My sister in law was visiting a couple of months ago and we got into a conversation about brow height. I was asked to explain the difference between high, low and middlebrow: this turned out to be more difficult than expected. Having thought about it a bit more, here’s an attempt at a brow taxonomy and classification of some cultural items by brow height.

Before we go on, a couple of things. This is an exercise steeped in risk. Firstly, there is the risk of offending readers by assigning a different brow category to their favourite book or film or whatever than they think it deserves. Second, and this is perhaps a greater risk, is that of coming across as a massive intellectual/cultural snob. The third risk, related but sort of an inverted version of the second, is that by assigning a high brow rating to something that it turns out doesn’t deserve it, I could lose whatever intellectual/cultural snob credibility that I had. I’m not really sure which of risks 2 and 3 to worry more about, which suggests I should just plough on and live with the consequences (which, with about 25 readers a day at the moment, can’t be that great, can they?).

Brow Taxonomy and examples of entertainments at corresponding level

Low: Lowbrow entertainment seeks to deliver immediate pleasure, unmediated by reference to anything other than itself and not requiring any sort of reflexivity on the part of its audience. You watch or read or look at something lowbrow because the simple act of doing so will stimulate positive feelings. You see an attractive and capable man punch a bad man off a cliff, rescue a beautiful woman from a car sinking in a lake and then whisk her off to a log cabin in the snow – and you’re happy because evil was vanquished and people that you would like to be like are brought together in a romantic and sexy fashion. Can you tell I’m thinking of Bond? Bond is lowbrow, no doubt about it (although the recent Daniel Craig reboot appears to be steering the series into middlebrow territory, about which, more later).

Further examples of the lowbrow: Agatha Christie, Super Mario Bros. (and most computer games), Terminator, Inspector Morse.

Middle: Any of the brows can be used in a pejorative sense, however middlebrow might be the most snarky label to put on something: basically, it means lowbrow but with pretensions. Middlebrow is about making the audience feel like they’re smart, sophisticated and well-informed, but not really challenging them with anything new. In my mind, middlebrow is defined by Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong: pretty, calling up big themes and with an abundance of intense scenes, but leaving behind very little for you to think about afterwards.

The new Bond films have taken a “darker” direction – much as Christopher Nolan’s Batman films did. What this means is upping the brow on some fundamentally lowbrow entertainment by suggesting that the hero might be imperfect, and allowing for resolutions in which not everything is, uh, resolved. It’s designed to make the audience feel like they’re doing something worthwhile with their time – as if simply enjoying fistfights, sex and things blowing up were not worthwhile. I think the major criticism of middlebrow is that it embodies this self-deception: your enjoyment of some simple pleasures has to be dressed up as an intellectual activity in order for you to find it socially acceptable.

Examples: Inception (a very elaborate excuse for them to show a bunch of cool shit), Half-Life, The Magus, The Wire. Damien Hirst, maybe?

HighSide note: I’ve just looked up high-, middle- and lowbrow on, and what’s interesting is that in front of the definitions for highbrow and middlebrow it notes “often derogatory,” while there is no such note for lowbrow. In Britain, it’s apparently less dangerous to be considered stupid than smart – although as noted above, stupid but with pretensions to smart is the worst of all.

OK so this has not been easy, and now here we are at the most challenging category. Highbrow in its pejorative sense refers to entertainment that is deliberately difficult to get in to – and to no effect – i.e. something that mistakes obscurity for intelligence. Highbrow does tend to mean challenging, but if done right it’s challenging because whatever it deals with is challenging (which is most real life stuff, when you think of it). People can be criticised for choosing highbrow entertainment in order to demonstrate their intelligence to others, but ultimately you don’t only want lowbrow entertainment; it’s exercise for the brain for it to have to work to appreciate what an author or artist is up to, and why.

Examples: James Joyce, Andrei Tarkovsky… want to suggest some others?

Further notes:

David Lynch tends to make films that straddle high and lowbrow.

Pornography = nobrow.