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July 09, 2007

Whither Highbrow?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Today Terry Teachout muses about the state of high culture these days, a piece triggered by the recent death of opera singer Beverly Sills.

Among Teachout's musings are:

If we want to see a revival of anything remotely resembling the middlebrow culture of the pre-Vietnam era, in which most middle-class people who were not immersed in the fine arts were nonetheless aware and respectful of them and made an effort to engage with them, then artists will have to shake off what I have called their "entitlement mentality" and go where the audiences are.

Should they? There's a serious case to be made for not doing so, the case for elitism in the arts, and I don't need to restate it here. Clement Greenberg put it best when he claimed that "it is middlebrow, not lowbrow, culture that does most nowadays to cut the social ground from under high culture." True enough--but if you care about the continuing fate of museums, symphony orchestras, ballet, opera, and theater companies, and all the other big-money institutions that were the pillars of American high culture in the twentieth century, you're going to have to accept the fact that these elitist enterprises cannot survive without the wholehearted support of a non-elite public that believes in their importance.

I remember that middlebrow culture, and it was nice. An especially memorable instance was CBS's Omnibus television program hosted by Alistair Cook that aired Sunday afternoons in the mid-1950s. Among the many interesting topics on the program was a re-staging of bits of Shakespearian plays illustrating the hypothesis that, under Cromwell's rule, continuity of performance was lost. As best I can remember from 50 yearas ago, the "reconstituted" performances were peppier than what we had been trained to expect.

High culture struggles on, a zombie-like "living dead" creature in this age of irony, disrespect and autopilot bourgeoisie-bashing by "artists" in the sundry "arts." Will it return to its former power and glory?

Assuming no disasters such as losing the war against radical Islam, I think high culture will eventually return. Of course it won't be what it was in 1850, 1900 or 1950; history never repeats itself exactly. But there are historical cycles and cultural pendulum-swings. The libertine post-Revolutionary Terror era in Europe where women dressed revealingly was replaced by Victorianism. Periods of atheism and "free thinking" alternate with religious revivals.

Eventually crudeness in the form of Rap, Concept Art, mindless action movies and the rest of current popular culture will become boring because it will have been around too long. Not to mention the practical consideration that shock-based entertainment cannot be sustained when the pool of potentially shocking material has been depleted.

Like it or not, the pendulum will swing. Eventually.

Your thoughts?



posted by Donald at July 9, 2007


The obits on Sills were interesting, and seem to underline what your post is saying: Sills believed in bringing opera to "the public"--the unwashed public, on "The Mike Douglas Show" and "The Muppets" and "The Tonight Show." She didn't forget or disdain middle-class Americans. Unlike Mr. Highbrow himself, Rudolph Bing, director of the Met, who years after her major debuts in Milan and London, refused to hire her to sing at the Met, in large part because she was America-trained, and, y'know, from Brooklyn--but that's all a different story.

I think consistent with MBlowhard's observations about the adolescent-izing of America, "adult" culture just whithered. "Knowing something about opera" and "Knowing something about theater" used to be signs of upward mobility, something to be pursued and be proud of. "Grownups" did it, if kids did not. Now the "grownups" don't value it either. "Grownups" are much more likely to buy tickets to Prince or the Police than to support the symphony. And high culture does not have ambassadors like Sills who actually think making people comfortable with it is their job.

Posted by: annette on July 9, 2007 2:25 PM

Tangential question, Donald: is the name of the program Omnibus has anything to do with the practice of double-feature? I just finished a Rex Stouts' book called "Nero Wolfe omnibus", and it's just 2 novels under one book cover.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 9, 2007 3:01 PM

Tat -- "Omnibus" meant that the show would have a bunch of this 'n' that or perhaps a bit of everything. The focus was performance-based culture (it was a TV show, and had to be true to the medium), but within that realm there was a lot of diversity -- in the old sense of the word.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 9, 2007 3:16 PM

I never know quite what to make of this because it seems obvious to me that most of what we call "high culture" is European culture, and American culture created pop / jazz / rock/ movies that were the equal of the best of European high culture, but very different. What concerns me is that American pop culture itself is seemed to run out of steam creatively sometime in the late 70s or so.

Of course, culture often goes in cycles. There were many centuries, entire cultures, that simply produced nothing very notable in the way of high art. There was more of a speciality in, say, decorative arts. Right now, it seems to me we are putting a lot of cultural energy into sports, cooking, and fashion, things that are more ephemeral.

Posted by: mq on July 9, 2007 4:28 PM

Oh, I see - it's British/American glitch in terminology (or maybe the meaning changed in time, chronologically, not geographically).

I'm accustomed to "omnibus" meaning "double-decker", in which capacity it's closer to "double-feature show/book/concert". Both are "vehicles used to transport many diverse passengers", so that's where it come close to your explanation. But "doubling" of mere "many" is lost in your definition.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 9, 2007 4:37 PM

Some of the blame for cultural decline rests with the purveyors themselves. How many inane productions of Shakespeare, or operas by Wagner and Mozart in modern costume have been inflicted upon us? Do we really want to go to events that mix jazz with Mendelssohn on the program? Is it necessary to shove that black or asian actor in my face just to make the point of tolerance when the production is set in European high society of the 18th century where no non-European had ever been seen before? And why is it constantly necessary to "explain" art if it's so good? If a painting is so damned obtuse, why bother? And if poetry is so vital, why isn't it being properly taught in our schools instead of those trendy substitutes that no one will remember in another 20 years? I could go on, but you get the point. I think the elite is the problem. Art lover, teach thyself.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on July 9, 2007 4:51 PM

Carlton makes a good point. Somehow today's artists equate being unpopular with being good (part of the romantic idea of the genius who goes unrecognized until after his death.. romanticism has a lot to answer for).

These people forget that Shakespeare played to full audiences, and that opera was a popular art Italy (Verdi was elated when one highbrow critic derided his "la donna e mobile" as popular trash, because then he knew that the opera would be a smash hit.

I wonder if anyone has paid attention to the phenomenon of fan fiction, or non-commercial fiction using the characters of popular TV shows. Its quality can be quite uneven (and sometimes appalling when dealing with Kirk/Spock sex), but they can be quite inventive, and tend to have a better grasp of history and literature (and they know a lot about vampires, too) than most.

And anyway, isn't the Aeneid fan fiction about the Iliad and the Odyssey?

Posted by: Adriana on July 9, 2007 5:13 PM

I think it will come down to what is going on economically. As "The Bell Curve" notes, in 1950 most people in the top ten percent of the IQ distribution were scattered throughout the culture--that is, they were in working class, middle class, and professional occupations. By 1990, the vast majority of high-IQ people were in "New Class" occupations--the professions, senior corporate management, finance, upper level government bureaucracy, etc. I suspect the population of serious art lovers tracks the high IQ population fairly closely. This has two consequences:

1) the New Class's house style of art is Modernism and Postmodernism--both being highly conceptual in nature. You may not like this kind of art, Donald, but you may have noticed how much official support from government arts programs, foundations, public museums, etc., this type of art receives today. Even if the public, broadly defined, doesn't like it much, that matters very little to the fortunes of this style of art.

2) the high IQ people that used to reside in the middle of the income distribution and who formed the market for middle-brow art were sucked out of the middle class and recruited into the New Class. Thus there is very little support for middle-brow art, and even popular (i.e., working class) art has been perceptibly dumbed down, because those two classes have been literally dumbed down.

This recruitment of virtually all high-IQ people into the New Class has had many impacts on society and politics but is perhaps most obvious culturally. Will it continue? Personally, I am not optimistic that this trend will reverse anytime soon.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 9, 2007 7:32 PM

Friedrich -- What follows is speculative, based on what I've seen over time and how I've been interpreting it.

My take is that government funding usually goes to "safe" art as defined by the art establishment at the time it is commissioned / funded. Establishmentarians are presumably the "experts" needed to provide assurance to the bureaucracy that the funds are being spent wisely. This is why "official" art and architecture tends to lag the true avant-garde. Now that Boomers are the heart of the establishment, "safe" art now includes Robert Mapplethorpe exhibits.

As for the New Class, I don't see that there is any intrinsic reason that high-IQ people must prefer contemporary art to other forms. Most likely they "like" that art because they were told (explicitly or indirectly) in college that intelligent, educated, sophisticated people such as themselves were expected to "like" whatever art is supposed (by the establishment) to be avant-garde. I suspect New Class people are just as susceptible to insecurity and intimidation by the establishment's Don't Be A Philistine voodoo as average folks are. Maybe more so, come to think of it--ordinary people happily scoop up Kinkade reproductions and Elvis-on-velvet paintings without guilt about not conforming to establishment norms.

Moreover, establishments change over time. Well, perhaps more accurately, a clapped-out establishment is replaced by a new one that has been gathering its steam under the cultural radar. Modernity has pretty much exhausted its possibilities, I think. It is ripe for replacement.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 9, 2007 8:31 PM

"the New Class's house style of art is Modernism and Postmodernism-both being highly conceptual in nature."

I agree with this assessment and I also agree that it relates to the increasingly self-segregating life of the high IQ'd.

What I don't understand is the almost palpable animus to Beauty or, put another way, Ideal Form, that dominates what passes for High Art today. Early modernism was highly conceptual and yet in artists such as Brancusi and Mondrian the pursuit of new forms of ideal beauty was sincere. That's gone. Only an ironic stance to aspiration is allowed. What has happened? Why don't the New Class and the artists that service it value beauty (at least in art)?

Is it simply a matter of fear? Fear of being exposed as square, unhip, common and not a member in good standing of the New Class, if you admit to a yearning for beauty? Is it simply fear that keeps both the artists and their patron, the New Class, frozen in the loveless posture of disdain for all that constituted the High in the High Art of the past?

Posted by: ricpic on July 9, 2007 8:34 PM

is there any new "high art" being produced today, that is worth supporting ? or are the same old things being peddled over and over again (as was alluded to in an earlier posting) ?

Posted by: cjm on July 9, 2007 9:26 PM

Some of the economic woes facing highbrow culture may be self-inflicted. For instance, take the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I've heard that it typically sells 90 to 95 percent of the seats in a typical season, and seat prices most assuredly are not inexpensive. Yet it requires massive gifts and government support to survive. Why?

Posted by: Peter on July 9, 2007 9:36 PM

I remember the first time I saw a Mondrian (I was younger), and I thought of a block of houses seen from the air (I had taken a plane trip and had seen houses from above.

I wonder if that was the case, if modernims came as a way to record sights that had not been available in the past. Aerial views from an airplane, cells seen in a microscope, the geometric, sleek forms of machinery. Suddenly there were a lot of sights that had not existed in centuries past, and they had to be recorded.

That's why early modernism has the power move us. It represented something, even if it was the awe at the new sights. But now it is self-referential, and does not look at techological wonders with the same eyes.

So, it is in crisis. It missed the point of the early modernism, and believes it has to trnsgress instead of recording new sights and incorporaring them into the canon.

Posted by: Adriana on July 9, 2007 10:32 PM

Interesting point, Adriana. I would maybe add that modernism was also a way of recording the "old" vicissitudes of human life by means of new and sometimes "transformative" metaphors. In A Sinking Island, Hugh Kenner makes quite a lot of these lines, for instance:

"Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out across the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table . . ."

According to Kenner, Eliot's simile is only possible in the twentieth century, and it's a way not only of recording new sights/technology and ideas (the advances in anesthesia and surgery, the rise of the doctor as a cultural authority, etc.), but also of recording old sights (the evening sky) so as to transform our relationship with them. Sure, that's kind of a grandiose claim, but -- as you suggest -- *early* modernism had some small right to such a claim.

Posted by: Kate Marie on July 10, 2007 12:19 AM


I think the animus toward Beauty does arise out of fear of appearing unhip. I wonder, though, whether the human yearning for Beauty (which even the hip members of the New Class aren't immune to) gets redirected toward -- and even in some cases satisfied by -- some of the products of popular culture. I'm thinking particularly of movies, toward which members of the New Class can take either an ironic or arts-egalitarian stance.

It's kind of like the way stories/plots have been relegated to so-called genre fiction. But does associating the pursuit of Beauty with popular culture make it harder for High Art to get Beauty back, so to speak, or even to want it back?

Posted by: Kate Marie on July 10, 2007 1:38 AM

I hope you're right that the pendulum will swing. Although I have a pretty good education, I am not particularly interested in the classics of literature. I much prefer the storytelling conventions of the past century and do not get swept up in Shakespeare, et al. When I hear the general public oohing and aahing about renaissance drama, I have my doubts.

But for some reason, I love serious music. By that, I mean what most people call classical music. I make the distinction, because I like music from Bach to the present day -- encompassing all the so-called periods. I'm worried about the declining audiences. Fewer performances, fewer recordings, fewer people to talk music with.

I guess I have to trust the Shakespeare lovers, the Louvre walkers, the balletomanes, the chapel-ceiling gazers, and all the other fans of the arts of centuries gone by. That they love what they love as much as I love music -- even if I don't get it. We're all in this together.

Because I listen to a lot of music, I'm pretty well prepared to understand new music. Just because a Philip Glass lover considers it noise means nothing to me. I don't get Beckett, but I suppose people who've read the plays that lead up to Beckett, do.

I have no idea what will save "high" art. We will be dead and I suspect, somehow, art will take care of itself. Because there will always be that small part of the population so enthusiastic about it as to tease the funds out of the rich in order to support it.

Unless the religions of the world get any more fundamental and intolerant. Then all bets are off.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on July 10, 2007 2:28 AM

Do we need to reconsider/rearrange our pantheons? There's a story about Jane Austen and friends heading off to a performance of King John. Upon arriving at the theatre, they were bitterly disappointed to learn that the night's play would be Hamlet. In my youth, this was taken to be evidence of the emotional and artistic superficiality of pre-romantic Europe. Jane and her pals just didn't 'get' Lear and Hamlet.

Nowadays, I don't 'get' anything, but I'd love to attend a juicy, well-declaimed performance of King John. Henry the Fourth is even better if you leave out the dated comedic bits. I had to leave university to read Kipling, De La Mare, Simenon...and King John, come to think of it. They weren't in any pantheons, didn't provide much grist to any of the academic mills of the time.

So maybe we're being to clever, too narrow, too conceited. An era that's produced Magical Realism, Andrea Bocelli and Thom Mayne (wink to Michael) can't be all that sophisticated.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on July 10, 2007 6:13 AM

Er, excuse me, Robert Townshend, but are you proposing to kick Magical Realism from the pedestal and pray to Simenon instead?

Talk about false idols.

Posted by: Tat on July 10, 2007 6:54 AM

Excellent comments. I think it well to remember that Roberta Peters appeared on the Ed Sullivan show 65 times, more than any other performer. Shows such as the Bell Telephone Hour and Voice of Firestone constantly provided classical music in the 50s and 60s.

Which means that one obstacle for classical music in its attempt to return to the "middlebrow" culture is the lack of popular vehicles. There are no variety shows to speak of on television, no Sullivan to ensure that popular classical figures remain in the public eye; late night talk rarely goes beyond what's hot today. The segmentation of markets, in both radio and TV, means it's harder and harder to create shared experiences, with the result that it becomes easier to be perceived as preaching to the choir, and more challenging (although not impossible) to penetrate (or infiltrate, if you will) the mainstream culture.

The Met's moviecasts were quite successful last year in using modern technology and in selling tickets, but I suspect we'll have to wait a few more years to see if this translates into broader appeal and health for opera in particular and classical music in general.

The question of using the language of popular culture to deliver the message of "middlebrow" or high culutre is an intriguing one. I keep mulling this over and over, trying to get my thoughts around it. Greg Sandow has much to say about this at his blog; much of it I disagree with, but I don't know if it's my head or my heart speaking.

Posted by: Drew on July 10, 2007 8:51 AM

One aspect to be considered is the fragmentation of "culture" regardless of whether we're talking about high, low or middle. Terry Teachout comments in his essay, "I remembered another Sunday afternoon years ago when I tuned in one of Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts." I'm not sure what other choices young Teachout had when he turned on the television; but I know it did NOT include five cable networks devoted entirely to cartoons ... or cooking ... or action adventure movies. I saw Leonard Bernstein on television, and plays like "Death of a Salesman" and so forth. If there had been 257 channels instead of four I can't say I would have chosen classical music or a serious play. After a full generation raised on cable, VHS tapes, etc. it is little surprise that a unified sense of high culture is under stress.

That said, The Daughter Unit (in her mid-twenties) is a self-described theatre geek whose love of Shakespeare was nurtured in her teens. She is currently spearheading an effort to revive a summer theatre program that once taught theater to 40-50 teenagers each year that in turn produced a work by Shakespeare offered free to the public in the park. Those audiences were always diverse in every way imaginable. (Although Mr. Griffin would no doubt have found fault with the occasional non-anglo actors and the lack of codpieces and empire waist gowns.)

On a different note, perhaps the issue of "Beauty" is related to far more than art. We are living in a time that elevates ease, practicality, convenience and profitability above such ideals as craft, truth or beauty. One cannot separate the ideals of art too dramatically from the ideals of the public and expect it to flourish, so we get art that reinforces those values.

Posted by: Chris White on July 10, 2007 8:54 AM

The problem with the cult of the perpetual adolescent is that the adolescent in question is peculiarly gormless and churlish.

Posted by: dearieme on July 10, 2007 8:55 AM

I think it has more to do with the adolescent / instant gratification environment. High brow isn't doing so poorly where it came from, Continental Europe. They are more mature, civilized, and conservative in social and personal matters (whatever you think of their politics & economics), and that's what you need to appreciate high-brow stuff.

It requires a commitment of time and conscious thought to enjoy it, as opposed to watching a 3-minute music video of some bimbo shaking her ass (entertaining as that is for those 3 minutes).

I'm pretty sure the high-IQ people were sucked into New Class positions in France and Germany, but their '60s wackiness never took root the way it did here. Radical feminism, for example, is unknown outside of the Anglo world.

The French blonde in *Stardust Memories*, as early as 1980, says something like, "Well, yeah, my student protest days were silly, but it was the spirit of the times." She grew out of it and raised a family. My Italian professor in college said that many people her age (roughly, Boomers) refer to themselves as Ex-'68-ers. Y'know, like it was a goof that you grew out of.

I'm sure some readers here have already noticed that if you're looking for a girl to talk culture with, it's always a safer bet to find, say, a Hungarian college student than a 6-figure-earning American woman. It's just a wee bit unsettling when foreign college students appear more mature and cultivated than native well-to-do 40-somethings.

Posted by: Agnostic on July 10, 2007 9:46 AM

Two general observations:

1) The issues the Highbrow Arts face differs from art to art. E.g. the current predicament of Theater is quite distinct from that of Painting.

2) About music, there's something very strange going on with US tastes in music - people get turned on to a type of music in their adolescence and no evolution occurs -- thirty years later, it seems to me that many people have experienced no evolution in taste. So you have this bizarre phenomenon of middle-aged people listening to outdated young people's music from thirty years ago. I just think it's bizarre. There are many reasons why art music has faded into irrelevance, but that's one of them.

Posted by: jult52 on July 10, 2007 10:37 AM

I think the problem is prolly too little elitism, not too much.

I turn to high culture to enjoy an elevated excitement of the soul occasioned by an experience of the sublime and the beautiful. (I got that phrase from Poe.) My goal is entirely aesthetic, hedonic, and selfish.

When I was about fifteen I was playing in some local youth orchestra. As usual, we stopped the concert just before the last piece so that the pols and bureaucrats and "educators" could congratulate each other. In this case some old bureaucrat lady in sensible shoes was getting an award - the Martin J. Jehosephat Memorial Award For Sustained Bureaucratic Inertia, or some such - and so she got up and gave a speech.

The speech was, of course, type-written, as it always is with these kinds of people, and she read it word for word in the to-be-expected monotone. Its subject was the benefits of music education for "the children".

On and on it went, couched entirely in Protestant utilitarianism of the grimmest sort. By playing music, "the children" learn cooperation, which will help them get high-paying jobs later on in life. "The children" learn to count rests, which improves their math skills, and as we all know math is an important part of both computer programming and accountancy. And, last but not least, "the children" learn hand-eye coordination, which can prove vitally important on the sports field. At the mention of hand-eye coordination, we "children" - who had been exchanging glances throughout - started laughing, and kept on laughing for the next four pages of drivel.

Now, any sort of grant-giving foundation is going to be run by this kind of person. And they won't be moved by talk of elevating the soul - let alone mention of The Sublime And The Beautiful. They'll only give you money if you can show that poor black kids will learn better hand-eye coordination, thus raising the mean income of their community and reducing the overall burden on social services. So classical music becomes a form of cultural spinach-eating, and who needs it?

High culture is about pleasure, and pleasure of a very refined and exclusive sort at that. (Do you really think these guys are trying to improve their hand-eye coordination?) The pleasure of high art has no social functions, only personal ones. It can't remain a vital force in a bureaucratic age, and it can't be justified by egalitarianism or the work ethic.

In short, it needs as much elitism as it can get. Otherwise it will collapse under the weight of its own banality, as it has been doing for the past thirty years.

Posted by: Brian on July 10, 2007 11:08 AM


You make a very good point. Culture is fragmented because people can pick and choose what they want to see or hear. The problem is that they choose before their taste is educated.

I pointed this out to a libertarian friend of mine and he said "Isn't it great that people can choose? Those who like Beethoven can get it, those who like rap can get it?"

That is not the problem, the problem is that we are getting people who never listen to Beethoven, and end up believing that the Macarena is the greatest song ever written.

It is like saying "those kids who like salads can have them, and those who like ice cream can have it" And forgetting that kids, before they are taught better thing nothing of an all-ice cream diet (hmmm.. hot fudge sundae diet..)

Not being taught proper eating habits can have fatal consequences, and no good comes of bad entertainment choosing habits. The problem is not what they see or hear, but what they avoid seeing or hearing.

Which is why it always puzzles me the animus of a lot of conservatives towards PBS. Sure, they do not like the ideology, but at least there is a place that does not pretend that it is the same thing if you want to listen to the Macarena than if you want to listen to the Ninth Symphony.

Posted by: Adriana on July 10, 2007 11:12 AM

To continue piling on ... Another element might be the digitization of culture. One effect is that everything is turned into a branch of "the digital media," which seems to tend towards quick hits, instant gratification, Dolby-SFX baloney, pop culture, etc. But another effect is that the breadth and range of what's available to the general public is much much greater than it once was. Even if it's been made electronic, even if it's been turned into a branch of "the media," well, the world encompassed by (and delivered by) "the electronic media" is much much bigger than it once was.

Upside: much there to discover and explore, and high culture of the Euro sort might be part of it. Downside: that might mean for many people that electronic-media-pop culture comes to define their entire universe, and a globalized electronic pop culture might be more than enough for 99% of the population.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 10, 2007 11:13 AM

Another thought, this one about beauty? I think the main reason the subsidized arts class has been wary of beauty for many decades is that 1) beauty somehow got associated with oppressiveness (patriarchal, commercial, culture-bound, the usual) and 2) thereby became not just uncool but semi-taboo. Those who peddle non-ironic, non-wink-wink beauty aren't just interested in delivering pleasure but are perpetuating an oppressive system, and are perhaps even fascists.

But in reality we're hitting a funny point where beauty goes. For one thing, current gallery art is full of people peddling beauty (if of a sort that doesn't generally interest me). Beauty became semi-OK again about maybe five years ago. Dave Hickey started making a case for it, evo-bio voices were finally being heard publicly, the '60s generation's grip on culture was weakening ... It's gotten to a point where a high-art visual critic I know complained to me that most of the new art he's seeing is nothing but eye candy, with nothing on its mind but self-delight.

Of course the self-delight of kids who attend art school may not be to your taste or my taste ...

My other hunch about this is that the public's appetite for beauty didn't just evaporate. As some above have mentioned, it turned to popular culture for beauty. (Just as, denied rhythm and rhyme by the official poetry class, many people dropped poetry and turned to music lyrics instead.) But not just popular culture, I submit -- also to lifestyle stuff, consumer stuff, possessions. Cars today are often gorgeous, kitchens are beyond belief, food elicits gasps, clothes and fabrics are tons better than they were back in the Ed Sullivan days ... I mentioned back in an iPhone posting my conviction that in recent decades Apple has done more in the way of standing up for beauty than the arts class has, and I mean that straightfacedly. When I played with an iPhone for two minutes, I really was gasping a bit from the experience. My heart was pumping and my eyes were watering in ways that had nothing to do with hype and everything to do with a feeling of "Omigod, this is such an amazing, and amazingly beautiful, thing."

To complicate the pic a little more ... There are movements within today's high-culture worlds attempting to bring some traditional sustenance-and-beauty qualities back into high culture: composers creating music that has melody and structures that civilians can identify and enjoy, New Urbanists doing their best to reintroduce the idea of civilized urban and town living (ie., taking the load off "the glitzy individual structure" and opening our eyes to such things as "the pleasures of walking through a neighborhood"), New Traditionalist poets (NEA head Dana Gioia is one of them, and a very good one) writing new poems that deliver traditional kinds of pleasures ... It's an interesting development, and an interesting moment, no matter what you think of the individual works.

Of course there's one mega-worry to contend with, which is that, as markets and access open, traditional standards will simply get swept aside. Such that, as a practical matter, although there are and will be CDs and websites where you can go and learn about and enjoy traditional-style art pleasures, in effect no one (or almost no one) will. Standards will change, and for 99% of the world it'll all become about fast blasts, clicking buttons, glitzy effects, and (let's face it) masturbatory self-delight.

As usual, I take the food world as a model. At the same time most Americans are drinking ever more sodapop and eating ever more chips (and walking around with food always in their hands), there's a wonderful real-culture of good food out there: grass-fed beef, fab cooks, thriving cooking schools, amazing restaurants, farmers' markets, even Whole Foods ...

But it beats me whether this general picture (ie., general idiocy and slobbiness coexisting with real sophistication) is on balance a Good Thing or a Bad Thing ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 10, 2007 11:28 AM

The high/low art distinction is, except for sociological purposes, pretty worthless. We can only talk about good and bad pieces of art.

If I can dwell on music, because it's what I know best: there is no reason that everyone should listen to Beethoven. The European classical music tradition represents a pretty idiosyncratic, actually downright bizarre, approach to music compared with the rest of the world, with its more or less complete separation of the acts of composition and performace and its emphasis on melody and harmony as the salient qualities of music (until the 20th century). The European musical tradition opens some possibilities and excludes others; the total serialism of Boulez and Babbit is its logical endpoint, and there's a reason that a lot of 20th century composers reacted violently against that and became interested in chance (and that audiences don't much like Boulez and Babbit).

Some people are just not going to respond to the art that comes out of the particular freedoms and limitations of Western classical music. Cecil Taylor once said in an interview that he'd played some Bach and found he wasn't very interested in it. Why should he be? He was making great music in a tradition with a totally different set of freedoms and limitations, a totally different underlying aesthetic.

Anyway I go to classical concerts sometimes, and I find that most people there, elderly people who are presumably the products of the glorious middlebrow era, aren't very good music listeners. They like sappy Romantic kitsch like Rachmaninov and not anything that sounds more "modern" than Stravinsky (or worse, they clap politely for anything that sounds modern because they think they're "supposed" to like it). I don't think the middlebrow era, where people went to classical concerts just because it was what you did, actually led people to care about the music very much.

Posted by: BP on July 10, 2007 11:39 AM

I think jult52 makes an essential point - the fine arts are not a monolith, and the challenges of classical music are very different from those of sculpture or poetry.

I know most about the classical music world, and I would make three comments:

1) It's just plain false to say that classical music has been captured by modernism. My local symphony plays far more Mozart and Beethoven than they do Adams or Glass. I'd say it's something of a struggle to find a classical music organization that reliably programs music written after 1900.

2) While some big second-tier opera companies and symphonies are struggling (the Met and the CSO are in no danger!), I'm not sure we should equate this to the death of classical music. In my city, I observe an awful lot of community orchestras, amateur choirs and the like that seem quite vibrant with committed members and enthusiastic audiences. Perhaps the forms of classical music are just changing, not dying?

3) If you're looking for middlebrow classical music today, you should probably be looking at film soundtracks. Is there any living American adult who cannot hum Darth Vader's Theme or the Indiana Jones fanfare?

I actually don't think the pendulum will swing back. Classical music is never again going to dominate the cultural world as it did when opera was the pop-culture of Vienna. Nor are we going back to the 1950s with Leonard Bernstein on TV and major labels devoted to recording the classics.

So what?

Posted by: Doug on July 10, 2007 12:47 PM

I think its a little much to expect some cannon of work in whatever field to satisfy the entertainment, aesthetic, and spiritual desires of a broad public. Highbrow to me means that work around which a general consensus has formed that it is worth preserving and transferring to the next generation. Kind of like the family silver that gets taken out at the holidays, and then is put away for next year. Of course, we hope that this highbrow culture is dipped into more often than that, but I think you get my point.

Highbrow culture seems to be in retreat due to the ever-present middlebrow tastes of us all and the assualt by the pretenders to the highbrow throne, the modernists. In reality, there is little conflict between middlebrow and highbrow culture--we complain about dumbing down, but its really more of an expansion of types of culture available. Highbrow culture is an elitist culture to the bone, as Brian so smartly noted, and it is enjoyed and carried forward by elitists. Our problem is that the elitists have now embraced the sick and ugly cancer of modernism and now use their institutions to promote that, while the real highbrow culture is withering due to neglect and cutting off of resources.

This is a point I try to make in my posts over and over again in fine art painting topics here. Its why I think its important to have a general consensus on what is good and bad, and what should be preserved, because we have finite resources of money and time and cannot accomodate all forms of art as highbrow.

The debate for the highest culture is a very important one. If the modernists slip from their throne in the highbrow to the middle or lowbrow (where they belong), a lot of this would be resolved and situation wouldn't seem so tenuous. My two cents.

Posted by: BTM on July 10, 2007 12:54 PM

In the words of Oscar Wilde, my tastes are basically very simple: I only like the very best.

T. S. Eliot was highbrow I think everyone will agree. After that, the battle begins.. .

Posted by: Luke Lea on July 10, 2007 1:09 PM

I think the four big factors involved in the shrinking importance of both high-brow and middle-brow cultures are the following (some of which have already been mentioned):

1) The embrace of a "shock (and alienate) the bourgeoisie" ethos in various high culture establishments (e.g., music, art, architecture, etc.), something Tom Wolfe has written about extensively over the years. (I think has been true to a certain extent even with middle-brow Broadway musicals from the mid-1960s onward, e.g., the musicals of Stephen Sondheim, etc.)

2) Changing technology that has allowed for extreme market segmentation -- even in low-brow culture (note, for instance, the different and even sometimes antagonistic subgroups in rock and in country music). Echoing what was said by someone else above, probably one of the reasons Ed Sullivan, for instance, was able to showcase such a great diversity of performers on his show was that most families in those days had only one TV which everyone in the family had to watch together.

3) Changing technology that has made high culture even more expensive -- relatively speaking -- than it had been in the past. (This has been written about quite a bit by a famous economist whose name escapes me at the moment.) Improved technology brings the cost of movies and music, for instance, down, while you still need the same number of opera singers, musicians, stage hands, etc. to put on an opera.

4) The coming to economic power of those who grew up in the pop culture generation. In the "olden" days, it used to be that someone was "out of it" socially and career-wise if one didn't have at least some knowledge of high culture. Now it's reversed -- knowledge of pop culture is what constitutes cultural literacy.

As a sidebar, I remember looking up various song writers on an early version of an internet encyclopedia and I think some of the very big names were missing. (If I remember correctly, there was no listing for Oscar Hammerstein.) On the other hand many much lesser luminaries of the rock / pop world were listed.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on July 10, 2007 1:43 PM

"Those who peddle non-ironic, non-wink-wink beauty aren't just interested in delivering pleasure but are perpetuating an oppressive system, and are perhaps even fascists."

I meant to add--in classical music surely some of this comes from the fact that in the first half of the century tonal, "pretty" music was beloved of Hitler and Stalin, and more progressive music was violently suppressed. Also, a fair number of the composers writing it were, in actual fact, fascists.

Posted by: BP on July 10, 2007 2:11 PM

Gosh, BP. Where to begin?

"The high/low art distinction is, except for sociological purposes, pretty worthless. We can only talk about good and bad pieces of art."

You speak with the voice of our contemporary age. That's part of the problem: when there is no distinction between high and low art, then "good" art is anything you like or is popular. So a "good" horror flick is better than a bad symphony. Come on.

"The European classical music tradition represents a pretty idiosyncratic, actually downright bizarre, approach to music compared with the rest of the world, with its more or less complete separation of the acts of composition and performace and its emphasis on melody and harmony as the salient qualities of music (until the 20th century)."

All artistic traditions are idiosyncratic; they have stylistic conventions of their own. It's what the artist does within those conventions that matters. Sure, some do better using them and others do worse; so what? That's the nature of art and life. Certainly there are other sets of conventions from other cultures, but that doesn't devalue ours. It's not a zero-sum game. You sound like you've caught the "transgressive" bug in which art is supposedly worthwhile only if it shatters traditions. How very 1920s of you.

"Anyway I go to classical concerts sometimes, and I find that most people there, elderly people who are presumably the products of the glorious middlebrow era, aren't very good music listeners. They like sappy Romantic kitsch like Rachmaninov and not anything that sounds more "modern" than Stravinsky (or worse, they clap politely for anything that sounds modern because they think they're "supposed" to like it)."

Hmm. Well, I'll never be asked for ID in a bar again, but I'm not exactly elderly, and what you call sappy Romantic kitsch speaks to me more deeply and in many more dimensions than music by Boulez or John Cage or whoever you think is a la mode. No rational argument can change your tastes, but I am truly sorry for you if you think Romantic music is kitsch.

"I meant to add--in classical music surely some of this comes from the fact that in the first half of the century tonal, "pretty" music was beloved of Hitler and Stalin, and more progressive music was violently suppressed. Also, a fair number of the composers writing it were, in actual fact, fascists."

I can't think what early 20th century tonal composers (if that's what you mean) were "fascists." Richard Strauss, I'm sorry to say, was a collaborator with Hitler's regime, although I don't believe he was an ideological fascist. His accommodation to the power structure was not to his credit as a man, but it doesn't take anything away from his brilliant music. Who else would you include in your indictment? Regardless, the idea that beauty in art is linked to fascism because a couple of dictators liked some of it is absurd guilt by association.

Posted by: Rick Darby on July 10, 2007 5:42 PM


1) I don't think it makes any sense to compare movies and music directly that way, but let's say a good pop song and a bad symphony. I guess I don't see how something good can not be better than something bad. You can qualify that a lot. For example, you can say that the good pop song is much less ambitious than the symphony, and that the artistic aims it achieves are much more modest than the aims to which the symphony aspires and fails to achieve. But certainly you're not saying that if I write a piece in four movements for an orchestra, it is automatically better than all pop music? And anyway horror movies are a weird example, because any movie buff will tell you that some of them are really great movies and works of art. I am not a movie buff and I don't like horror movies, but are they precluded from being art simply because they are horror movies? When we say "this is a horror movie," aren't we only talking about the fact that it draws on certain conventions and is marketed a certain way?

If you're going to posit a distinction between high and low art, it's up to you to explain what that distinction is. On what possible grounds could you put something you admit is bad "above" something you admit is good? This really doesn't make sense to me.

2) Where did you get the idea that I only value the transgressive, or that other traditions "devalue" the Western classical tradition? All traditions are idiosyncratic, but I think Western music is sui generis, in that it is the only tradition where you have composers who write down works and performers who strive to reproduce them note for note, i.e., that allow so little freedom to the performer (of course it reached this state through gradual evolution, and really the ideal of perfect reproduction is a 20th century phenomenon). As in every musical idiom the idiosyncracies of classical music make certain things possible and bar other things. What I was trying to say was that Western classical music is great music but it is not the only great music, and that not liking it does not necessarily signify some kind of deficiency. (That is, not liking it after giving it a chance; that our culture dismisses classical music as boring or irrelevant out of hand is, I will be the first to say, indeed symptomatic of a deficiency.)

3) As for my musical taste, I like plenty of Romantic music--Schumann, Brahms, Faure, to some extent Mahler--and my favorite composers are Bach and Mozart, along with Messiaen in the 20th c. I don't know where you got the idea that I like things that are "a la mode," and in fact I pretty clearly criticized the idea that we're supposed to like music simply because it's new. I don't like Boulez (who hasn't been new in a long time anyway), and used him as an example of the particular tendency of classical music toward increasing the composer's formal and structural control of the music carried to its rather unappealing (to me) endpoint.

That said, a former piano teacher of mine swears by Boulez, and I promise you that he is the last person who would ever be influenced by fashion; in his opinion Boulez' genius was such that he made compelling music DESPITE the formal restrictions in which he worked. I don't hear it, but I'm willing to acknowledge that there could be something there.

What irritates me is when audiences don't give music a chance because it doesn't sound like music they already know they like, to the point that they prefer music that sounds like a style they know even if it isn't very good, like most of Rachmaninov's music. You don't have to like total serialism, or John Cage, or minimalism, but there is a LOT of music in the twentieth century that people don't give a chance but that is very beautiful and moving.

Posted by: BP on July 10, 2007 7:01 PM

High vs low art: I'd frame it in terms of objectives. Low art aims to entertain; high art aims to entertain and... to do much more.

A sidebar: Rachmaninoff is an uneven composer but he wrote some terrific music as well as some boring stuff. My short list of the good stuff: the Corelli Variations, the 2nd Concerto, some of the Op. 23 and 32 Preludes (see Sviatoslav Richter's great recording- he picks and plays the best) and an obscure but just great example, the Op. 4 songs, also maybe the Vespers and the 2nd Symphony. But I am really on a digression now.

Posted by: jult52 on July 11, 2007 5:40 AM

jult52, let me amplify your definition of high art, if I may. High art can be distinguished from mere entertainment because it requires an effort on the part of the person who is viewing/listening. Popular entertainment may be engaging, but it doesn't really require all that much effort. The average person can't just walk in off the street and expect to "get" a piece of art or music by a master. It requires effort on their part to get their head into the space where a true artist resides. Most people don't want to make that effort (or can't), and that's why we refer to mere entertainment as "popular". This doesn't mean that all art is necessarily elite, because anyone can "understand" a Dutch 17th century painting. But the next time your relatives visit you in the big city, do they want to go to the Met. Museum or the Museum of Natural History? That should tell you all you need to know.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on July 11, 2007 8:27 AM

OK, I'm not totally averse to this kind of distinction, though I don't see that you can draw a sharp line; you will have a continuum with Top 40 hits on one end and Anton Webern on the other, and everything else in between somewhere.

What this definition will not allow you to do is put all classical music on the high end and all pop music on the low end. The vast majority of music written in the classical tradition was purely entertaining fluff, which is why we don't listen to it anymore. Likewise, some music that is definitely within the pop tradition is challenging and usually, like classical music, not very popular for that reason. To choose what I hope will be an uncontroversial example, the later music of John Coltrane, which despite being difficult to grasp without effort and also, I think, rather profound, came out of a "pop" tradition. I could make cases for some rock and hip hop artists, too, but I doubt this crowd would be very receptive.

Re: Rachmaninov, agree about the Vespers, and would add the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, even if these pieces owe their beauty largely to traditional Russian Orthodox music. I once bought a recording of the piano preludes and I will admit that a few of them are quite good--notably the G major and G sharp minor ones from the second set. So I guess I can't say that he's a bad composer. I probably should have picked a REALLY mediocre late Romantic like Arensky as my example.

Posted by: BP on July 11, 2007 9:56 AM


I wrote in annoyance and some haste, so thanks for the courteous tone of your reply.

This is a complicated subject, which probably doesn't lend itself very well to the "paragraph bites" of a comments section. Probably both of us would have served our views better with more time and a broader canvas.

Anyway, some thoughts on your points:

"1) I don't think it makes any sense to compare movies and music directly that way, but let's say a good pop song and a bad symphony. I guess I don't see how something good can not be better than something bad."

Within the same genre, true. But remember, we were discussing the concepts of high art and low art. You said you believed such distinctions were meaningless, and all that mattered was whether a piece of art (however defined) was good or bad. I purposely chose a somewhat ludicrous comparison, to imply that the lowest common denominator quality of "good" or "bad" left certain things — which I believe are important — out of consideration: as only one example, the degree of skill needed for achievement in an art form. I might be able to play a "good" performance of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" using a comb and paper; and even the great Coltrane, in his manic last phase, played a few solos I think are "bad." Still, somehow, I feel Coltrane's work, even at his worst, is better than mine musically.

"2) Where did you get the idea that I only value the transgressive, or that other traditions "devalue" the Western classical tradition?"

Possibly I was misreading you, and if so I apologize. I certainly don't think everyone "has to" like Beethoven or classical music — how could we force anyone to, even if we all agreed it was desirable? But several commenters have made the valid observation that our popular culture scarcely gives its young people, when at their most impressionable, the chance to appreciate Western art music. Apparently we think along the same lines on this.

"3) As for my musical taste, I like plenty of Romantic music--Schumann, Brahms, Faure, to some extent Mahler--and my favorite composers are Bach and Mozart, along with Messiaen in the 20th c."

I am glad to hear it, but in dismissing Rachmaninoff as "sappy Romantic kitsch," fit only for the middlebrow tastes of old, near-extinct audiences — and without breathing a word about any Romantic composers you do like, and other things you wrote, it sure sounded like you were contemptuous of anything but contemporary.

"You don't have to like total serialism, or John Cage, or minimalism, but there is a LOT of music in the twentieth century that people don't give a chance but that is very beautiful and moving."

Couldn't agree more. For the record, although I like Rachmaninoff and most Romantic music, I am also very keen on Bartok, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev, and some other moderns.

I still think your implication that Stalin and Hitler's preferences say anything about melodic, tonal music is a non-sequitur. By the way, I have never read that Stalin liked any art music; but he sure knew what he didn't like (Shostakovich, the poor bastard).

Posted by: Rick Darby on July 11, 2007 2:50 PM

The reference to symphonies being wedded to pre 1900 music is exactly a result of the disdain of the elites for melody and harmony and accessibility. There is plenty of new romantic, tonal, melodic modern music, but very little of it gets played. Heck, it's amazing how long it took Korngold or Barber to enter into the repertory. It's as if orchestra directors grit their teeth and go, fine: We'll give them the d#@n classics, but if we must give them something modern we'll give them things that will "elevate" or "educate" them!!(Insert Cage, Cowell, Carter, Xenakis, serialism or a host of other unlistenable, unpopular pretentious gits) They look down on Hanson and Arnold and Elgar and all those movie composers, except on Pops night.

Everytime I watch a contemporary opera there's that moment where you get a hint of melody but it's quickly cut off. No. Musn't allow too much pedestrian beauty.

Bollocks. The most boring imitations of Mozart and Puccini by third rate contemporaries are infinitely superior to the so-called avant garde who are now half a century old.

The standard claim that "They rioted over Stravinsky too!" is starting to lose force. A few decades after the first Rite of Spring, it was music for a Disney movie. In contrast, most Wuorinen, Carter, and Stockhausen is boring, unloved crap and will remain so no matter how many generations of grad students are forced to study their work.

Posted by: no gandhi on July 11, 2007 3:49 PM

I should probably leave this thread alone, since it's so old, but I would like to ask you, no ghandi, in the most polite way, to give this music a chance.

Barber used serial techniques in his music--he never adopted it as an ideology, obviously, but he saw serialism as one resource upon which he could draw to enrich his music. If you like Barber's music I think you owe it to him not to dismiss this choice reflexively as caving in to prevailing trends.

I don't appreciate being told that I do not like Carter and Xenakis when in fact I do--not all of their works I've heard, but a lot of them. I know what I like. I'm not sure which works of their you've heard, but some of them are actually rather accessible.

I'm not denying that the academic music world can be closed off and snobbish, or that some music has earned undue praise because of academic fashions. But I also think that these are partly defensive postures. Imagine someone told you that you couldn't possibly like Mozart (as I assume from your comment that you do); that he is boring and old-fashioned and that you only like him to be pretentious. I imagine you would get annoyed and defensive too.

Did you really like all the music you like now the first time you heard it? If you did, I think you should be a little more open-minded, but I suspect that, like most people, you didn't. What is there to lose by giving new music you don't like a chance to grow on you?

Posted by: BP on July 11, 2007 4:25 PM

Charlton: I think that's a very valid addition. To make it short, I would say that art is entertaining [at least I would hope it is) and "requires thought to appreciate."

This aspect was brought up by BP: does certain art written within the popular tradition elevate itself to "high art", in that it requires thought to appreciate? I think it's churlish to deny that this often happens. The Coltrane example isn't problematic to me - of course, it's high art and it's sophisticated.

Let me select a more loaded example: Is the "Dark Sude of the Moon" high art? Or is it middlebrow?

Posted by: jult52 on July 11, 2007 5:03 PM

no Gandhi: It appears that the "riot" inspired by the premier of The Rite of Spring was a staged publicity event. Brilliant PR. But I'd say that a more typical response to avant-garde art involves not outrage, but perplexed boredom. Is a reaction of perplexed boredom the true sign of the avant-garde?

Posted by: jult52 on July 11, 2007 5:05 PM

"High vs low art: I'd frame it in terms of objectives. Low art aims to entertain; high art aims to entertain and... to do much more."

I disagree with the "to do much more" part of your statement. Any composer who has been commissioned to write a work has to satisfy certain objectives. But anything we can call art became art independent of what its objective was.

As for Rachmaninov being sappy. Some is. The problem is it's so often presented in a sappy aspect -- as in the movie "Shine." But Rachmaninov made Prokofiev possible.

Posted by: Fred Wickham on July 11, 2007 6:04 PM


I have done more than give the new music a chance. I have gone to many, many concerts over several decades and listened to thousands of recordings. I have a huge record collection I listen to over and over. I spent much time trying to "Educate" myself about the new music. I speak to many musician friends. I have spoken to several who felt they were blackballed in school for not toeing the avant gardist line. In my view the education one receives in this regard is as pointless as Derrida-speak in literature and history.

And I am just tired of being bored and annoyed and talked down to by academic musicians.

It is easy to come up with a non-repeating list of fine works to be played at a concert that are entertaining, uplifting, written in the 20th century, and very definitely anti-modern.

My mind is now closed. In my view anything that can be done to destroy the current overlords of classical music writing should be encouraged. This is not about waiting a few years for things to get better. The situation is beyond hope. In my view, the Soviets who thought they were the richest people in the world were less deluded than the defenders of academic music.

They are at war with the middlebrow. I am happy to stand in opposition. We shall see who wins the war.

There are many middlebrow who are not as vehement as me but who vote with their feet and their pocketbooks.

Let the musical elite starve and then be thrown into the dustbin of history.

Posted by: no gandhi on July 11, 2007 6:12 PM

As so often the case here on 2BH there seems to be a need among some (no gandhi for example) to turn a difference of aesthetic opinion into a battle royale. Why a self-described "closed mind" wants to do battle with modernism is, to me, a mystery. If you don't like it, don't listen, but don't try to tell me my taste is rotten because I like something you don't.

Count me among those whose taste is extremely eclectic and for whom the distinctions high- middle- and low- brow border on the meaningless. My CD player regularly finds itself shuffling disks that might be found in such genre bins as World, Folk, Americana, Classical, Jazz, Soundtrack, Rock and more.

Then again, I was fortunate enough to have as a childhood best friend the son of a well regarded music professor. Both at his home on our own and in classes with his father we listened to a great range of material from Bach to Charles Ives to Terry Riley; from the Beatles to Joni Mitchell to the Fugs; from Dave Brubeck to Duke Ellington to John Coltrane. As far as I'm concerned there is so much great music out there I don't worry about the health of music, whatever brow one might choose to label it.

Posted by: Chris White on July 11, 2007 7:52 PM

no ghandi: I think you are describing a time that is past. I'm too young to know, admittedly, but I do get the sense it was as you say in the 60s and 70s. I don't think it's like that anymore, though. That's the last thing I'll say; I'm not going to change anyone's taste with comments on a blog.

Rick: I didn't mean that the fact Hitler and Stalin liked tonal music was a LEGITIMATE criticism, or one that musicians had any excuse perpetuating decades later, just noting where the association may have gotten its start. But left wing intellectuals romanticized Stalin anyway, so really my comment doesn't hold up, so I'll retract it.

Posted by: BP on July 11, 2007 8:01 PM

I think Adriana wins the humor award between "today's art equates being unpopular with being good" and "a whole generation who thinks the Macarena is the greatest song ever written."

Posted by: annette on July 12, 2007 2:25 PM

Fred: "I disagree with the "to do much more" part of your statement. Any composer who has been commissioned to write a work has to satisfy certain objectives. But anything we can call art became art independent of what its objective was."

I've given your post some thought and agree that the status of an artwork (as "low" or "high") is determined by its content and not by the intentions of the artist creating it. I withdraw my proposal from my post above.

Posted by: jult52 on July 14, 2007 10:59 AM

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