“aesthetic preferences are always tied up with anxieties about social status”

People still use words like “middlebrow” and “kitsch” as terms of disapprobation, even if they don’t remember the Marxist tree from which those apples long ago fell. This is because aesthetic preferences are always tied up with anxieties about social status. The connection seems virtually primordial. I can’t help judging you by the novel you’re reading on the plane or the wallpaper in your house. (You have wallpaper?). If we had no social individiousness, we would probably have no art – or, at least, we would have a very different economy of art. People like to debate he merits of what they read and see and hear, and to pretend to think ill of those who differ. It’s part of the game. The college freshman who declares herself a relativist in philosophy class by day will argue all night about whether Band X is better than Band Y.


People also like to feel that they know what’s correct and what isn’t, and thus belong to a privileged minority. It doesn’t matter what Webster’s Third tells me: I will always feel superior to a person who says, “I am totally disinterested in that subject” (though I will also strive to treat that individual with the dignity and respect owed to any human being). I can’t help it; it’s the way I was brought up. On the other hand, I don’t believe that the future of the republic is at stake.

Louis Menand, “Browbeaten,” The New Yorker (5 September 2011), 76.

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