Fourteen years ago, I noted that the primary function of high culture has always been to allow society's elite to use their wealth and leisure to distinguish themselves from the "philistines" beneath them on the social ladder. By using their position to educate themselves in the finer points of high culture, I argued, members of the elite can signal their status to each other, and exclude the less sophisticated from their circle. I identified Matthew Arnold as one of the early advocates of this use of high culture, but observed that a modernist bohemian variant of it thrived in contemporary America.
Since then, though, a rather odd thing has happened--even odder for the complete lack of notice it's received: highbrow culture has effectively disappeared from American society. Magazines like the New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, and the New Yorker, which were not long ago full of dense book reviews of even denser academic tomes on serious artistic and cultural topics, are now dominated by political screeds and fluffy pop culture roundups. The self-important urban intellectuals Woody Allen used to lampoon, who once dropped references to great authors and obscure foreign films, now banter about subscription TV series and mass-market movies on Twitter. And an imploding academia, obsessed with inclusiveness and identity politics, generates its endless stream of impenetrable humanities papers primarily on contemporary politics and pop culture, and not even on modern avant-garde art--let alone the classics.
Although the cause of this collapse is uncertain, I have a hypothesis: that this dumbing-down of intellectual elitism is a natural consequence of the expansion of the elite during the 1990s boom to encompass both the wealthy and the white-collar upper-middle class. An "elite" that encompasses twenty to thirty percent of the population can't possibly distinguish itself by deep cultural erudition, and must inevitably make do with cruder class distinctions, such as tastes in television and preferred pop culture references. For the "serious" writers and academics who seek to make a living fostering and directing the shared culture of this elite, it is therefore no longer effective to champion obscure, inaccessible artists that their target audience has neither the time nor the inclination to study and appreciate. Instead, they must focus on the level of cultural knowledge this audience is capable of collectively absorbing: low-to-middlebrow commentary on low-to-middlebrow fare.