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Mona Lisa Smoking a Pipe by Eugène Bataille
Mona Lisa Smoking a Pipe by Eugène Bataille
Mona Lisa is both an icon of high and popular culture --> nobrow
Mona Lisa is both an icon of high and popular culture --> nobrow

"One important consequence of the new sensibility [is] that the distinction between "high" and "low" culture seems less and less meaningful." --"One Culture and the New Sensibility", Susan Sontag, 1965.

"Both high and low culture have produced masterpieces and works of mediocrity. It is our task to find beauty in unexpected places." --Jan-Willem Geerinck

"I suppose I kept going to these movies because there on the screen was some news I was not getting from The New York Times. I began to think I was seeing ideograms of the future." --The White Album (1979) by Joan Didion

Genre painting as the nobrow expression of Old Masters. theo Illustration: The Smoker (ca. 1654 - 1662) by Joos van Craesbeeck
Genre painting as the nobrow expression of Old Masters.
theo Illustration: The Smoker (ca. 1654 - 1662) by Joos van Craesbeeck

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The term nobrow is a postmodern neologism derived from highbrow and lowbrow. The term denotes intellectual discourse, cultural history and historiography which is a mix of high and low culture. The practice was influenced by French Annales School and such publications as History of Private Life. A good understanding of nobrow requires an analysis of what exactly is high and low culture. For this purpose, this wiki uses the chart 'low, middle and high culture' by American sociologist Herbert J. Gans found in his book Popular Culture and High Culture (1974).

The term is also applied to cultural products which are received with both critical and box office success, usually mutually exclusive yet in some rare instances -- as in the double-coded films Borat (2006) and V for Vendetta (2006) -- are found in the same product. Another example is The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco, which simultaneously garnered scholarly interest and popular appeal.

The term "nobrow" is also used whenever "body genres" intersect with "cerebral" (read intellectual) genres.

The antecedent of nobrow is perhaps the notion of a hierarchy of genres, historic formalizations which ranked different genres in an art form in terms of their prestige and cultural value.


Nobrow theory

Nobrow coincides with postmodernism, a late 20th century movement in which the boundaries between high culture and low culture disappeared (Huyssen, 1986). Already in the mid 1980s, Andreas Huyssen in After the Great Divide (1986) noted that "Pop in the broadest sense was the context in which a notion of the postmodernism first took shape, and from the beginning until today, the most significant trends within postmodernism have challenged modernism's relentless hostility to mass culture."

What does Huyssen mean by "modernism's relentless hostility to mass culture?" This hostility is directed against "ornament and metaphor in architecture [see "Ornament and Crime"], figuration and realism in painting [the popularity of abstract art ], story and representation in literature [the unreadability of plotless modernist literature ], the body in music and theater."[1].

Other examples of "modernism's hostility towards mass culture" that come to mind are antipopulist dicta such as "I believe, that the mob, the mass, the herd, will always be despicable" (1871) by Flaubert, D. H. Lawrence saying that he wanted to gas the masses in a "lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace" and Mervyn Griffith-Jones's famous question asked during the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960: "is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?".

The first writer to challenge what was to become modernism's elitism was the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. His poem "The Alchemy of the Word" (1873) is possibly the earliest defense of popular culture/mass culture, stating that the author has a soft spot for "absurd paintings, pictures over doorways, stage sets, carnival backdrops, billboards, bright-colored prints, old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books full of misspellings, the kind of novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, little children's books, old operas, silly old songs, the naïve rhythms of country rimes." (tr. Paul Schmidt)

In the 1960s, with the rise of Pop art, the first nobrow theories are published. In her essay "One Culture and the New Sensibility" (1965) Susan Sontag famously said that "one important consequence of the new sensibility [is] that the distinction between "high" and "low" culture seems less and less meaningful."

Two years later, in "The Pornographic Imagination" (1967), Sontag argued that certain works considered pornographic need to be acknowledged as works of literary merit, famously stating that "Pierre Louys' Trois filles de leur mère, George Bataille's Histoire de l'Oeil and Madame Edwarda, the pseudonymous Story of O and The Image belong to literature."

In the early 1970s, the American critic Leslie Fiedler defined the "nobrow" sensibility (avant-la-lettre, he does not use the term) in in his essay Cross the Border — Close the Gap (1968), revealingly published first in English in Playboy magazine (rather than in a literary magazine):

"The notion of one art for the 'cultural,' i.e., the favored few in any given society and of another sub-art for the 'uncultered,' i.e., an excluded majority as deficient in Gutenberg skills as they are untutored in 'taste,' in fact represents the last survival in mass industrial societies (capitalist, socialist, communist - it makes no difference in this regard) of an invidious distinction proper only to a class-structured community. Precisely because it carries on, as it has carried on ever since the middle of the eighteenth century, a war against that anachronistic survival, Pop Art is, whatever its overt politics, subversive: a threat to all hierarchies insofar as it is hostile to order and ordering in its own realm. What the final intrusion of Pop into the citadels of High Art provides, therefore, for the critic is the exhilarating new possibility of making judgments about the 'goodness' and 'badness' of art quite separated from distinctions between 'high' and 'low' with their concealed class bias."

In the mid-1980s, the term nobrow was coined.

In the 1990s, American culture theorists such as Camille Paglia would go on to defend popular culture.

Since then, it has become almost standard practice not to distinguish between high and low culture. For example, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek uses Hitchcock's films to explain Jacques Lacan and in what has been derogatorily termed 'toilet philosophy', Peter Sloterdijk uses the arse to explain an embodied philosophy in Critique of Cynical Reason ("the arse is truly is the idiot of the family") .

Theory on the masses vs. elite

A number of writers and scholars have expressed themselves on the masses vs. elite. Among them are Walter Benjamin ("The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", 1936), Susan Sontag ("One Culture and the New Sensibility", 1965), Leslie Fiedler (Cross the Border — Close the Gap, 1968) , Herbert J. Gans (Popular Culture and High Culture, 1974), [aymond Williams (Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, 1976) , Alan Swingewood (The Myth of Mass Culture, 1977) , Robert Darnton (The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, 1982) Patrick Brantlinger (Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture As Social Decay, 1983), Andreas Huyssen (After the Great Divide, 1986), Lawrence W. Levine (Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, 1988) , Andrew Ross (No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture, 1989), Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, 1990), Stephen Bayley, (Taste: The Secret Meaning of Things, 1991), John Carey (The Intellectuals and the Masses, 1992), Tyler Cowen (In Praise of Commercial Culture, 1998) ), Camille Paglia (many works), Joan Hawkins (Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-garde, 2000), John Mullan ("The invention of popular culture", 2000) and Bernard Gendron (Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club, 2002).

see also antipopulism


The term nobrow is derived from highbrow and lowbrow and first appeared in print in the late 1960s: "middlebrow, highbrow, and nobrow— of denominations of "beatniks" proclaiming Zen or LSD 25 as the post-modern salvation from the blessings of modernity." However, this one single instance, found in "Notes and Essays on Education for Adults". In the 1980s[2] the term is more widely disseminated. Highbrow denotes a "person of superior intellect and taste," first attested in 1902. Lowbrow is a "person who is not intellectual" is also first attested 1902, said to have been coined by humorist Will Irwin. (source: Etymology online).

By medium

Nobrow cinema

The first nobrow manifesto in cinema is Pauline Kael's "Trash, Art, and the Movies" (1969), praising Wild in the Streets and belittling 2001.


The Hour of the Wolf is a nobrow film because it fits the "body genre" horror yet at the same time is a product by the intellectual filmmaker par excellence, Ingmar Bergman.

American director Roger Corman (his Poe films) and French director Alain Robbe-Grillet (his mixing of eroticism with metafiction) include high and low art tropes in their work.

Paolo Sorrentino's use in the same film of classical and house music.


Exploitation film presenter Kroger Babb purchased the American rights to Summer with Monika in 1956. To increase excitement for the film, he edited it down to sixty-two minutes and emphasized the film's nudity. Renaming the film Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl and connoting it to the bad girl movies tradition, he provided a good deal of suggestive promotional material, including postcards featuring the nude Andersson.

Nobrow actors

Klaus Kinski working both with Jess Franco in the exploitation realm and with Werner Herzog in the high art realm.

Nobrow television

"Low culture" television program The Simpsons references highbrow culture.

Nobrow publishers

French publisher Eric Losfeld published both high art (mainly surrealism) and low art books such as comic books, erotic books, etcetera.

Nobrow theatre

"Although theater is now a highbrow form, this was not so until the nineteenth century." --Fringe and Fortune (1996) - Wesley Monroe, Jr., page 73

Royal de Luxe, a French theatre compay, takes its theatre to the street.


Bernard Gendron in Between Montmartre and the Mudd Club (2002) notes that "The "postmodern" 1960s were by no means the first period in which the boundaries between popular music and high culture had been seriously challenged. Rock was not the first popular music to cross the divide between high and low. We need only recall the Jazz Age of the 1920s when the avant-gardes of Paris and Berlin were enthusiastically consuming jazz and attempting to assimilate its aesthetic into their own practices."

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Nobrow" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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