Berryman’s “The Hunt,” Brooks and the Quest for Middlebrow.

Last night I attended Taproot Theatre’s production of Jeff Berryman’s “The Hunt,” the second in his Arthurian trilogy. If you like rich language, crackling with life and emotion, characters drawn larger than life and acted well, all staged and lit exquisitely–this one is for you. But alas attendance at this production lags that of lighter fare and therein is the symptomatic problem of faith and culture. This play makes one think and occupies middlebrow territory–once the domain of American art and now its wasteland.

I’ve written on middlebrow in the past and today David Brooks does a nice job addressing the problem in his column “Joe Strauss to Joe Six-Pack.”

His case unfolds as follows:

1) “Back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, middlebrow culture, which is really high-toned popular culture, was thriving in America. There was still a sense that culture is good for your character, and that a respectable person should spend time absorbing the best that has been thought and said. The middlebrow impulse in America dates at least to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the belief that how one spends one’s leisure time is intensely important. Time spent with consequential art uplifts character, and time spent with dross debases it.”

2) As evidence he offers this: “If you read Time and Newsweek from the 1950’s and early 1960’s, you discover they were pitched at middle-class people across the country who aspired to have the same sorts of conversations as the New York and Boston elite. The magazines would devote pages to the work of theologians like Abraham Joshua Heschel or Reinhold Niebuhr. They devoted as much space to opera as to movies because an educated person was expected to know something about opera, even if that person had no prospect of actually seeing one. The newsweeklies would have six-page spreads on things like Abstract Expressionism. There was a long piece in 1956 in Time, for example, about the Kitchen Sink School of British painters, as well as analyses of painters who are not exactly household names, like Charles Burchfield and Stanton Macdonald-Wright.”

3) Then this: “That doesn’t happen today. And it’s not that the magazines themselves are dumber or more commercial (they were always commercial). It’s the whole culture that has changed.”

4) Brooks says two forces killed middlebrow culture: The elite intellectual attacked the democratization of art calling it, “tepid ooze” ¢â‚¬¦ “devaluing the precious, infecting the healthy, corrupting the honest and stultifying the wise.” At the same time popular culture began to revere personality over character, which leads to the celebrity culture we sometimes discuss.

But there is a third contributor to the malaise and it is the anti-intellectual evangelicalism that rejected academic elitism and drove the vehicle of emerging popular culture to places of “influence” in culture,” but at a price. Thus Mark Noll’s comment, “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is so little of it.”

If loving God requires our mind, which Jesus said it does, a case can be made for the spiritual as a driver that should elevate common people from the lowest common denominator culturally to a higher plane. Middlebrow is attainable by all–it rejects the exclusivity of the stuffy, club-bish academic elite and also dismisses lowbrow mindless drivel.

Taproot’s comedic productions are thoroughly enjoyable, but Berryman’s “Arthurian trilogy” is more demanding, a challenge more personally enriching if met and one that deserves a broader hearing. It would get this if people of faith took our rightful place as proponents of thoughtful, spiritual and imaginative living.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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    Posted in Staublog in June 16, 2005 by | No Comments »

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