Visual Art and the Middlebrow

Michael Clegg, Art History, Curating and Visual Studies, University of Birmingham,

Rebecca Savage, Art History, Curating and Visual Studies, University of Birmingham,

As a scholarly concept, the middlebrow has proved fruitful within literary studies. It has stimulated historical research (Faye Hammill, Nicola Humble, Kristin Bluemel, Emma West and others) into the struggle for cultural authority that marked the mid-20th century ‘battle of the brows’ and provided critical distance on the modernist canon that emerged triumphant within the academy. It has also enabled theoretical work (Beth Driscoll and others) that relates to a range of periods and analyses issues including the construction of cultural hierarchies in the context of class, the gendering of cultural forms, the instrumental use of culture, and the positioning of art in opposition to commerce.

The idea of the middlebrow has had less impact on art history, despite encouragement (notably by Hana Leaper) for scholarship addressing intersections of modernism and the middlebrow.  Why this has been the case is open to debate, perhaps indicating limited information on art’s audiences and the tendency to treat art markets as a specialist area of study, as well as the grip of existing modernist historiography. Yet, as theoretical concept and historical topic, the middlebrow has the potential to open new perspectives on received art histories, questioning inherited hierarchies and unmooring assumed chronologies.

This session will invite papers related to any period or geography. These might focus on devalued forms or media (didactic works, illustration, works for children, and so forth), studies of audience or dissemination, questions of disputed value, or any other use of the middlebrow to reframe art history.

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