Even if you devour classic novels and binge-watch Agnès Varda films, every now and then, it feels good to indulge in some glorious trash. From big-budget action flicks to reality TV, middlebrow art is everywhere in our culture.
But even though these shows and movies are “mainstream” (a word that already suggests their widespread establishment), “low” art gives people lots of weird feelings. Is this art bad? Should I watch it? Does enjoying it make me dumb?
Sociologists discuss these questions with the word “taste.” If someone likes the finer things, they have “good taste.” If someone adores trashy TV, their taste is “bad.” But who gets to decide which is which?
It’s a more complicated question than you might think—and it brings us into the murky waters of gender, class, and race.
It’s All in the Brainpan
The words “lowbrow” and “middlebrow” are already a clue to the unsettling side of “good” art. Their roots are in the racist pseudo-science of phrenology, where people thought you could measure someone’s intelligence and worth through the proportions of their heads.
Surprise, surprise, the supposedly smartest head shapes belong to European men. Does that mean that we’ve been conditioned to think of “highbrow” art as the best art just because it’s made by white guys…and not because it’s actually good?
This is a big question. What makes art good? The art itself? The artist’s identity? The society that views the art?
Bard of the People
Here’s what we definitely know: there’s no clear way to judge art. After all, people respond to the exact same artworks very differently over time. When Shakespeare was alive, he was popular culture. Everybody from Her Royal Highness to your average street urchin would see his plays. Nowadays, things have changed.
No matter how many Shakespeare In The Park productions or 90s teen movies try to make him cool and accessible, the Bard’s language is hard to understand. Plus, thanks to decades as the MVP on university syllabi, he’s considered the most profound writer in western history. From “one of the guys” to a literary icon, Shakespeare’s rising star shows how differently people see the same writing over time.
So if something’s artistic value isn’t based on the art itself, but our opinions about the art, what exactly is the difference between the “good” stuff and the “bad”?
My Heart Will Go On
There are so many theories about this that the field of aesthetics popped up to accommodate them. For now, I’ll focus on one major interpretation. For lots of cultural critics, the difference between “good” and “bad” art is less about plot and more about tone. It’s not the story, but the way the story is told.
For Carl Wilson, who explored this question through a case study on Céline Dion, “bad” art is often sentimental or sappy. But as he notes, sentimental doesn’t need to mean bad. In another world, sentimentality could mean an honest expression of emotion. In western culture, however, sentimentality’s ugly siblings are self-indulgence, manipulation, exaggeration, and cliché.
Other musical genres are highly emotional but still come with a certain “coolness.” Hardcore, death metal punk even ushered in “emo” music—a genre whose name literally means “emotional”—but punk still has a sheen of righteous anger and detachment from corporate society.
Manly Tears v. Hysterical Women
If we think about how people perceive emotion as overwrought in Céline Dion’s songs but legitimate in music by The Clash, we can see how long-held associations between femininity, irrationality, and frivolity impact the way we rank art. Traditionally, masculine art (like punk music, tragic plays, and hard-boiled noir) isn’t considered silly (even though, like schmaltz, it’s an exaggerated representation of life). Instead, it’s respectable, serious, and valuable.
So the things that make art “bad” can be ideas totally outside the art itself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a Céline Dion song. It’s just associated with values that we’ve been taught to find low.
It’s worth noting that Dion has, over the last years, experienced a resurgence in popularity. She’s now embraced as a quirky, self-aware diva, what with her good-humored appearances in Vogue videos and the Deadpool 2 soundtrack.
Why Do You Sing With an English Accent?
My hunch? This might have a lot to do with the way that feminist thought has become more mainstream in the last decade. When social values shift, the art we consider worthy shifts too.
More recently, these issues played out in 2015 when Ryan Adams covered Taylor Swift’s 1989 album. Immediately, music critics came out of the woodwork to praise the experiment in musical adaptation. Ryan Adams discovered new depths in Swift’s songs, they cooed. What was once banal pop is now profound musique!
As a Forbes columnist wrote, “It took Ryan Adams” for him “to take pop seriously.” The New Yorker praised how Adams excavated the “whispery lamentations,” “emotional baggage,” and “aching regret” that lay dormant in Swift’s “popular” and “sexy” songs. Celebratory reviews poured in…until a curious backlash asked some key questions.
Taylor Isn’t the Problem
As Vox tartly wrote, “Ryan Adams’ 1989 didn’t discover sadness in Taylor Swift’s songs. It was always there. Why are so many writers only noticing this now?” Why is Ryan Adams being praised for Taylor Swift’s music? A cover can certainly help listeners understand new angles of a song, but the lopsided credit between Adams and Swift was a little baffling.
After all, Swift wrote the music. She came up with the melodies and the lyrics. Why was Adams getting all the praise?
This all goes back to very old ideas about genres, worth, and, of course, gender. Adams sang in a brooding, mellow intonation. His record sounded indie, unproduced, closer to the homemade and authentic. He managed to balance the high regard of tragedy with the natural genius of lyric poetry, drawing on two mega-established forms of high art.
Swift, meanwhile, swung more towards romance and comedy. Her album features upbeat ditties and catchy verses, performed in ways that make listeners want to dance, not shed a single masculine tear while staring out a window. Her music was also extremely produced which, for some people, could suggest that she took time to make a glossy, high-quality product—or, on the flip side, could mean that her artistry is corporate and unnatural, unlike Adams’ authentic sound.
Give Art a Chance
At the end of the day, the Adams/Swift debate got a lot of people thinking about the questions I’ve explored in this article. Who gets to produce legitimate, good art? Can we ever de-program our ingrained tendency to think of tragedy, coolness, and masculinity as worthier and more profound than hopefulness, sentimentality, and femininity?
The jury is still out—but the next time you hear a pop song or see a trailer for a teen drama, think twice before you assume it’s beneath you. Give it a chance. You might be surprised.