except that I'm almost positive that whatever you picked probably would be a signifier, despite your feeling that you picked it because it's what you like.

I'm pretty sure there aren't many people who see the whole system laid out in stark detail and only choose taste-oriented personal signifiers because they're self-consciously trying to send a message to others about their status.

I mean, the truly wealthy probably don't even know what kinds of counters are in their kitchen, or mostly eat out anyway, or would answer "wait, the counters at which house, again?"
posted by Sara C. at 2:44 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


I like to unite the two to make a unibrow.


I have spent a great deal of time around a Maillol or two. Class distinction aside, if one professes a particular affection for his work, what that says to me is "My goodness, I sure do like looking at butts!"

Not that there is anything wrong with that.
posted by louche mustachio at 2:47 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


*sniff* The best is none too good.
posted by mr. digits at 2:50 PM on June 14


It definitely takes effort to seek out cultural enrichment

It takes *work* and that work is generally unpaid. So it's just people who either can afford to work for free or who don't have the option of spending that time working for more money who end up getting "culturally enriched"/"develop their taste" -- ie, children, idle rich, unemployed/"hard to employ," underemployed "hipsters," etc. And of course, obsessives (aka, artists) who can't help themselves.

Sorry for all the scare quotes. A caffeine headache is doing a number on my ability to articulate anything.
posted by rue72 at 2:50 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


And the highbrow furnishings are still the same - Mid-Century Modern furnishings, well preserved and restored, are very much the understated status symbol that marks one as discerning but not ostentatious.
posted by louche mustachio at 2:56 PM on June 14


So it's just people who either can afford to work for free or who don't have the option of spending that time working for more money who end up getting "culturally enriched"/"develop their taste"

Dude, what are you even talking about?

This is just really really not true.

Just about everything on that "high-brow" column would take about ten minutes to learn about on Wikipedia, if you're looking at things from a 2014 context. In an afternoon you could have seen all the works of Calder, watched a ballet, learned to play Go, read a home design blog on modernist furniture, and another about what's the best Sauvignon Blanc under $15 this year.

And if you're looking at it from a 1949 context, many of them would be slightly less accessible to people, but not really in terms of time spent working to gain cultural knowledge. It would mostly be because these things are simply only available in major cities. You have to live in New York or possibly Chicago or L.A., you have to know about the right galleries, you have to have a friend to play Go with, there has to actually be a ballet company, you have to know of a store that sells good wine, etc.

None of these things, in any time period, are things one has to avoid holding a job to find out about.

Again, this stuff is largely about taste, not really anything else. It's just that taste is a function of class, and like a lot of other cultural signifiers, it's not something that we have full control of on an individual level. Because it's really difficult to be self-aware of, and devoting too much energy to doing so is borderline sociopathic.

Besides, I'm pretty sure that the whole way this all works is that being a striver marks you as middle class, which means that as soon as the strivers get access to whatever highbrow cultural signifier, said signifier becomes middlebrow by default. If someone wrote a piece in the New York Times about how the wealthy are signing their kids up for Go lessons instead of Chess lessons, eventually Go will kind of a schlumpy wannabe class-conscious thing to do and not really highbrow anymore. And then backgammon will become the highbrow game of choice, until the NYT catches onto that trend and it all starts over again.

(Seriously though I've always wanted to learn to play backgammon.)
posted by Sara C. at 3:06 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


What did people do before the Internet, sit around not knowing how to play backgammon?
posted by The Whelk at 3:19 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


leotrotsky: "Yes, exactly -- I drink gin because I fucking like gin and I don't give a damn what you think, all of which might well be a lower class marker. It happens that my family came over on the Mayflower and I'm descended from the founders of Brooks Brothers and I have a ton of old family silver coming to me but it could just as easily be that I'm not aware of this aspirational class stuff.

You do realize that drinking gin is as WASPy as serving cheese and saltines to guests and wearing threadbare J.Press OCBDs, right?
"

My favorite thing is how, in Cheever stories, characters that elect to drink something other than gin do so as a marker of their opposition to or distance from their surroundings. Drinking is mere surface texture until someone starts imbibing something as horrid as rum.
posted by invitapriore at 3:42 PM on June 14


Yeah my only association with gin as being "lower" is if I'm reading a Victorian novel and it is MOTHERS RUIN. I associate gin with like, The Queen Mother ( who reportedly drank a bottle of Bombay a day.) Vodka is your cheap, tacky spirit of choice - even today in the world SKYY and exotic luxury Vodka the whole spirit feels like its trying too hard.
posted by The Whelk at 3:51 PM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Grayson Perry did a series for Channel 4 in the UK called All In The Best Possible Taste where he explored present-day Lower, Middle and Upper Class taste in the UK. I found the middle class episode, but the whole thing is great.

For lower class, the important taste markers were things like tattoos, strong make-up, muscle cars; for upper class, the important taste markers came down to what I can only remember as being dull as dishwater (and having a moneypit family pile).

Also, my family totally did the unwashed wooden salad bowl thing in the 70s, and I remember that Paul Fussell book causing great consternation and angst among all my friends.

Normally I despise and avoid status markers but this I always find these charts and rules pretty hilarious. It's kind of amazing to me that this is from 1949 - if I had seen it without a year attached I would have said early 60s.
posted by maggiemaggie at 5:27 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I wonder how many people caught listeria from those unwashed salad bowls.
posted by Small Dollar at 5:37 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


maggiemaggiemaggie, the cultural markers here are definitely things that extended into the 60s and are the sorts of things the Youth Generation were rebelling against.

I think by 1960 you'd probably see pop music trickling upwards and modernism trickling downwards, but otherwise this is all pretty classic 20th century status markers.
posted by Sara C. at 5:41 PM on June 14


It's kind of amazing to me that this is from 1949 - if I had seen it without a year attached I would have said early 60s.

My husband is from a very far northern mining town and he has all these references and cultural tics that seem 30 years out of date for his age and he says " You have to understand, the 50s lasted longer in Britian, more so in the North, it didn't stop being 1955 til the mid 80s."
posted by The Whelk at 5:43 PM on June 14 [11 favorites]


From my experience in living in Santa Barbara, and having a mother who was "old family" Pasadena, I can definitely say there isn't a direct connection between highbrow and wealth. Wealth doesn't hurt, but as they say, "money can't buy you class". In a real way though, it's a signifier of "I could handle money if I had it". It's a way of saying that one can refrain from disrupting the status quo.

In Santa Barbara there was a distinct divide between the Old Money (Montecito) and New Money (Hope Ranch). The old money people had been in town for generations, were generally understated and neat in appearance, and were generally polite, if distant. They often were wealthy but short of cash. As an educational therapist, my mother often had to accept a promise of 'We'll pay up when our quarterly dividend comes in". And they invariably would pay. Often times they had moderate incomes, and had to put most their money into maintaining their estates.

The New Rich on the other hand, would be the middle-aged guys wearing track suits downtown trailed by a wife in her twenties dressed like a supermodel. They would have enough money to buy half of downtown, but would scream at a coffee shop employee for getting their order wrong, and demand a refund. They would drive old utility stores out of business on State Street, and set up boutiques for their bored wives.

If it sounds like I'm biased toward the old money in Santa Barbara, well it's because I am. I'm not saying that the old money was nicer, or better people, or that they didn't thoroughly screw up Santa Barbara. When I lived there the class elements drove me up the wall. But when it came to working for people or casual interactions, the old money people were generally more pleasant to deal with. The track suit rich tended to be really arrogant and annoying and very open in the way they threw their weight around.

And of course now I live in San Jose, where the Silicon Valley crowd redefines class to mean "More Money = More Class = Bigger Asshole". Sometimes I miss the people who had a concept of highbrow, as opposed to people who would lay off half their development team to by a Thomas Kinkade original.
posted by happyroach at 5:44 PM on June 14 [12 favorites]


The thing about the unwashed salad bowl - you're using a vinegar and oil dressing, and vinegar kills bacteria. You're also using (if you're doing the "classy" salad as described in the high brow section) only vegetables, salt, pepper and dressing - you're not covering it with cheese or Green Goddess or whatever. (Remember, too, that bottled and extremely rich salad dressings were not common until at least the eighties, by which point although my family was still using the wooden salad bowl, most people had probably stopped.)

Basically, every time you have a salad, you are rubbing the bowl with oil; the contents of the bowl are also somewhat acidic. Frankly, our well-seasoned iron griddle gets way grosser and more dubious than my family's old olivewood bowl did.
posted by Frowner at 5:45 PM on June 14


(I just asked him to explain what he meant by that and he said " growing up would you consider an orange to be a worthy and somewhat indulgent Christmas gift?" )
posted by The Whelk at 5:55 PM on June 14 [7 favorites]


Remember, too, that bottled and extremely rich salad dressings were not common until at least the eighties

There's actually a storebought dressing for the "low-middle" salad, which is the classic iceberg wedge with a cream-based dressing. The illustration has something that looks like a mayo jar, so it could just be straight mayo (ew), or possibly salad cream, or possibly one of those mixed with a packet of instant onion soup.

Some digging around on Wikipedia, because I'm a dork for culinary history, implies that Thousand Island was known by 1900, but I have no idea when it started to be mass produced. Ranch wasn't invented until the early 50s, and I imagine bleu cheese dressing would have been more of a restaurant thing.
posted by Sara C. at 5:57 PM on June 14


What? Bottled/pourable salad dressings (as opposed to things like Miracle Whip, which used to be explicitly labeled as a salad dressing) are solidly mid-century middlebrow. By the '80s they'd been around long enough for some previously-common flavors, like Kraft Casino, to have fallen out of fashion.
posted by Lazlo Nibble at 6:01 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


Kraft Casino

So, uh, what exactly did this taste like...? Decades of old cigarette smoke?
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 6:05 PM on June 14 [4 favorites]


(I just asked him to explain what he meant by that and he said " growing up would you consider an orange to be a worthy and somewhat indulgent Christmas gift?" )

Yesterday on the news, they showed Barack Obama sitting with lots of world leaders having some kind of discussion, and aside from the chairs they were sitting on, the only piece of furniture in the room was a delicate coffee table with a huge bowl of maybe twenty-five oranges on it. And I couldn't get over it because -- why oranges? Nobody can eat them in public like that, because what do you do with the peel? And why so *many* in any case?

But I guess it was just an ostentatious show of wealth. Huh.
posted by rue72 at 6:15 PM on June 14


(actually, having read some of the new ones, Cat And Girl totally fits our working definition of hi-brow and her funclub embrace of cassingles as one off art objects that require you to sign up to a monthly fan club to get totally fits.)
posted by The Whelk at 6:17 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


No dairy based dressings ever entered our household. The preferred dressing was oil and vinegar mixed with a store-bought salad seasonings packet.
posted by maggiemaggie at 6:17 PM on June 14


It has been proven here on Metafilter that putting a bowl of fruit next to something makes it more attractive.
posted by The Whelk at 6:18 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


* off to buy an Erlenmeyer flask brb *
The Florence flask is a joke, right?


In the early 80s we called this High Tech - encapsulated in
a well-known coffee-table book one of its notions was the use of laboratory glassware in the kitchen and dining room. May be a reason glass salad bowls so popular now? Anyway, so that's why my mom had a big wooden bowl which grew darker over the years.
posted by Rash at 6:21 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


I grew up on the poverty line, but my mother comes from an aristocratic family from an ethnic group that apparently no longer exists (Baltic German). I never thought anything of it except for two things: shoes stayed on in the house unless they were wet or muddy (which I learned quickly was not the case in many other households), and my mother still can't tolerate anyone, not even a toddler, eating off of anything that isn't china. We have a set of china for babies.

Oh, and I have a strangely long list of relatives who were disfigured by barn fires. Not because they were in the barns when the fires started, but because they were determined to save their beloved horses.
posted by Hildegarde at 6:25 PM on June 14 [6 favorites]


my mother still can't tolerate anyone, not even a toddler, eating off of anything that isn't china

My grandmother, who grew up on an okra farm, is of the same opinion. I'm not sure what they had for crockery in rural Louisiana in the Depression, but one thing is sure: nobody in her family will ever have a meal on anything less than Blue Willow.
posted by Sara C. at 6:34 PM on June 14


Funny to me that plenty of the contents of the lowbrow line from 1949--a comic book, a jukebox or the R&B/big band records therein, cowboy paraphernalia--are not only universally beloved now but extremely collectable, while an avant garde book of criticism from 1949 or a classic music recording= worthless.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:50 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


What? Bottled/pourable salad dressings (as opposed to things like Miracle Whip, which used to be explicitly labeled as a salad dressing) are solidly mid-century middlebrow. By the '80s they'd been around long enough for some previously-common flavors, like Kraft Casino, to have fallen out of fashion.


They sure weren't where I was growing up. They may have been available, but they weren't an everyday thing by any means. I never encountered bottled dressing in regular use in someone's home until I left college.

Honestly, maybe it is a class thing - everyone I grew up around in the seventies/early eighties was basically the kind of lower middle class where you can keep afloat if you keep everything really simple, and the idea of buying a lot of packaged stuff to put on top of stuff seemed like a really frivolous use of money. Like, you would bake cakes rather than get cake mix and make frosting rather than buy it because buying the bulk ingredients for cake was cheaper in the long run than buying even a very cheap box mix. Pre-packaged stuff was always a treat to me as a kid because we did everything from scratch - and that was pretty common. And eating out even at a fast food restaurant was a big deal - I remember the first time I had pizza, when I was eight or nine at a friend's house, and that was a big deal.

Seriously, in the midwestern US in the seventies and early eighties, I think food culture was very different than it is now. There was a lot less variety, things were a lot more expensive, stuff that people take for granted now just wasn't around. We had iceberg lettuce salads every night (in our wooden salad bowl, with vinegar and oil dressing - I hated salad until well into my twenties as a result) because any other greener kind of lettuce was just too expensive. And I don't think we were living an atypical life.

I remember the first time I ever had cool whip, when I was eight or nine, too - and that was at the home of the unmarried senior school teacher in the family.
posted by Frowner at 6:58 PM on June 14 [3 favorites]


Yeah, Cool Whip was something fancy my mom bought if my parents were throwing a dinner party or she was making some kind of special festive dessert for a holiday. And she would be FURIOUS if you snarfed a couple spoonfuls. We never had that in the house.

We did have bottled salad dressing, though, however my childhood memories are more mid-eighties into the 90s, when that was much more of a thing, and my parents both worked and had four kids and my dad had a weight problem, so it was probably more of a priority in our specific family than things like twinkies and cake mixes and other packaged stuff.

I definitely remember that in the early 80s you couldn't get fresh mushrooms. That's part of why I was marveling about avocados upthread. Avocados are expensive now, in the era of ubiquitous cheap produce and reefer trucks, so I can't even imagine what a rare delicacy they must have been in the 40s and 50s when literally for true you could not get fresh mushrooms for chrissakes.

I also remember there never being fresh berries, except for strawberries in season which are grown commercially near where I grew up.
posted by Sara C. at 7:12 PM on June 14


Well, if you want to talk about cultural hierarchy signifiers, I think mandrill ischial callosities are top-drawer highbrow and trump Harris Tweed anytime.
posted by Red Loop at 7:23 PM on June 14


Did anybody else read the above and assume for a minute that "mandrill ischial" was a designer who'd maybe get namechecked in the next William Gibson novel, and callosities were a kind of clothes you weren't hip enough to have ever heard of? No? Just me?

/slowbrow
posted by hap_hazard at 8:59 PM on June 14 [3 favorites]


/caycepollardbrow
posted by Sara C. at 9:04 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]


Kraft Casino salad dressing was apparently a late 1951/early 1952 line extension of their French dressings, which included regular French and Miracle [as in Whip] French at the time. Ads touted it as "Continental style...tangy-sweet with a touch of garlic".

Warning: link suggests eating peaches that have been topped with cream cheese-stuffed prunes and dipped in French dressing.
posted by Lazlo Nibble at 9:15 PM on June 14


What's the point of being a human if you don't have art?

Uh...The point is sex.
Unless you are able to argue that sex is art, which is a point that I think I could argue, though I am pretty sure I am unable to argue that sex through all of human history was art.
Sex and Art both are in the business of creation. I am on the fence.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 9:18 PM on June 14


If I had to choose sex or art, I would so choose art.

... Which I guess makes me Sister Wendy.

And it's probably extremely middle brow that I even know who she is.
posted by Sara C. at 9:30 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


"The Game" was a common method in the late 1940s of entertaining one another by invoking the ageles̸̸̡͍̩̭̝̲͎̟̩̤͕̗̙̼̝̤s̶̖̠̻̥̮̤̳̜̖̩̫̘͞ͅe̡͜҉͍̝̹̱̳͚̞͍̳̞f͠͠͏̩̩͙͕͓̗͢ń̷̼̮̤͕̰̲̼͙̘̖̭̬̯͘͡ͅj̛̹̖͚̥͙͖̯̞̮̮́̀͢͢f̸̡͍͚̜̟̞͓̩̮͎̩̘͠j̢͏̸͚̫͓͚̗̠̠̥͘͞í҉̮̝̦̳̤̤̪̠̟̙͔̫͢͝w̴̶̼̹͕̜͘d̝̦͈̳̮̦͍̘̼͇̜̭͟h̶̸̻̺̫̬̲̖̗̞͉̣̗̘̣̗̫̕͟͡b̨͇̥̙̮g̘̬̖͍̰̳̮͙̜̳̗̀͡h̛̛͖͉̜̘̮͖̜ͅí̷̡̢̩̭̰̼͘e͏͓̟̺̪̯̬̺́ì̢̡̺̭̦̖̲̻̜̀ͅȩ̶̸͔̣̣̣̗̺͈̯͕̘̙͍̝̪̱̰́͠f͏͏̰͙̻̦͙̺̥̲͇̗̣̬̳͍̰̞̩̼͝ͅņ̷̲̲͚̞̘͚̥͜͠m͢͏͚͓͍̦̝̗̥̖̱̦̱̀ͅg̴̡̨̡̪͓͉̲̣̳̱̱̼̥̺̺̙̳n̢͙̻͉̘̞̻̭͝g̷͇̞̳̹̱̺͈̯̕ͅŗ̢̥̭̖͎̘̫͍̖͙̰͟ṇ̝̳̗͙̲̘͎̠̘͖̻̥̹͎̳̹̕̕í̜̟̝̜̺̪̤̭̖̣͕͔͕̤̹̯̀͠͞ͅg͢҉̗̩̼̟̹̼̹̰̻͖̻̝̘̗͕͍̰̠͡b̡̛̝̥̝̻̜̮̦̲̖̳̠͔̣͇̣̀͠ȩ̳̮̳̩̬͕̜̠̪͎̫͟͠f̤͕͕͕͉̝̠̟̺̩̭͘͘͟m̶̢̜̝̻̪̣͎̜͙̩̩̝̗̯̺ͅó̡̼͓̰͖͍̜̜̳̦͍̻͚̤͖̞̻̯͢͜͟ͅn̸̤̫̜̪̣̳͇͕̗͈̻̥͍͘ͅt̴̵̫̼͍͉͉͕̺̣̰͘͟h̶̶̵̤̬̯͉̭̗̜̠͖̫͓͠k̶̹͓̦͓̪̼̟̩͎͈̺͚̥̲͖f̴̧̡̧̩̗̫̝̝͘g̶̷̛̱̫̥̝̥͉̰̜n҉̷́͘͏̱̥̳̲̲̥i̡͏͏͉͎̳̥͕̼ǵ̡̩̲̝̩͔̙͕͟͞f̸̛̜̭̹̙̯̹̫͕͓͎̞͎̹̦̮̣̕͞ͅǹ̢͕̜̠͎͉͟͟͞ͅj̷̺̥͓̥̤̘̠̻̞̘͢͢ͅd̠͎̮͎̺͚̮͢͠͝͠n̢̢͏̲̤̝͙̩̮̩̼̦͙̤̟͔̲̖͕͞ͅb̸̧̠͇̦̙̻̱͠͞ņ̣̠̜̝͉̱̺͕̘͇͙̜̭̥̟̮͟͠ͅb̝͈̥̺̦̫̘̦̳̠͘
posted by threeants at 9:45 PM on June 14 [11 favorites]


What? Bottled/pourable salad dressings (as opposed to things like Miracle Whip, which used to be explicitly labeled as a salad dressing) are solidly mid-century middlebrow. By the '80s they'd been around long enough for some previously-common flavors, like Kraft Casino, to have fallen out of fashion.

I was born in the 1970s and bottled salad dressings have been around for as long as I can remember. None of that modern ginger-soy stuff, of course, it was ranch and thousand island and various ones named after countries -- Italian, French, Russian. I remember going to someone's house and their parents making vinaigrette from scratch which seemed totally sophisticated to me.

Eating out was a very rare treat, but that may have been a function of not having money plus a hippyish fervently anti-fast food stance. My friends got to go to mcdonalds a lot more often than I did.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:52 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]


It's kind of amazing to me that this is from 1949 - if I had seen it without a year attached I would have said early 60s.

My husband is from a very far northern mining town and he has all these references and cultural tics that seem 30 years out of date for his age and he says " You have to understand, the 50s lasted longer in Britian, more so in the North, it didn't stop being 1955 til the mid 80s."


In most of Kentucky, it's still 1986.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 9:56 PM on June 14 [5 favorites]


In most of Kentucky, it's still 1986.

historicism called, it wants its historicism back

just kidding, abstract concepts cannot place phone calls
posted by threeants at 10:00 PM on June 14 [5 favorites]


(actually, having read some of the new ones, Cat And Girl totally fits our working definition of hi-brow and her funclub embrace of cassingles as one off art objects that require you to sign up to a monthly fan club to get totally fits.)

Well, and Cat And Girl's whole schtick is "Dude, class and taste are pretty hilarious and weird when you think about it." Which doesn't make it any less highbrow — if anything it reinforces the highbrow-ness ("brow height"?) of it — but yeah, I kinda suspect if you told Gambrell that her stuff was fitting whatever definition of highbrow you'd come up with, she'd be like "Oh good, it's working."
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:13 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


Uh...The point is sex. 

Yeah, speak for yourself. That's not even in my top ten list of things to get out of bed in the morning for. In fact, even just the idea of seeing it that way is depressing enough to make me want to go back to bed (alone).
posted by saulgoodman at 8:49 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]


IRC, Kraft "Casino" was basically what you can still find marketed as "Catalina."
posted by tyllwin at 10:12 AM on June 15


It's fun to see MeFites trying to discern national cultural trends from their individual childhoods.

Next, someone will tell me that Fruity Pebbles were the true gourmand's break-fast, cutting across all social strata.
posted by Monochrome at 10:48 AM on June 15


Yes, being vaguely, undeservedly snide is vastly superior to what others in this thread have been doing.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:35 PM on June 15


Hey, satsumas are a traditional UK stocking-filler, along with shiny pennies. They cut through all the chocolate, if nothing else. Nothing class-related about it.
posted by tinkletown at 1:50 PM on June 15


tyllwin, Casino and Catalina were/are both French(-ish) dressings, but they're different enough that they shared shelf space for decades.
posted by Lazlo Nibble at 3:23 PM on June 15


Some of the comments on barriers to entry as a way to distinguish the high brow from the low brow are giving me a new way to consider the ever-elusive meaning of hipster.

Valuing the obscure over the popular is its own way of requiring an education to have superior tastes. Maybe my favourite movie is an Italian vampire film that you probably haven't heard of, and it was never released on DVD so I have it on a second-generation VHS tape.

Releasing your song on cassingle instead of a more widely accessible format is a way to create a barrier to it. Looking at the chart, if someone nowadays listened only to music on a jukebox or only watched western films, they're likely to be called a hipster, because those are no longer things that are easy to find.

And "beer" is on the chart under lowbrow but people have found ways to classify different beers, and again it's usually a distinction between popular beers and those for a more refined palate. Unlike wine or whiskey you never hear of $600 bottles of beer,* so the financial barriers don't get as drastic. But some people get fixated on the idea that the best beer tastes like a mouth full of hops, so the barrier is whether you've developed a taste for that.

And most of the hipster backlash comes from seeing this as deliberately creating their own barriers in an attempt to invent their own highbrow from which to feel they have superior tastes. Rather than just being someone who expends a lot of effort towards things they are enthusiastic about. I'm sure some people doing the latter get unfairly accused of the former and some people really doing the former will feign that they are doing the latter.


* Okay, I hadn't heard of $600 bottles of beer, but this article came up when I searched. Still that's not a patch on what some wine or whiskey goes for, so I think my general point holds up.
posted by RobotHero at 3:39 PM on June 15


I think the fact that pretty much everything in the low-brow row is very "in" these days says a lot of good about where we're at as a culture. That's nice, once in a while...
posted by benbenson at 4:20 PM on June 15


Valuing the obscure over the popular is its own way of requiring an education to have superior tastes.

It's really not. Harvard doesn't teach a class on Microbrews or Indie Rock.

These are cultural markers, not economic ones.
posted by Sara C. at 4:27 PM on June 15


You do know most hipsters are absolutely crazy about PBR, right, RobotHero? That's not exactly a brand of beer with a high barrier to entry.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:09 PM on June 15


Sara - I didn't mean a formal education. It's more akin to geek gatekeepers deciding that you're not a real Doctor Who fan if you only got into it with the ninth, or punks saying someone is too mainstream to be a real punk.

But yeah, I guess cultural markers works as a unifying theory, that people who can't afford to distinguish themselves economically will be drawn to other means to define people like themselves as at the top.

Saul - Sure, but I appreciate PBR on a much deeper level than you. :)

And if a hipster comes from a background where drinking PBR is seen as wrong-brow, overcoming that is itself a kind of barrier to entry. Again with the comparison to punks, giving yourself a mohawk isn't very difficult in itself, but it requires a level of commitment that not everyone will clear.


Maybe I was provoked by the idea of Cat and Girl being highbrow because of cassingles. I was trying to explain to myself, how are cassingles highbrow?

Eh, it's a half-formed theory. Maybe just ignore me if it's going to become another argument over who qualifies as a hipster.
posted by RobotHero at 6:59 PM on June 15


I don't get Cat and Girl being "highbrow" at all and don't think that makes any sense.

Most of hipster and internet culture is pretty middle class in scope.
posted by Sara C. at 7:05 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]


How much can we equate middle class and middle brow?
posted by RobotHero at 7:13 PM on June 15


Middle class and middle brow are not the same thing (again, witness the old example of the professor who earns very little but personifies one version of high brow).
posted by Dip Flash at 9:11 PM on June 15


[whatever height]-brow refers to the level of cultural sophistication, not the class or income level, I think. Of course, there's a lot of overlap. Though like I said earlier, I think if you had a graph with class-level* as the X-axis and brow-level as the Y-axis, it would be more of a U-shape than a positively sloped diagonal line.

*or maybe that should be income-level? After all, cass and income don't completely overlap, either.
posted by rue72 at 9:17 PM on June 15


Middle class and middlebrow aren't exactly the same thing, but seriously web comics are not "highbrow". I don't really get where the Cat And Girl/cassingles derail was really going.
posted by Sara C. at 10:16 PM on June 15


I think it's totally fair to allow that comics, graphic novels and webcomics can span a range here, and if you grant that, then Cat and Girl is one of the very few really serious contenders for highbrow. Definitely upper-middle.
posted by ominous_paws at 12:13 AM on June 16


you end up with a lot of members of this class working menial jobs if they can find work at all. I wonder what will become of this class.
Most post-revolutionary governments are stuffed to the gills with artists and academics.

Also, considering the responses from the posh kids in this thread, the biggest signifier I can see is the diamond-hard belief that you are right and they are wrong.
Doubt is working class.
posted by fullerine at 12:59 AM on June 16


> Yes, being vaguely, undeservedly snide is vastly superior to what others in this thread have been doing.

I'm sorry; that is not what I meant to do. I guess it sounded different in my head.
posted by Monochrome at 7:20 AM on June 16


The Whelk : That implies the goal of the fine art world isn't to launder money.

That implies that the fine art world didn't exist prior to money laundering.

The Medici's didn't give a rat's ass who knew where their money came from.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:29 AM on June 16


I think it's totally fair to allow that comics, graphic novels and webcomics can span a range here

Maybe, but I am really hard-put to find any example of it that is highbrow on the level of ballet, symphony, opera, and other artistic pursuits we all see as high-falutin. Like I would never think to myself (as a middle class striver), "You know, I've really got to make time to read Cat And Girl more often..." in the way that I think about award winning novels, avant garde art, "The Wire", etc.

I would put all webcomics and graphic novels in "upper-middle", until David Hockney makes one and it becomes a homework assignment of sorts.
posted by Sara C. at 10:04 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


I read vanishingly few graphic novels, but I'd comfortably put Alberto Fuguet's Road Story in the high brow category and I am sure there are others. Maybe Maus?
posted by Dip Flash at 10:23 AM on June 16


There are lots of really good graphic novels (I'd also nominate "Persepolis" and "Pyongyang", which is funny because they're both cities that begin with P), I just don't know if they're "highbrow" in the way that the opera or a subscription to The Economist is highbrow. Like I don't know if I'd conspicuously sit reading a copy of "Habibi" in a coffee shop.
posted by Sara C. at 10:56 AM on June 16


I would put all webcomics and graphic novels in "upper-middle", until David Hockney makes one and it becomes a homework assignment of sorts.

It's not Hockney, but you can check-off the homework assignment part.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:28 AM on June 16


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