The Inland Empire posts are coming slowly, partially because I keep mentally picking on too many threads, without just sitting down and picking one to weave in. This is pretty far afield, but will lead into a couple of posts that are less so. In any event, I’ve been dying to get this idea on paper for years.
There is an issue of how to approach popular art (TV, movies, books, etc) in terms of hierarchy. Real capital A art vs. lowest common denominator crap (i.e. not “real” art, but mere “entertainment”) seems the most time honored but brow altitude (highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow) seems the most commonly used at this point. The idea of MacDonald’s masscult/midcult is so on point in so many cases, it’s hard not to go there. The problem is, everyone wants to treat this in a relativistic fashion. It’s like driving speed, where everyone going slower than you is a moron and everyone going faster is an asshole. No one wants to call what they love lowbrow, or something that puts them through some effort as merely middlebrow.
I think of the Oscars and the New York Times general output as middlebrow. Many would agree, I think, but there are a number of people I know that consider this stuff high-falutin’, ivory tower bullshit (i.e. dismiss it as highbrow), while stuff I think is high art is no doubt considered simple pablum to some. No matter who you are, though, there seems to be some need for some an Olympic scoring system – points for ambition, points for execution - to categorize in a way that can encompass stunningly good pulp and high minded shit.
To this end, I have a very simple idea (one that’s probably been thought of before, but I’ve never seen anyone talk about): up to a point, the goals of art seem to map remarkably well to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (a.k.a. Maslow’s pyramid), which is usually depicted like this:
“Usually” means it’s the version on Wikipedia. I’ve always loved the simplicity of this representation, western/individual-centric though it may be. It maps nicely to psycho-social development stuff I’m obsessed with (mostly Erikson stages, Piaget, Leary’s 8 stages of consciousness, and Robert Anton Wilson’s synthesis of this stuff with drug effects, mental illness and ancient myth). This is my first draft proposed version for popular arts (mostly narrative art, but isn’t it all narrative art?):
Note how the needs line up nicely with the focus of the narrative, and the altitude corresponds to how people tend to order things. Now, there is a big issue with this formulation, which is that the bottom 3 levels map nicely to the lowbrow idea, but the top 2 to are mostly middlebrow (at least in my estimation). The tip is kind of gradient into highbrow. A social novel like The Jungle is upper middlebrow, but I’d argue The Wire gets to highbrow through pushing past something. Dexter’s “who am I?” is barely middlebrow, while Tony Soprano’s flirts with highbrow, and Walter White sustains “high” in the last passages of Breaking Bad. I used to think the answer was to add a level:
Aside – these levels are usually outside of any quality of execution issue, but there are congruences between approach to execution (technique) and brow. Layering increases with level. “fractal” approaches are restricted to the upper reaches. Since the themes get less effable as you go up, techniques need to be evolved in ways that are more complicated.
This chart is fine enough, but seems to miss some conceptual point, somewhere. The main thing it misses is that while philosophy texts may reach transcendence by pushing up, art is more sly, and often you get to something greater, and undeniably highbrow, by pushing sideways or even down. Like this:
Getting off pyramid would be the very idea of avant garde. I want to do another post about “directionality” in narrative that kind of relates to this. There is a sense of “down-ness” that relates to psychological metaphors, and makes you want to have a “deep” axis, which is sort of problematized by this representation (down is deeper needs, but also “simpler”), and the transcendence “out” is not a solid fix. The real representation would probably be a Scott McLeod kind of 3 axis pyramid graph or a 3d plot like so:
… but that would make the idea of hierarchy impossibly complex without using more Byzantine vector operations (like a range/zone related to the sum of the squares of the axis reflections - <-1 equals lowbrow, -1 to 1 equals middlebrow, > 1 equals highbrow – is there a name for this? Is this div or grad? - this would work as long as you set 0 and normalize normalize 1 appropriately). So, too complicated. Forget I brought it up.
So, I’m glad I got that off my chest. This relates to upcoming Inland Empire, David Milch, and mental/psychological deep diving posts that are forthcoming.