Class and Culture

David Savran

in The Oxford Handbook of The American Musical

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780195385946
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks

Class and Culture

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Historians have reported that the defined hierarchy cultural forms did not become established in the United States until the end of the nineteenth century. The words “highbrow” and “lowbrow” were coined during that period. The former, first used in the 1880s, describes intellectual or aesthetic superiority and the latter, first used shortly after 1900, means someone or something neither “highly intellectual” nor “aesthetically refined”. These terms were used to accentuate the differences between a European-inspired, morally and spiritually uplifting art and an allegedly primitive, vulgar, commercialized art and the culture of the intellectual and economic elites versus that of the working classes. The older elite used the division between highbrow and lowbrow as a tool to organize and rationalize the social and economic realms and to buttress their own power. European concert music, opera, literary classics, and paintings by the old masters defined a highbrow culture at odds with an indigenous, turn-of-the-century popular culture. The musical theater that is positioned between highbrow and lowbrow and between art theater and variety entertainments has for almost a century represented the culture called middlebrow, an elastic category into which a great many artifacts belongs. The categorization of musical theater as a middlebrow art is related to the fact that it was long ignored or derided by University Theater and music departments.

Keywords: highbrow; lowbrow; cultural hierarchy; opera; university theater; culture; American musicals; Broadway musical

Article.  5910 words. 

Subjects: Music ; Musicology and Music History

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