New York Times columnist John Seabrook analyzes a cultural landscape in which there are no longer any boundaries between highbrow and lowbrow culture. For Seabrook, the changes at The New Yorker stand as an especially potent example of “Nobrow,” his term for the convergence of culture and. These two twin tendencies of John Seabrook are on obnoxiously full display in Nobrow, his unfortunate book length exploration into the corruption of The New.
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I usually have a destination in mind—to shop for food at the Gourmet Garage, or to look at the clothes at Helmut Lang or Agnes B. This is Nobrow—the space between the familiar categories of high and low culture. In Nobrow, paintings by van Gogh and Monet are the headliners at the Bellagio Hotel while the Cirque du Soleil borrows freely from performance seabrooj in creating the Las Vegas spectacle inside.
I walk across Franklin Street, which still has lots of old, ungentrified loft buildings that look as if they belonged to Original Tribecans: At Broadway, I turn left and start heading uptown. Below Canal are the Chinese fabric places, where the cloth is one step up the production chain from textile factories—in bolt form, available only to the trade.
Across Canal, the fabric emerges from the bolt state, rendered into T-shirts and jeans and shorts and khakis, hastily stitched together in a local sweatshop, and selling for tendollahtendollah and eightdollaheightdollah out on the street. Then, around Broome, you come to the hip-hop emporia that have sprung up around Canal Jeans. These stores, like Yellow Rat Bastard and Pulse and Active Warehouse, are also selling T-shirts and jeans and shorts and khakis, but something has been added to the clothes—the brand.
The branding is done by combining a commercial trademark with one or another subcultural motif, a subculture the buyer belongs to or wants to join: The brand is the price of your admission to the subculture.
Young brands, like Porn Star, Exsto, and Triple Five Soul, jockey for attention within the thirteen-year-old demographic. Yellow Rat has created urban scenes for displaying different groupings of clothes—a fleabag hotel, a bodega—so that it feels as if you were slipping into something more than clothes, into a whole street identity. This lower third of the brand hierarchy ends just south of Spring Street, with Old Navy, which mainstreams the out-there subcultural styles in the hip-hop stores into a more universally accessible look.
Around Spring, the welter of low brands resolves itself into the middle-brand stores: These stores are selling pretty much the same stuff that they sell down below Spring—T-shirts, khakis, jeans—but the quality and the tailoring are better, and the price is steeper. A cluster of high-fashion boutiques has recently taken up residence just west of here, on Greene and Wooster Streets: The clothes here are more expensive still, and the fabrics and the tailoring are apparently even better.
Highbrow-lowbrow was the pivot on which distinctions of taste became distinctions of caste. In the United States, making hierarchical distinctions about culture was the only acceptable way for people to talk openly about class. In the United States, though, people needed highbrow-lowbrow distinctions to do the work that social hierarchy did in less egalitarian countries.
Any fat cat could buy a mansion, but not everyone could cultivate a passionate interest in Arnold Schoenberg or John Cage. But these aesthetic distinctions easily lent themselves to distinctions of social status, too. This system had the added benefit of giving rich people a practical reason to support the arts. Taking a detour from my destination, I stop in at the Helmut Lang store on Greene Street, where these Gap-style T-shirts and faded jeans hang next to seventeen-hundred-dollar suits.
In some pieces Helmut seems to be out-lowbrowing the Gap—going for the thrift-store look. All the impulses toward casual dress that I struggled with so ungracefully in my boyhood closet have here been resolved into the ideal Anti-Closet.
My eyes stop on a T-shirt. I look at the price: In the changing rooms, which are tastefully designed, the fashion psychopath makes an appearance. Buy it, he whispers.
You know you want it. Then you can be part of that whole hip-hop thing happening down Broadway, while at the same time being secretly above it all. I try the T-shirt on. A high-fashion T-shirt that looks utterly ordinary.
I take it off and leave the dressing room. The fashion psycho likes to make a Zen thing out of it. What has happened in all the arts, broadly defined—in the decorative as well as the fine arts—is that quality, which was once the exclusive property of the few, has slowly and inexorably become available to the many. Why buy furniture from Herman Miller or Knoll when you can get that clean modernist line and sturdy workmanship at ikea and Hold Everything for a fraction of the price, and you can drive off with it in the trunk of your car?
Quality is no longer very closely related to price, at least in fashion and furnishings. Manufacturing has improved; the principles of good design have spread.
The craftsmanship and style of the goods sold at Nine West as well as in Banana Republic and Pottery Barn are so much better than the goods from a Korvettes or a K mart, or the other discount stores in which Tuchman might have experienced aesthetic discomfort in the late seventies, that comparison is hardly possible. While it is true that these chain stores cause standardization of style, it is also true that the good design of the products promotes an interest in good design generally, and this sends better-educated consumers off to the smaller, more independent stores.
If real quality is knocked off and made for a lot less, like the imitation Prada and Louis Vuitton bags you can buy on Canal Street, the owners of genuine Prada and Louis Vuitton goods are forced to become, in effect, inconspicuous consumers—to take inner pride in the fact that their bag is the real thing, even if only a few cognoscenti know it. Thorstein Veblen wittily skewered the rich for their obsession with handmade goods, arguing that such objects, being imperfect, were actually inferior to machine-made goods, yet the rich had managed to make those imperfections into virtues such as uniqueness.
By the late nineties, though, that trick was nearly up. As the middle class got better and better at appropriating the distinctive styles of the rich, imperfections and all, the rich were forced to go to ever greater extremes of imperfection to distinguish themselves, making high fashion out of clothes and furniture so imperfect and ugly, in such poor taste in the old high-low sense —like the thirty-eight-hundred-dollar ripped and beaded Gucci jeans that were all the rage last fall—that no self-respecting middle-class person would want to knock them off.
As usual, this part of SoHo is shoulder to shoulder with pedestrians in hot pursuit of status in Nobrow. When you do away with the old high-low hierarchy, people become more obsessed than ever with status. The action is happening out on the streets as much as in the galleries. At a group show in the Sonnabend Gallery, I turn and for a moment my eyes lock on an interesting rectangle of space. Then in the next moment I realize that it is a window and I am looking out onto West Broadway.
The downtown Guggenheim is displaying the works of the six finalists for the Hugo Boss Prize, a competition for groundbreaking artists, and I want to catch the show before it closes. I pay my eight dollars and go upstairs, where I discover that all six of the finalists are multimedia or installation artists. After walking around the exhibit, I sit on the floor in front of a video installation by a thirty-seven-year-old Swiss artist named Pipilotti Rist.
The video actually two videos, joined at right angles on a large, L-shaped projection surface is shot in the familiar MTV-surrealist style. I ask myself the usual questions, strain to make the jobrow judgments. A video, which is neither art nor advertising but a hybrid of both, is repurposed and used to market.
Why bother to buy it when you can watch it on TV? Like many installation artists, Rist lives more on the patronage of museums and marketers like Hugo Boss than on the sale of her works. The audience is at least as interesting to look at as the art is, and it seems to be aware of that.
Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture by John Seabrook
But most people are here just to chill out and watch one another, secure in the knowledge nobgow they are the culture. As I sit here I see hip-hugging cargo pants, with both turned-up and straight cuffs, old brands Jonh, Tommy, Guess and newer labels, like Muss and L. There are X-Large brand T-shirts, rave-style acid-house logos and cloche hats, gangsta-style high-slung drawers, Tims Timberland bootsand Tommy Hill.
Tommy Hilfiger, like Ralph Lauren before him, had tried at first to market to the upwardly striving white middle class by imbuing his advertising with images of Wasps at play. In using a music video and a well-known pop song to sell herself to this audience, Rist is doing in a more dramatic way exactly what people in the audience are doing when they choose their clothing or buy CDs. In Nobrow, judgments about which brand of jeans to wear are more like judgments of identity than of quality.
Brands are how we figure out who we are: Your judgment joins a pool of seabrpok judgments, a small relationship economy, becoming one of millions that continually coalesce and dissolve and re-form around culture products—movies, sneakers, jeans, pop songs.
Nobroa identity is your investment in these relationship economies.
Investments in certain tried-and-true properties are virtually risk-free but offer little return saying you like the Rolling Stones resembles buying thirty-year Treasury bondswhereas other investments are riskier but potentially more lucrative such as saying you like Liz Phair: The reward is attention and self-expression your identity is in some way enhanced by the culture product you invest in ; the risk is that your identity will be overmediated by your investment and you will become like everyone else.
You want to be perceived as original but not so original that you are outside the marketplace of popular opinion. In the old high-low world, you got status points for consistency in your cultural preferences, but in Nobrow you get points for choices that cut across categories: Yet, at the same time, the art is very much about Rist. Back out on lower Broadway, I walk a block up the street and get pulled into Pottery Barn, at the corner of Houston.
Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture by John Seabrook
This block is beginning to feel like Fifty-seventh Street or the new Times Square: I could be in any upscale mall in America. As I walk past these stores, I can feel this new, upscale mass culture pressing in on me, trying to make me and the rest of the people on the street exactly like each other—each of us a demographically desirable Banana Republican out for a little Sunday consumption.
The Pottery Barn feels like a museum, too. Some tastemaker has been at work in here, selecting traces of designs from different cultures Southeast Asian colonial, French, Indian, and American, of different periodslifting styles out of their cultural and historical contexts and recontextualizing them with other styles a Montana cowboy goes on safari in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore in such a way that no one style is obvious.
Toward the back of the store I see a coffee table called the Cairo Chest. The table is two hundred and ninety-nine dollars—cheap. I have been looking for a coffee table on and off for the last twenty years.
I lift a corner of the Cairo Chest: I have confidence in its workmanship, in contrast to that of a supposedly authentic Indonesian coffee table I saw recently in a store on Wooster Street, which cost five times as much.
Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing + The Marketing of Culture by John Seabrook
But do I really want to buy a table that eight million other people will have in their homes? Once again, I take out my slide rule, and apply it to the Cairo Chest. I make an earnest effort to find the table in poor taste, along strict high-low lines: And, once again, my sense of taste is oddly frustrated. The ingenious blend of approximate identities out of which the Cairo Chest is constructed has made it oddly impervious to any individual act of taste. It is as though taste, formerly in the eye of the beholder, had been built directly into the table itself.
Martha Stewart is an example of this kind of tastemaker. Now, thanks to the Internet, everyone can have it. It looks like an atelier, with its high ceilings and big clean windows. I become absorbed in testing the Belgian tomatoes against the late-season Jersey tomatoes, neither of which are cheap three dollars a pound. I take refuge in this act: Tomatoes are my folk culture—a part of the cultural inheritance that has come to me unmediated from the place where I grew up.
This class, one of a series of lectures organized by a dissident, French-influenced, anti-F.