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Friday, April 18, 2014

Book Review: The Tastemakers - The Shaping of American Popular Taste by Russell Lynes

Book Review
The Tastemakers - The Shaping of American Popular Taste
 by Russell Lynes
originally published 1955
re-published by Dover Press in 1980

  I have fair collection of books on taste and aesthetics that I've read for the book (non-fiction) I'm writing that I've never mentioned here because I just don't think they are titles that interest people.  Any concentrated consideration of developments in Aesthetics in the mass-communication period needs to consider the influence of other related disciplines in the "social sciences" to the study of aesthetics.   Aesthetics in the 20th and 21st century is really about the development of a large, popular audience for works of art.  This represents a vast change from the study of Aesthetics in the 18th and 19th century.

  Specifically, in the 18th and 19th century, Aesthetics were largely a question of understanding and descriping art as "good" or "bad" within the constraints of "classical" or Greek/Roman Aesthetic principles.   This 18th/19th "classical" aesthetics was the dominant taste before everything started to change.  Understanding "Classical" and "neo-Classical" Aesthetics is largely a history lesson.
  That history lesson includes the development of neo-Classical aesthetics itself but that development is quantitatively and qualitatively different then the dominant aesthetics which followed.  How that happened in America during the early/mid 19th century through the development of the mass media of film, recordings and print media is the subject of The Tastemakers- The Shaping of American Taste, by Russell Lynes.

  With only a single Amazon review spread between two product pages I am convinced that The Tastemakers is a bit of a forgotten classic in the study of Aesthetics and the broader field of "American Studies."  Lynes, though not an Academic, possesses an authoritative background (editor of Harpers), a flowing writing style and a claim to the invention of the idea of highbrow/middlebrow/low brow culture.  This distinction is at the very beating heart of American Studies, and Lynes plausible claim that he coined the terms is matched by his accurate description of the terms themselves being problematic.

  A key issue in describing the development of aesthetics in America is the manner in which the ideas of early pre-modern thinkers like John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle were imported to the United States.  The question is "What was the vehicle for the transmission of these ideas?"

   Lynne provides a plausible answer to this question: Alexander Downing, a landscape architect from the Hudson River Valley who published books on landscape and architecture in the 1840s. The likely agent of transmission to Downing, who was raised outside of a formal educational environment, is posited to be "the elderly Baron de Liederer...the Austrian Consul General who was an "amateur naturalist" would likely have been in touch with the major currents of English thought.

   Downings program of Gothicly influenced domestic architecture is the first move beyond the "neo Classical revival" period that is so well enshrined in every aspect of the origins of the United States of America.  The taste for "carpenter Gothic" reflected the available mass media (printing press) and demand among the prospective Audience (people wanting to build homes in America.)
  Thus, from the very beginning, taste reflected the availability of mass media and a large prospective Audience.

  The development of taste from the mid 19th century on mirrored the needs and interests of its Audience.  In the 20th century the larger Audience for stylish possessions and ideas differentiated and grew.  Key events in this growth and differentiation were the invention of new Mass Media, particularly recorded music and film.  Lynes' contribution to the discussion of this growth and differentiation is the idea that the Audience was split into thirds "High Brow," "Middle Brow," and "Low Brow."   This distinction was never hard and fast, but generally the idea is that High brows despise Middle brows and like Low brows.  Middle brows don't care about High brows and think Low brows have bad taste. Low brows keep to themselves and don't care about Middle or High brow.

  Lynes also understood that tastes changed over time in predictive repetitive ways.  Something that was thought to be "high brow" in one time period (Lynes usually spoke in terms of decades) would become "middle brow" in the next time period and "low brow" the time period after that.  Things that BEGAN as low brow in the initial time period would ascend to being "high brow" the next time period, then sink to middle brow.

  The Tastemakers includes an afterward which contains a chart that Life magazine prepared for a 1949 issue.  In that chart you can see that he has listed "Pulps & comic books" and "jukeboxes" as "Low Brow."  In 2014 you could arge that all three of those things are High Brow.


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