What Beyonce thinkpieces tell us about the death of the highbrow

There is an old war on the very idea of “high culture,” which offends egalitarian sensibilities. In her notes for The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand observed that her egalitarian socialist villain, Ellsworth Toohey, “says that he is fighting Rockefeller and Morgan”—the big capitalists of his day—but he’s really “fighting Beethoven and Shakespeare.” The egalitarians are opposed to the very idea that one man can be greater than another, or that some cultural products can be greater and higher than others.

This was why the hippies were so obsessed with folk music: precisely because it was not the product of great men or highbrow culture but was instead written by “the people.” (This, as Tom Lehrer observed, is precisely why so many folk songs are so bad.) We now live in the era this counterculture created, in which the highbrow has fully and finally been knocked down.

This has been aided and abetted by the collapse of our educational system, so that a lot of people never really encounter highbrow culture or acquire the knowledge and tools necessary to understand it. If you barely understand modern English, much less Elizabethan English, you are much less likely to be able to get anything out of Shakespeare.

But it’s no good blaming others. We also have to face up to the ways that highbrow culture has destroyed itself.

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