Comfortably Smug


Somewhere between the Kardashians and the Franzens of the world lie the rest of us. "Call it upper middle brow," says William Deresiewicz:

It is post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in TranslationGirls, Stewart/Colbert, The New YorkerThis American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies). The upper middle brow possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity. It is genuinely good work (as well as being most of what I read or look at myself).

The problem is it always lets us off the hook. Like Midcult, it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb—the definition of a true avant-garde—our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world. (Think, by contrast, of some truly disruptive works: The WireBlood Meridian, almost anything by J. M. Coetzee.)

Alan Jacobs ponders the piece:

So where do we turn for "an art that will disturb [our] self-delight," an art accomplished enough to demand respect but offering a serious challenge to complacency? My usual recommendation is to look for books from the past, since the past is, after all, another country, and its thoughts are full of challenges for us if we will listen without condescension. But what about art of today?

Noah Millman finds many films that indeed "disturb our self-delight":

I certainly thought “The Master” cleared that bar. So did "Blue Valentine." But so did other movies that are not as obviously stylish – "Rachel Getting Married," or "Greenberg," or "Martha Marcy Mae Marlene," to name a few films from the last few years that took significant emotional risks.

Jordan Bloom tackles music, wondering "what does emotional validation sound like?"

(Image from the tumblr Kanye Wes Anderson)