The catch was that the middlebrow culture on which I was raised was a common culture, based on the existence of widely shared values, and it is now splintered beyond hope of repair. Under the middlebrow regime, ordinary Americans were exposed to a wide range of cultural options from which they could pick and choose at will. They still do so, but without the preliminary exposure to the unfamiliar that once made their choices potentially more adventurous. The rise of digital information technology, with its unique capacity for niche marketing, has replaced such demographically broad-based instruments of middlebrow self-education as The Ed Sullivan Show with a new regime of seemingly infinite cultural choice. Instead of three TV networks, we have a hundred channels, each "narrowcasting" to a separate sliver of the viewing public, just as today’s corporations market new products not to the American people as a whole but to carefully balanced combinations of "lifestyle clusters" whose members are known to prefer gourmet coffee to Coca-Cola, or BMWs to Dodge pickups.
What’s really sad is that most people under the age of 35 or so don’t remember and can’t imagine a time when there were magazines that "everybody" read and TV shows that "everybody" watched, much less that those magazines and shows went out of their way to introduce their audiences to high art of various kinds. Those days, of course, are gone for good, and it won’t help to mourn their passing.
I remember three-channel TV very well. I grew up on the U.S. Mexican border, and cable TV was but a distant dream. We were lucky to receive radio signals. One read either Time or Newsweek as well as the local paper.
I think that Mr. Teachout has it backwards, actually. Our culture shattered long ago, and narrowcasting and other forms of push technology only acknowledge the demand. As I mentioned earlier, I think that demand-driven media actually helps middle-brow consumers, who heretofore were forced to consume ubiquitous lowbrow culture if they were to participate in popular culture at all.
Thank you to Fenster over at 2Blowhards.com for the link to ArtsJournal.com.