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Lowbrow, Highbrow, and the Categorization of Art Selina Lai

The debate on what is a good work of art has been going on for centuries. Numerous articles and reviews have been devoted to what should be canonized and what not in order to gain a place on library bookshelves. Such classification soon began to place the different kinds of art and literature into two main categories: highbrow and lowbrow. The term "highbrow" was first coined in the 1880s to describe works of aesthetic superiority; whereas "lowbrow" appeared after the turn of the twentieth century to denote someone or something that is neither "highly intellectual" nor "aesthetically refined." [1] Shortly after the birth of this brow division, Van Wyck Brooks, in "America's Coming-of-Age," (1915) placed American literature onto "two irreconcilable planes, the plane of stark intellectuality and the plane of stark business." He maintains that there is "no genial middle ground" that could fill the cultural chasm between "highbrow" and "lowbrow" art. [2]

Today, Peter Swirski's From Lowbrow to Nobrow offers a fascinatingly original look at the subsequent fusing of these two planes into the "nobrow" territory, where the distinction of the two no longer suffices. While John Seabrook in his recent work Nobrow: the Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture (2000) regards nobrow as a contemporary phenomenon, Swirski argues that the diffusion in fact happens much earlier, during the early decades of the twentieth century. By examining the underpinnings of this dichotomy, he proposes nobrow as an analytic, pragmatic, and cultural category which describes a new type of literary work named artertainment.

In a series of enthralling and provocative arguments, Swirski begins with an insightful chronicle explaining the long held prejudice in the treatment and reception of popular literature. Scouring the publishing statistical data from UNESCO, Escarpit, Curwen, and the American Book Industry Study Group, the author traces the socio-historical development of the book publishing industry and accounts for beliefs that undermine many institutional curricula. He holds that under various extenuating socio-economic forces, such as market pressures and tight publishing schedules, many writers turn to satisfying the mainstream appetite in order to obtain a larger readership. Whereas mass literature is often accused of producing inferior writing, Swirski argues against such a claim by positioning it between popular and canonical art in relative terms.

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Selina Lai teaches in the American Studies Programme at the University of Hong Kong. She holds degrees from the University of Heidelberg, Germany (M.A., American Studies) and the University of Hong Kong (B.A., English and Comparative Literature). She is particularly interested in twentieth-century American literature, and has published in Magill's Survey of American Literature (ed. Tracy Irons-Georges), the International Fiction Review, the Fourth International Hawaii Conference on Arts and Humanities Proceedings, and the forthcoming Encyclopedia of the Culture Wars (ed. Roger Chapman).

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