Russell Lynes

Upper Class, Middle Class, and Lowest Class

VTR Date: July 10, 1981

Guest: Lynes, Russell


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Russell Lynes
Title: “Upper Class, Middle Class, and Lower Class”
VTR: 7/10/81

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. I have been for some time. And sometimes I think I can actually see things coming together. Sometime back, for instance, when we did an OPEN MIND program on what has been called the American Establishment, it was suggested that in identifying the eastern power elite that, presumably at least, plays such a large and honorable role in establishing American principles and policy, that membership in New York’s venerable Century Club, like a Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, or Yale’s bachelor’s degree, or perhaps access to foundation grants and other such personal endowments, that such things are prime establishment qualifications. And now today we’re going to talk not about politics and power, but rather about a different kind of power: about setting our national agenda in terms of taste and fashion. And lo and behold, our text is Russell Lynes’s near-quarter-century-old brilliant discourse on The Tastemakers: The Establishing of American Popular Taste, It’s Shaping. And Russell Lynes has been President, had been President until last week in fact, for so very long, of the Century Club, which may be pure coincidence, of course, or may mean that Centurions play an even more lordly role in our lives than one might have imagined.

LYNES: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Anyway, Russell Lynes is my guest today. Russell, thanks for joining me today.

LYNES: I’m delighted to be here.

HEFFNER: You know, The Tastemakers: The Shaping of American Popular Taste, has for so long been one of those books that one refers to…

LYNES: That’s nice.

HEFFNER: …and reads…

LYNES: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: …in establishing what has happened to our country in terms of non-political power that I can’t think of anything more appropriate at this time than to ask you as you bring out this new edition of The Tastemakers, who makes taste today in America?

LYNES: Well, I think it’s changed, Dick. When this book was published 25 years ago, 26 years ago, you could pick out individuals whom you thought were responsible for setting tastes. Certain magazine editors, certain fashion people, and so on. And in the arts, certain museums. What has happened, it seems to me now, is that there has been a kind of bureaucratization of taste. We’ve got a whole lot of new elements now in who says what is good. We’ve got the government foundations for the arts and the humanities. We’ve got the big foundations like the Ford Foundation, which was more involved in the arts ten years ago than it is now, and a good deal more involved, oh, 20 years ago. We have the big corporations who are now devoting a good deal of money to the support of public television, of blockbuster exhibitions in museums, and so on. So what happens here, none of the things that happens here, is that this is taste which is approved by committees in foundations, in the government, in the national foundations, and I’m sure in the corporations, though there’s usually a vice president in charge of culture, I believe.

HEFFNER: You’re such a nice and pleasant person that you always smile. But you’re smiling now.

LYNES: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Are you smiling from pain or pleasure as you describe these new tastemakers?

LYNES: I’m sorry, I think, that I think of taste as an individual thing in a way, although it goes by groups of people. I like to think of the people like Andrew Jackson Downing in the last century, who was the editor of the magazine called The Horticulturalist, and a maker of taste who had enormous influence on taste. He changed the tastes of America from Greek revival to the Gothic revival. That seems like a long way off and a strange thing to do. But he decided that really Americans shouldn’t be living in temples; they ought to be living in something like churches. Now, this is hard to explain, but Downing was a man with enormous influence and a great charm, and people followed him. This happens, you find, in another earlier generation, Horatio Greenow, people like these people who were intellectual leaders in matters of taste. Now it’s awfully hard to put your finger on who these people are. And I like to think that there are people with convictions rather than people who are members of committees.

HEFFNER: You mean with convictions who resist these committees and the bureaucratization of the making of tastes?

LYNES: Well, there wasn’t the same kind of bureaucracy of taste in the 19th century. There wasn’t even 50 years ago, 40 years ago, it seems to me, that there is now.

HEFFNER: But when you first wrote the book…

LYNES: Yeah.

HEFFNER: …The Tastemakers, that famous section that had been an article in Harpers on “Lowbrow, Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow”…

LYNES: Yeah.

HEFFNER: There was the implication there that Russell Lynes was himself, in identifying what was highbrow and lowbrow and middlebrow, kind of setting tastes, approving or disapproving. Isn’t that, in fact, unfair?

LYNES: Well, this turns up in the chart. It doesn’t turn up in text in the book.

HEFFNER: What chart?

LYNES: There was a chart made from that chapter. It was written because I thought if I was going to write about tastemakers I ought to define who the consumers of taste were. So I wrote a few paragraphs about the highbrows and the upper-middlebrows and the lower-middlebrows and the lowbrows in order to be able to set a pattern for myself. And a colleague of mine at Harper’s said, “I think you ought to write a piece about this”. So I did. And then Life picked it up and made a chart out of it with my help, and that chart became a sort of parlor game. It really was more of a parlor game that it was an attempt to make serious clarification of, qualification of taste.

HEFFNER: Well, I really knew what the chart was, and it’s here in your book. And you say a parlor game. You mean you didn’t mean it when you listed the clothes, the furniture, the useful objects, the entertainment, salads, drinks, reading, sculpture, records, games, causes, etcetera, of highbrows, upper-middlebrows, lower-middlebrows, and lowbrows?

LYNES: Well, I meant it in the sense that if you want to take people and divide them into categories this is a neat way to do it. On the other hand, as people wrote to me, “What am I, a yo-yo? I go from the top of the chart to the bottom of the chart”. They should, too.

HEFFNER: In one area you fit into…

LYNES: Yes. In one area you’re a highbrow and in another one you’re a lowbrow. I dress in tweeds. Looking at the chart here, which was sort of a highbrow, shaggy kind of a thing to do. But I also like beer, which I think you’ll find at the bottom of the chart somewhere and so on.

HEFFNER: Right over here.

LYNES: As opposed to wine at the top and martinis at the upper-middlebrow. And I’ve forgotten what the lower-middlebrow is now.

HEFFNER: Well, is it all a put-on Russell?

LYNES: No, it wasn’t a put-on; it was for fun. And basically for fun, the chart was. The piece is a rather serious piece. And the thing about the piece, which the chart does not do, which you say it does, and that is to identify me as a tastemaker. People were quite furious at me. Some of the people, especially the highbrows, because nowhere in the chart did I take one side against another. I mean, nowhere in the piece did I take, I don’t identify myself anywhere as any part of that qualification.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but now let’s take the chart.

LYNES: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Okay? And humorous or otherwise, the fact is, who wants to say, “I’m lowbrow”?

LYNES: “A lowbrow”. Yes. Well, you know, the fellow who runs, or did then, ran a little cigar shop and a newspaper shop around the corner from me in New York felt, said to me one day, he said, “I saw your chart. I didn’t like finding myself at the bottom of it”. And it occurred to me there’s no reason why the lowbrow shouldn’t have been at the top of the chart and the highbrow at the bottom. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Well, you know, I…

LYNES: There’s nothing better about a highbrow than a lowbrow as far as I’m concerned, as far as taste is concerned. When you look at the things the lowbrow likes.

HEFFNER: Let’s see, lowbrow likes loafer jackets and woven shoes, and in the country he likes old army clothes.

LYNES: What’s the matter of that? Not that it’s highbrow of course. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But you know, there’s something here that is so infra dig, that is so much limited to, in itself, a certain class. You’re talking here, aren’t you, generally, about the highbrows among the upper classes?

LYNES: I think that’s a very middlebrow statement that you just made. You’ll find that there’s a great deal more affinity between the highbrows and the lowbrows than there is between the middlebrows and the lowbrows. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Now wait a minute. Let’s say that again. Let me understand the implication of that.

LYNES: In other words, the highbrows think of the popular culture as a real culture; whereas the middlebrows think of the lowbrow culture as something beneath them.

HEFFNER: All right. How do you explain that?

LYNES: I don’t know. Unless you explain it by the fact that folk culture is an interesting thing, and the highbrows think of low brow cultures a folk culture. Also you will find in fashions, and especially I think maybe since this book has been written, that the fashions come up from…where do you think blue jeans came from? They came from below; not from above. The fashion and tastes have moved up from below rather than down fro above to a very considerable extent.

HEFFNER: Does that mean, in your terms, debasement?

LYNES: No. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: It’s only because it’s not…

LYNES: You’re putting a moral thing on this, which I don’t.

HEFFNER: Maybe because you used the words “low” and “high”.

LYNES: Well, “lowbrow” and “highbrow” are very ancient terms. They go back to the Greeks. “Middlebrow” is, as far as I know, was Virginia Wolfe in an essay, a letter actually, to a, with The Economist perhaps in London which was never published as a letter but which did turn up in her essays. So “middlebrow” has been around for quite a long time. But it was Virginia Wolfe who thought this up. It would ha been thought up by a highbrow of course.

HEFFNER: But you know, as I read your afterword to the book, written much more recently of course, written now in the here and now…

LYNES: Yeah.

HEFFNER: I’ll grant, I don’t find a judgmental factor there. You seem to take great good pleasure for the whole business or a whole involvement in it. But that wasn’t meant, it wasn’t meant that way by the people who latched onto you definitions, was it? Didn’t they grab it and make other kinds of uses of it?

LYNES: Well, yes. It got turned into all sorts of things. Colleges, I’ve got a file full of things out of college magazines where they made their own highbrow/lowbrow charts and put the faculty into them, or they put the undergraduates into them. It became, as I said, a sort of parlor game. It turned up in all sorts of advertising and so on and so on. It was really quite good fun for a little while. I should’ve made a fortune out of it, but I didn’t. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Well, that’s, I don’t know whether that’s an upperbrow or a middlebrow or anybrow…

LYNES: That’s very lowbrow, very lowbrow.

HEFFNER: Yeah, well wait a minute. The notion of commercialization. The book first came out at about the same time or about the same time that Holly White’s Organization Man came out. It was just about the same…

LYNES: Just about the same time, yeah.

HEFFNER: …period that David Riesman was writing about other directed people.

LYNES: Yeah. A little before this, as a matter of fact.

HEFFNER: What happened then? What’s happened to what happened then in awareness of the way we were moving ourselves around in terms of outside pressure? Do we still, are we as much involved in what’s going on outside of ourselves? Are we so thoroughly involved in other directed, another directed culture that this is an artifact?

LYNES: There are pressures on people, of course, the social pressures on taste always. I mean, people trying to have the taste of what they think is a step up or of their peer group. There are these pressures. I mean, people decorate their houses like other people who live in the same circumstances. They wear the same clothes more or less because they want to identify with the group. This is a taste decision to a very considerable extent.

HEFFNER: I’m sorry. Why do you say that’s a taste decision?

LYNES: Well, because somebody has established, or a group has established how you shall decorate your house, how you shall, what kind of car you shall use, what kind of clothes you shall wear if you want to be at home with this group. It is a matter of imposing on you a kind of taste. Do you see what I mean?

HEFFNER: You mean conforming is accepting the taste?

LYNES: Yes, yeah, sure. And you decide which group you belong to. That’s really what this chart is about, isn’t it? Yeah.

HEFFNER: Well, you mean fitting in in that way.

LYNES: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

HEFFNER: But you know, it’s funny. I think of taste in other terms. I really think of taste in terms of decision-making. And you’re saying, well, conforming is a decision-making.

LYNES: Oh, yes. Sure it is. Yeah.

HEFFNER: You’ve decided to relate to this particular group.

LYNES: Yeah, that’s right.

HEFFNER: Your concern here about the role that is now played – and we talked about this a moment ago – by government and by these committees. What about the media?

LYNES: Of course, when this book was written the television was not a medium to be worried about or to be thought about at all. It really didn’t exist. In 1950 if you had a television set you were quite, rather unique.


LYNES: Not many people on the block had a television set. So when this chart was made and when the book was written, radio had an influence, but television did not exist. So in this sense the medium has become much more powerful in the making of taste. What kind of settings does a soap opera take happen in? What kind of settings do certain kinds of commercials that are meant to show what I would call a middlebrow or an upper-middlebrow background? These things are not constantly before people in ways that didn’t exist before. So there are these, call them reminders if you want rather than pressures but they’re there, and become part of the visual thing which people have to accept as a measure of that kind of life.

HEFFNER: Now, you’ve disclaimed any judgmental factors here. But I’ll ask you whether it’s up or down, whether it’s been good or bad. I asked you before; I’ll ask you now.

LYNES: Well, you are, you’re being moral about it again. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Well, no, in your judgment. Forget about my morals.

LYNES: In my judgment? I don’t think it’s any better or any worse so far as the visual things are concerned. I suppose that in some ways you could say that the medium has done quite a lot to expose people to good architecture, good painting and so on that was possible before it came along. There is no architectural criticism anywhere, or was no architectural criticism anywhere in the press to speak of except the specialized press at the time this book was written. There is a good deal of it now in newspapers all over the country, and there’s a certain amount of exposure of these kinds of ideas in television, principally public television.

HEFFNER: Do you think that’s a kind of a – that’s a peculiar way to put the question – Do you think one might legitimately say that’s a kind of death rattle? Because in this age of bureaucratization of taste, committee formation of taste, of government involvement, foundation involvement, corporate involvement, doesn’t really make much difference what happens; taste is set so much more now for us than ever before by individuals?

LYNES: Certainly set by groups rather than by individuals.

HEFFNER: By groups. Right.

LYNES: I think that’s true. What you get is compromises of course. Instead of having…Well, think of the Museum of Modern Art when it first started. It had a very considerable influence on taste because it was considered outrageous. What’s outrageous now that’s making taste really? It’s all awfully safe isn’t it, when you come down to it? I mean, the kinds of kinds of, nobody can say there’s anything very outrageous about a corporation supporting Shakespeare either in the park or on television. But the Museum of Modern Art had a good deal to do with making the taste for the kind of architecture that is not only around us but which has come with such a pretty pass, it’s become such a cliché. It was worth fighting for as a thing when they started it, those three or four people.

HEFFNER: I’m not now making a moral judgment.

LYNES: Yeah.

HEFFNER: You’ll say that I am.

LYNES: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: But let’s accept for the moment, for the sake of argument, this notion that I’m not. What are the implications politically, economically, educationally and otherwise, for a country in which taste is now being set more by the committees, more by the larger organizations that by the leading individuals you mentioned before and whom you elaborate on in the book?

LYNES: I think we’ve still got, I mean, I think that is true. You get much the same kind of tastes supported by the national foundations as you do by the corporations, that is, in backing public television, which I’m all in – I would like to make it quite clear that the more money there is for the arts the happier I am, not matter where it comes from.

HEFFNER: And no matter what it does?

LYNES: Not no matter what it does. But I think that when, the trouble – I’ve changed the subject, I’m afraid, from what you asked – but I think that the involvement in the arts by the government is bound to get involved with politics if the government begins to support the arts”. And I myself am furious with the government’s including a debate on television with Ken Galbraith at one point, he taking the side that the government should and I taking the side that it shouldn’t. Because the arts get to be a political implement. We see it now. Well, the way we saw it before was quite simply that people were calling back exhibitions that the State Department had sent because some of the artists whose paintings were shown were sort of thought to be communists. This ruined, I mean, a congressman came along and said, “This is communist art”. And it wasn’t. But the Sate Department was scared. This was in the McCarthy days. And it killed that program. But what’s happening now is a very different kind of influence of politics in the arts, and I’m sorry to see this happen. I think it was inevitable. None of this $300 million, whatever it is, involved in the foundations, congressmen want some of this money for their constituents…So it gets printed out, not into those things where the best arts, that is the, for the libraries, the symphonies, the operas, the ballets, and so on get supported.

HEFFNER: You mean the highbrow arts?

LYNES: Well, highbrow if you want to say. Call them elite arts if you want. But there’s an elitist population thing going on now…


LYNES: …which has, it seems to me that what matters is quality, not elitist and populist. But a lot of this money is going, being divided on the basis of how many constituents you have, how may dollars you get. And what it goes into is recreational things which are not to do with the arts. Fine. There ought to be money for recreation. I’ll put that. But why the National Foundation of the Humanities and the Arts?

HEFFNER: You know, that takes us back, in a sense, to the chart, which is done or was done partially with tongue in cheek. Because you are making, I think you, Russell Lynes, are making judgments now. You’re uneasy with the notion of the popular arts and the congressman who is saying, “Some of that has got to come into my district”.

LYNES: That’s right.

HEFFNER: And you’re saying that leads to fewer dollars for higher art. Is that fair?

LYNES: Quality art.

HEFFNER: Well, whose judgment?

LYNES: Well, the judgments are always going to be made about the arts, obviously. You make judgments about the arts, I trust. So do I.

HEFFNER: But why not the…

LYNES: What do I like? What am I for? There are things that, there’s a lot of money going into the crafts these days, and the crafts are on the way up. And there’s marvelous things being done in crafts. And there’s very good reason to put money into the crafts, because there are real artists involved in these things. But there are a lot of people who are just getting money to do something to keep their hands busy. And let them find their own money to keep their hands busy. Let’s not devote it to what should be given to the arts.

HEFFNER: Russell, there aren’t a parallel number of people in the higher arts who are looking for money to keep their hands busy, maybe fiddling, drumming, conducting?

LYNES: Oh, I think there are always too many artists. Well, let me put it this way. What I mean is, art schools turn out an enormous number of artists, as some music schools do. And only a very, very small percentage of these people are ever going to be able to make a living out of this. They are making audience when they do this, as much as they’re making artists. And the audience is terribly important. But I think that money ought to go to those people who are going to be productive in the arts.

HEFFNER: What do you think is going to happen now in this conflict that has taken place over the past number of years in the national oval about where the arts dollars go?

LYNES: I think it’s so popular now to give money to the arts that it’s going to go right on. I don’t think that the new administration is going to cut the budget. There is worry about their not giving as much more as would be needed to keep up with inflation in the arts and humanities budgets.

HEFFNER: I didn’t really mean that. I meant where is it going? Not to whom; to what.

LYNES: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Upper-brow, lower-brow, the popular arts rather than the less popular, perhaps more elitist arts? What do you think’s going to happen there?

LYNES: I think it’s awfully hard to tell. I think it’s probably reached the kind of level that it’s going to have. I would hope that we will not let those institutions which are part of the glory of our country, our great orchestras and our extraordinary opera and our, really I think ballet is more interesting in this country than probably anywhere in the world. It would be a mistake to let these get watered down because the money got spread too thin. And I don’t think it’s likely to happen. We’re too proud of them.

HEFFNER: Yet hasn’t the charge been made that precisely this is what has been in the works?

LYNES: Well, what one hopes is that if the government, for political reasons, decides that the money ought to be spread wide and less concentrated in those things that some people think are the finest of our arts, that other people will counteract this. Actually, you take a symphony orchestra, and it’s a community thing. The best money that they get comes out of the community they serve. They are proud of this thing which is their own. And I don’t think that pride is likely to disappear.

HEFFNER: Russell, in the two minutes we have left, when you revise this book again 25 years hence…

LYNES: Thank you. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: …what do you think you will be writing about, highbrow, lowbrow, and tastemaking?

LYNES: Well, I think that it will be hard to say what the things will be if you want to use these categories, in any of these categories, just as they have changed enormously in the 25 years since this chart was made. I mean, there’s a Calder as a highbrow object now, a Calder stabile. Well, there’s a Calder stabile in front of every office building these days, or its equivalent. But I don’t think that the attitudes would change a great deal, in other words, or the pressures on people to try to conform to the kind of thing that they think is the way they want to live. I think those things are fairly constant, as I think I say in the afterword of this book. That is I think those pressures are continuous. What the objects will be, what they will like, what will be accepted at one or another level of this choice is absolutely impossible to predict.

HEFFNER: And the tastemakers, you think they’ll continue, even more be the big sources of money, the committees, the…

LYNES: It looks that way. I think so. Though every now and then a guy comes along like, well, like Frank Lloyd Wright or something, and suddenly architecture has a whole different look. Now, this is an artist whom other artists follow, which is making taste, he’s making their taste. And an institution comes along like the Museum of Modern Art, which suddenly does something absolutely outrageous. I wish I felt there was a chance for an institution to be outrageous in those ways now. And that there are so many committees involved with all of these things that how can you go off and raise hell?

HEFFNER: Russell, 25 years from now we’ll come back…

LYNES: All right.

HEFFNER: …and sit at this table, and figure out why you raise hell.

LYNES: I’ll be 95. How old will you be? (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Ummm – 26! Thanks so much for joining me today, Russell Lynes.

LYNES: Okay. It’s been fun.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again on THE OPEN MIND, 26 years from now, and before, too. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.