The End of High-Low
Illustration by Penelope Gazin
By now, to say that highbrow and lowbrow—or high culture and low culture—form a false dichotomy is pretty, you know, obvs. Maybe we’ve felt it to be true for a while, that the idea of high and low as discrete and opposed units of whatever—of product or content or idea—was dumb; maybe it took a cache of excellent TV shows to finally prove it.
It’s not that it didn’t have its uses. “High-low” in its various forms is why music critics take Taylor Swift seriously—or, if not, they absolutely should—and why teenagers know what Balmain means. High-low is an easy prism through which to consider different kinds and directions of cultural aspirationalism, and has always been integral to fashion, art, hip-hop, and more recently to culture that is created and experienced online; Tumblr and, to some degree, Twitter are about the value of combining disparate and usually borrowed references, so often pulled specifically from traditionally high and traditionally low cultural sources.
Still, high-low is mostly ahistorical: a way to capture and capitalize on existing ideas without much of a need to understand them. Teenagers know what Balmain means, but not from whence it came. I do this, too: I “love” architecture, but I never learned about it in a real way; my professed interest in, say, Mies van der Rohe is genuine, but my actual knowledge is strictly wikied, my actual involvement nil.
High-low still superexists as a fashion thing, usually describing higher-end, higher-brow, officially sanctioned fashion worn with cheaper, older, whatever stuff. The upscale-downtown-ubiquitous girl uniform of a classic flap Chanel bag and $1,200 shoes with ripped-apart, pissed-on cutoffs and a reappropriated T-shirt is where high-low lives; most street style (or most community-approved street style) and most of its related aesthetic pursuits still rely on a very established, very sanctioned idea of high-low harmony.
What comes—what is coming, and happening already—after high-low becomes thoroughly numbed and exhausted is more cohesive, a lot more authentic and personal, and, crucially, less predictable. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used the word rhizome, like an underground plant stem, to explain theory and ideas (and, subsequently, as a suggestion for society) with endless connections and interactions, an assemblage, without an inherent hierarchy of either development or values. It’s that vision—also, to rip an idea from feminist theory, an intersectionality, where individual groups, or parts, are affected by the same system in meaningful ways, often at the same time—that best explains what follows the dominant high-low idea, and leads toward something real. I have no good shorthand for it (do you?), but have been calling it “everythingness.”
This everythingness is especially prevalent in the sensibilities of people who are, right now, on both sides of the establishment, my favorite of which are Kid Fury, who is from Florida and pulls deep on the South, Christianity, gay NYC, hip-hop culture, Beyoncé, “stan” culture, and, like, Scandal, on his YouTube videos and podcast; Cat Marnell, who signed a serious deal for her drug memoir, writes beautifully and with exaltation and detail about makeup, graffiti, East Coast prep-schooled and trust-funded and psychologized kid culture, British tabloids, and twentysomething careerism; and Amy Sherman-Palladino, who makes TV about girls and women and family and friends. Her newest, Bunheads, is an ABC Family show about teen ballerinas told largely through the dustiest pop-arcana; one episode was called “I’ll Be Your Meyer Lansky.” On ABC Family! Right?
In many cases, like those ones, post-high-low everythingness invokes a lot of the lost stuff of our parents’ or grandparents’ generations, and even more often evokes childhood, as well as memory, loss, desire, and character. It comes from everywhere, and is personally filtered and understood, demanding a more sincere engagement and investment in one’s own experience in the world—given, found, and really cultivated—than a high-low framework. That everythingness makes better use of our unique selves and histories (maybe even the same aspects that we shed in favor of cooler, chosen influence) is so powerful; rather than gathering up an appealing, aspirational mass of “likes” from the infinity of the internet, this new method of expressing one’s self culturally, or being “oneself,” contributes much more depth and breadth to the culture as a whole. This has especially rad possibilities for people whose histories and experiences in the world tend to be overlooked.
Soon enough, this particular sensibility will travel, as it always does, and permeate different cultural strata until it too is an oft-invisible commonality, like high-low has been. It asks more, but it might give more, too.
Kate Carraway writes the weekly Obseshes column for VICE.com.
Follow Kate on Twitter: @KateCarraway
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