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Upstairs/Downstairs Evolution of American Culture

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HIGHBROW/LOWBROW: THE EMERGENCE OF CULTURAL HIERARCHY IN AMERICA, by Lawrence W. Levine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard. University Press. 306 pp. $25. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE was the quintessential highbrow - not for what he wrote, but for how he was thought to have looked. In the 19th-century pseudo-science of phrenology, a high forehead denoted artistry and intelligence. Shakespeare, who was frequently portrayed with a broad brow that swooped halfway across his skull to a retreating hairline, appeared especially gifted.

Displaying the scantest of brows, apes defined the bottom of the phrenological continuum, which arrayed the world's races according to cranial dimensions. The highest brows were found among northern and western Europeans, not coincidentally phrenology's main customers.

By the end of the last century, the terms ``highbrow'' and ``lowbrow'' moved from phrenology and entered the language as a shorthand way of indicating intelligence and aesthetic sensitivity. Eventually, the words were applied to cultural categories: Opera is highbrow; photography is not.

We have become so accustomed to thinking in these terms that it comes as a surprise to learn that in America, strict hierarchical ranking of cultural expression has not always been the case.

Surveying the changing character of Shakespearean performance, opera presentation, band-music repertoire, symphonic music, and museum holdings, Lawrence W. Levine contends that the mid-19th century art experience was simultaneously popular and elite. Cultural spaces, like theaters and opera houses, were not rigidly divided. Patrons ranged over a broad socio-economic spectrum.

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