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.

Speakers & Abstracts

Contempt for the Cherub: The people’s angel

Harriette Peel (Independent Scholar)

There are few beings as intellectually devalued as the Cherub, now an icon of Barbara Cartland covers rather than art-historical or theological study. These baby angels began life as a variant of the biblically fearsome Cherubim, angels vividly described in the Old Testament as otherworldly composites of wheels, wings and eyes. It was a Cherub that cast Adam and Eve from Eden, a Cherub that fell to become Satan and with Seraphim were the most powerful and feared of God’s nine orders of angels. That the image of fragile-winged babies began to appear in their place from the 14th century has baffled scholars. Late medieval consumers, on the other hand, were evidently delighted and the infant-type Cherub was swiftly and extensively popularised.

This paper uses the concept of the middlebrow to reconsider these angelic infants’ origins and their prolific absorption into centuries of western visual culture. Familiarity with the widely popularised Cherub may have long since bred contempt for any possibility of its value beyond the decorative in modern art-historical thinking. Here, it will be newly argued that not only did the Cherub’s theological value as an angel remain, but that the infant-type’s remarkable popularity offers an important new window into medieval people’s expectations of their visual and spiritual worlds. The Cherub will be shown to have held instinctive appeal and spiritual value to late medieval viewers whose devotional world view was shifting away from high-church theology towards the vernacular, feminine and affective.

After the End of Iconography: ‘Bildungsbürgertum’ and visual culture

Hans C. Hönes (University of Aberdeen)

One of the most influential tropes in historiography on 18th and 19th century art is the ‘end of iconography’ (J.L. Koerner, W. Busch, C. Grewe). It is indeed evident that many canonical subject matters – mainly scenes from ancient mythology and history – waned in importance around 1800, being replaced by a more fractured, experimental landscape of pictorial narrative, emblematically embodied by artists such as Greuze and Friedrich.

But many of these new, ‘unconventional’ motifs proved surprisingly popular. They were replicated, adopted and emulated in countless guises by scores of academic artists, epigonal and now largely forgotten. Their works were distributed widely – especially in illustrated periodicals, targeted at a ‘middlebrow’ customer who had some interest in international artistic developments, but also demanded affordable and tasteful decorations for their homes. In steel engravings and lithographs, publications such as Deutsches Künstleralbum or Kunst für alle (to name two German examples) brought variations on Delaroche’s, or Böcklin’s compositions into the private quarters of a cultured class of consumers, the German Bildungsbürgertum.

This paper discusses the reach and significance of such art for an educated bourgeois with reference to select examples from German visual culture. The aim is threefold: first, to highlight how periodicals contributed to a specifically ‘middlebrow’ canon formation, creating its own ‘iconographic traditions’. Second, to discuss the significance of ‘recognisability’ and replication for the success of such middlebrow art. Third, to consider to what degree these works warrant a different methodological approach, focused on a ‘not-quite distant reading’.

Interwar Art Magazines as Middlebrow Spaces

Emma West (University of Birmingham)

In Britain, the interwar period saw an explosion in magazines seeking to educate readers about art. Titles such as The Artist, Modern Masterpieces and The Art Gallery were aimed at middle-class art enthusiasts or amateur artists. The focus was on ‘instruction’: readers were taught about aesthetics and art history, principles of art appreciation, or new artistic techniques.

In this paper, I’ll draw on a definition of the middlebrow as a mode of circulation, reception and consumption of cultural products, a space where art encounters consumerism. In the pages of these magazines, readers were introduced to – and invited to participate in – the art world. In The Artist, readers were invited to buy materials and follow step-by-step guides from established artists. In The Art Gallery, readers were taught the fundamentals of art appreciation and introduced to prints they could purchase. Modern Masterpieces took this a step further: each issue included five colour prints for display in one’s home.

Unlike magazines by and for professional artists, those aimed at amateurs have received little critical attention. Their emphasis on mainstream audiences, self-improvement and cultivating good taste are all characteristics of what we might term the ‘middlebrow’, but I’ll be wary of simply classifying such magazines as middlebrow. As Nicola Humble warns, there is a tendency for notions of the middlebrow to harden, for it to be seen as a fixed category with a securely bounded canon (‘Sitting Forward or Sitting Back: Highbrow v. Middlebrow Reading’, Modernist Cultures, 6.1 (2011), 41-59 (42)). I’ll use my paper to question whether and how this contested concept might be of use in art history.

Middle-Browing High Art: Blockbuster exhibitions and expanding audience

Anna Lawrenson and Chiara O’Reilly (University of Sydney)

Blockbuster exhibitions are the middlebrow of the museum world. For the arts elite, they represent a dumbing down of art in an attempt to make it more accessible to a broad audience, while for general audiences they provide an accessible way to accumulate cultural capital. In this transaction, museums sell big-name artists and ancient civilisations by transforming them into must-see events that seduce visitors through spectacle, trading on the institution’s authority.

Blockbusters have in turn become interesting sites of experimentation as institutions grapple with the need to uphold their reputations by presenting scholarly shows also capable of attracting large audiences to maximise returns. This paper offers a case study of how the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, has reshaped the cultural experience through its programme of blockbuster exhibitions. It examines the role of key figures such as former Director Betty ‘Blockbuster’ Churcher (Director from 1990–97) whose legacy laid the foundation for later investments in the format that linked high art with tourism, popular events and even football heroes. This served to democratise the image of the blockbuster and achieve the goal of making art more accessible to more visitors. Recent creative partnerships and marketing have helped to further the notion that high art is for everyone. This paper critically examines the success of this strategy and interrogates its consequences. Can art be for everyone? And, what are the consequences of this middle-browing for scholarship and the authority of the museum?






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