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Highbrow/Lowbrow

David Halle


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The distinction between “high culture” and “popular culture,” or “highbrow” and “lowbrow,” has underpinned most of the important debates about culture over the last 50 years in the US, Britain, and France especially, but also elsewhere. Theories of culture have tended either to presuppose this distinction or to debate various aspects of it. However, the nature of the debate has changed over time, and in particular the extent to which researchers and commentators are willing to stand by this distinction. Partly this reflects the spread of higher education. Just after World War II there was a clear gap between an educated elite and the rest (only about 7 percent of the US population had a college degree) and it seemed plausible to talk about an elite of “highbrows” versus the rest. As a college degree became increasingly normal (held by over 25 percent of the US population these days) this education gap has faded, and so has the plausibility of maintaining that there are two radically different cultures, one pitched to an educated elite and the other pitched to the rest of the population. (The term “culture” itself is susceptible to many definitions, broad and narrow. Here I mostly use it in a fairly narrow sense to refer to the arts, namely literature, journalism, film, television, art, architecture, music, dance, and so on; but sometimes in the discussion below “culture” takes on ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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