Highbrow  

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 This page Highbrow is part of the culture series.   Photo: western face of the Parthenon
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This page Highbrow is part of the culture series.
Photo: western face of the Parthenon

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Used colloquially as a noun or adjective, "highbrow" is synonymous with intellectual; as an adjective, it also means elite, and generally carries a connotation of high culture. The word draws its metonymy from the pseudoscience of phrenology, and was originally simply a physical descriptor.

"Highbrow" can be applied to music, implying most of the classical music tradition and literature—i.e., literary fiction and poetry; to films in the arthouse line; and to comedy that requires significant understanding of analogies or references to appreciate. The term highbrow is considered by some (with corresponding labels as 'middlebrow' 'lowbrow') as discriminatory or overly selective (Lawrence W. Levine, "Prologue", Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, 1990: 3; highbrow is currently distanced from the writer by quotation marks: "We thus focus on the consumption of two generally recognised 'highbrow' genres—opera and classical" (Tak Wing Chan, Social Status and Cultural Consumption 2010: 60). The first usage in print of highbrow was recorded in 1884. The term was popularized in 1902 by Will Irvin, a reporter for The Sun who adhered to the phrenological notion of more intelligent people having high foreheads.

The opposite of highbrow is lowbrow, and between them is middlebrow, describing culture that is neither high nor low; as a usage, middlebrow is derogatory, as in Virginia Woolf's unsent letter to the New Statesman, written in the 1930s and published in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1942). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word middlebrow first appeared in print in 1925, in Punch: "The BBC claims to have discovered a new type—'the middlebrow'. It consists of people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff that they ought to like". It was popularized by the American writer and poet Margaret Widdemer, whose essay "Message and Middlebrow" appeared in the Review of Literature in 1933. The three genres of fiction, as American readers approached them in the 1950s and as obscenity law differentially judged them, are the subject of Ruth Pirsig Wood, Lolita in Peyton Place: Highbrow, Middlebrow, and Lowbrow Novels, 1995.

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

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