I’d be willing to guess that you, at one time or another, have felt the need to apologize for your taste in books, movies, or music. At some point, someone who you perceive to be smarter, cooler, savvier or more well read than you has made you feel guilty for being into all the wrong things. You might love Coldplay, but that’s only because you’ve never heard (or don’t understand) Radiohead. Or, maybe you totally get Radiohead, but you should really be listening to Tool.

I remembered this feeling as I read William Deresiewicz’s essay, “Upper Middle Brow,” in The American scholar. Alan Jacobs, writing for The American Conservative, brought my attention to it.

Deresiewicz writes that “upper middle brow” is somewhere between middle brow and high brow. He points to “Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life,” and accuses them of being “sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool.” The purpose of their art, as Deresiewicz sees it, is to “flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices.”

This won’t do, says Deresiewicz, and Jacobs takes up Deresiewicz’s question, asking “where do we turn for ‘an art that will disturb [our] self-delight,’ one that is ‘accomplished enough to demand respect but offering a serious challenge to complacency?’”

The underlying accusation here is that the upper middle class — the creative class, as Deresiewicz calls it — all college educated, progressive, and earnestly interested in being good, is complacent and needs to be disturbed. He seems to suggest that disturbance is actually the nobler state, and those in the creative class live lives intent on staving off that disturbance.

But, how much better for us, Deresiewicz seems to suggest, if we were avant-garde — he notes that “we still don’t have an avant-garde to speak of” — as if there is something inherently better about being edgy.

Art does a lot of things. And yes, sometimes it disturbs, and often appropriately so. There’s a time and place for that, but I’d argue (and based on the fact that both critics own up to liking the very art they are criticizing I’d say they’d agree) that the art we consume in our everyday lives needn’t be the disturbing or avant-garde variety. Rather, I keep going back to what John Gardner referred to as the “traditional view” of art in On Moral Fiction. This is art, he writes, that is moral, that “seeks to improve life, not debase it.”

And this is precisely what many Indie-folk bands, “quirky” film makers, NPR programs, and political satirists aim to do. They raise sincerity and authenticity to the level of virtue, and then they praise and affirm those virtues. I just watched Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom again and was struck by just how sweet and sincere it is. And it’s a great movie. It didn’t disturb me or force me to reconsider my life’s priorities; on the contrary, it affirmed them. And I don’t feel the least bit guilty about that.

Artists like Anderson make beautiful work that elevates goodness and virtue. It hasn’t always been this way and who knows how long it will be before this New Sincerity recedes and gives way to cynicism and ironic posturing, or worse? But, in the meantime, can’t we all just enjoy it without being made to feel guilty?

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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