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Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural…
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Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (The…

by Lawrence Levine

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The most useful and often cited book in my collection. Levine's tome and analysis have proven relevant through three college degrees. Highly recommended for anyone in the humanities or social science fields. ( )
1 vote sailordanae | Apr 27, 2008 |
Academia often will mark anything dated ten to fifteen years prior to the present as "dated" simply by the mere fact that its conception took place more than a decade ago. Levine's 1988 tome testifies that this attitude is shortsighted and moreover, erroneous. Levine has written a book that serves both as a history lesson as well as a hopeful plea to reconsider our cultural biases as constructs of our own doing.

Levine does not simplify the situation by presenting a black and white portrait of the American development of high vs. low culture. Instead he offers a well-researched argument supporting a flux in cultural ideas wherein we travel through various redefinitions of culture, both high and low. Investigating the societal milieu surrounding Shakespeare, opera and orchestral music in nineteenth-century America, Levine aptly demonstrates how we arrived at our current struggle to accommodate contrasting ideas about culture.

One need not be an expert in the arts to appreciate the severity of Levine's message. The comprehension of "cultural hierarchy" is absolutely fundamental to understanding our societal existence. One can moreover applaud Levine for tackling the subject in a way that is accessible and easily comprehended by those not ensconced in academic dialogue. His writing is bold and charismatic, making this book a refreshing change from many academic missives which aim to keep the discourse within the walls of the ivory tower. Levine invites us outside those walls by presenting us with an uncracked mirror by which we can clearly see our own responsibilities and reactions to culture in America. ( )
1 vote rebcamuse | Jan 11, 2008 |
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I was standing in the halls of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., a few years ago chatting with a scholar who had just seen several Buster Keaton films.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674390776, Paperback)

In this unusually wide-ranging study, spanning more than a century and covering such diverse forms of expressive culture as Shakespeare, Central Park, symphonies, jazz, art museums, the Marx Brothers, opera, and vaudeville, a leading cultural historian demonstrates how variable and dynamic cultural boundaries have been and how fragile and recent the cultural categories we have learned to accept as natural and eternal are.

For most of the nineteenth century, a wide variety of expressive forms--Shakespearean drama, opera, orchestral music, painting and sculpture, as well as the writings of such authors as Dickens and Longfellow--enjoyed both high cultural status and mass popularity. In the nineteenth century Americans (in addition to whatever specific ethnic, class, and regional cultures they were part of) shared a public culture less hierarchically organized, less fragmented into relatively rigid adjectival groupings than their descendants were to experience. By the twentieth century this cultural eclecticism and openness became increasingly rare. Cultural space was more sharply defined and less flexible than it had been. The theater, once a microcosm of America--housing both the entire spectrum of the population and the complete range of entertainment from tragedy to farce, juggling to ballet, opera to minstrelsy--now fragmented into discrete spaces catering to distinct audiences and separate genres of expressive culture. The same transition occurred in concert halls, opera houses, and museums. A growing chasm between "serious" and "popular," between "high" and "low" culture came to dominate America's expressive arts.

"If there is a tragedy in this development," Levine comments, "it is not only that millions of Americans were now separated from exposure to such creators as Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Verdi, whom they had enjoyed in various formats for much of the nineteenth century, but also that the rigid cultural categories, once they were in place, made it so difficult for so long for so many to understand the value and importance of the popular art forms that were all around them. Too many of those who considered themselves educated and cultured lost for a significant period--and many have still not regained--their ability to discriminate independently, to sort things out for themselves and understand that simply because a form of expressive culture was widely accessible and highly popular it was not therefore necessarily devoid of any redeeming value or artistic merit."

In this innovative historical exploration, Levine not only traces the emergence of such familiar categories as highbrow and lowbrow at the turn of the century, but helps us to understand more clearly both the process of cultural change and the nature of culture in American society.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:42:56 -0400)

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