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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Highbrow = boring

When I was young, I always assumed I would gradually move on to high brow interests, like my parents had. They like classical music, read the New Yorker, watch Masterpiece Theater, etc.

But it never happened. I got stuck at middle brow, and never graduated.

I've read the highbrow authors. My parents paid a lot of money so that I could go to a private school where I was forced to read Eudora Welty, William Styron, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and James Baldwin. The one lasting lesson I learned from that school was that I never wanted to open another book by any of those authors. Every last one of them was just bone dry. And it wasn't as if I was at an age where I couldn't appreciate books. I used to devour Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, and Tom Wolfe at that age.

Maybe if I hadn't been forced to read the "great" authors for English class, I might have liked them better. Maybe if I opened those books up now, I could appreciate them more. But that will never happen.

I've been to the theater a number of times, and never liked it. The actors invariably overact, the sets are limiting, and the plots usually seem contrived. And for some reason the audience at every play I've ever been to seems to feel obliged to laugh at every lame joke, just like the twits in a college classroom who will titter at every precious joke a professor makes. I've always gotten the impression that people in these milieus laugh to show that they're in on a joke, rather than because they actually find them funny. When the audience in a darkened movie theater laughs, it's more of a natural response.

I appreciate intelligence, especially when it's employed honestly. Anyone who can make me think, "Aah, that's so true"  is always welcome in my world. Anyone who can make me laugh is also welcome. I just don't appreciate situations where I'm expected to laugh. (Established medical fact: every forced laugh you make takes five minutes off your life, whereas every genuine laugh adds five minutes.)

I've never been to the ballet, but have seen it on TV. I find its stilted, unnatural movements unappealing. All those dancers striking artful poses and making such a big effort to stay on their tippy toes. All I can ever think is, big deal. (And aren't those guys a little embarrassed to make those effeminate gestures?) I am not immune to the beauty of movement. I used to love watching Sugar Ray Leonard box: his coordination, speed, timing, and power were wonderful to behold. And I love watching a great swimmer glide powerfully and gracefully up and down a pool. Maybe it's just that movement for its own sake (as opposed to knocking out an opponent or getting across a pool quickly) seems pointless.

It has always seemed to me that the higher brow the music, the less passion and joy it contains. One of my least fond memories -- not quite so bad that it could be considered traumatic, but close enough -- is of having to sit through another student's piano recital. We were all supposed to appreciate her artistry. I wanted more than anything else to leave, but the audience was so small it would have been extremely rude to do so. (I almost did anyway.) The worst part was looking around at everyone else to see if they were as bored and distracted as I was, and seeing the expressions of sublime bliss on their faces.

I've never felt lonelier.

Another high brow activity is schlepping over to a museum to look at art. I've been forced to do this a few times, and my main memory is of how stiff and tired I feel after an afternoon of standing. It's the same feeling I get after having to wait in line for a long time. I confess to an occasional sense of wonder at the skill or effort involved while looking at a painting. But the fact is, I'm just not that curious about what a vase of flowers or a basket of fruit or a nude fat woman look like.

As far as nonrepresentational art, I spent too many years being nearsighted (before getting LASIKS) to not appreciate the superiority of a clean, crisp photograph over some pointillist's blurry vision of the world. And my vision would have to be even blurrier than it was for me to appreciate the likes of Richard Serra or Jasper Johns.

My theory is that nobody really likes highbrow stuff. They couldn't -- it's too boring. People only pretend to like stuff that's had all the life strangled out of it it to show how sophisticated and intelligent they are.

No thank you.


Anonymous said...

Great post, as always.

Is there anything called "low brow" because that's where I'm at.....

Mad Dog

John Craig said...

Mad Dog --
Thank you.

NASCAR, Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris, and comic books. I don't think you are fans of any of those/them.

Anonymous said...

You didn't trash opera??

John Craig said...

Good point. I had actually thought of it when I had the idea for the post, then forgot about it. I also had a paragraph about architecture, but took it out because I wasn't sure people would relate.

Jonathan Leaf said...

Steinbeck is middle-brow, not high brow. High-brows consider him a joke. They hate him. They mostly sneer at Baldwin, as well. And Welty is a minor figure.
Have you ever read War and Peace? It takes a while to get into, but it's actually a terrific read. As are a lot of the other high-brow classics. Really.

John Craig said...

Jon --
Thank you, I'm afraid I'm going to have to defer to your superior knowledge, as always. Hadn't realized the highbrows sneered at Steinbeck and Baldwin (which proves, by the way, that I'm not one of them).

Never read Tolstoy, though I've read Dostoevsky (does that count?) However, I have read lists of Tolstoy's quotes (in true middlebrow fashion) and was very impressed, in fact wrote a post about it in August of '09:

(Is there a Reader's Digest version of War and Peace?)

Anonymous said...

"My theory is that nobody really likes highbrow stuff. They couldn't -- it's too boring. People only pretend to like stuff that's had all the life strangled out of it it to show how sophisticated and intelligent they are"

I've read a huge number of your blog entries and usually agree with what you have to say. However, I think you're wrong that "nobody really likes highbrow stuff" - I feel mesmerised when looking at art - maybe not flowers/vases like you described - but I enjoy Botticelli, Dali, Rembrandt and similar, as well as piano music and some books you listed. I think you have to be careful before accusing people of only pretending to enjoy things. Just because you don't enjoy them doesn't mean others are faking it. Besides, if no one enjoyed that stuff, why would it be produced in the first place?

John Craig said...

Anon --
You're right, of course. (It's been you who's been commenting on all the old sociopath/narcissist posts this evening, right?) I was sorta kidding when I said that, though I think it's sorta true for a lot of people.

But yes, some people definitely enjoy that stuff. My parents, for instance, I don't think they're faking it.

Thanks for reading so much. (And for your comments.)

Anonymous said...

Yup, the sociopath & narcissist comments were from me. I've developed an intense interest in them, and this blog is a brilliant resource. I guess no one is more qualified to write about them than someone who has spent a lot of time observing them in real life - too many people, psychiatrists included, seem to think they're rarer than they really are.

As for highbrow stuff, I agree that some people are just pretending to like it. But you will find occasional eccentrics who genuinely do :)

John Craig said...

Anon --
Thank you so much. I agree, there's no substitute for real life observation; clinical settings just don't show them in their true natural state. (You can't find out about a tiger's hunting habits from watching it in a zoo.)

Welcome to the company of eccentrics (though in a different way).

You should use something other than "Anonymous" so I now it's you from now on.