Like most systems, from Newton’s to Marx’s to Einstein’s, Seabrook’s Nobrow and Town House/Megastore analogies are both useful (to describe certain transactions within the increasingly overlapped worlds of publishing, art and entertainment) and ultimately limited, diminished by what they can’t contain. Life is sloppy that way. The signal irony of Nobrow is, of course, that the concept itself (underlined by the book’s sexily symmetrical slogan of a subtitle, The Culture of Marketing — The Marketing of Culture) is a kind of marketing point, the hook, the buzzword that will hopefully make this volume stand out in a time of “too many artists, too many film festivals, too many books, too many new bands, too many ‘new voices’ and ‘stunning debuts.’” The second irony is that Seabrook is more interesting as a reporter and storyteller than as a social theorist, best when reflecting upon himself, his family — the chapter on his father’s closet and their sartorial relationship is one of the best — and the behavior of the people he meets in Buzzworld. He’s got something interesting to say about nearly everything upon which his attention falls, an eye for the telling detail, an ear for the revealing quote. Yet the (restrictive) logic of the marketable package dictates he tie everything back to his Big Idea, give names to behaviors, classify.
Ultimately, something about Nobrow struck me as strangely provincial, and I can only think that it’s because here in suburban, sandal-clad Southern California, a place that for years could not rustle up an opera or ballet company to save its life, Nobrow is old news — it’s the air we’ve breathed since the movies claimed the town about 80 years back. The film business, in which intellectuals and illiterates collaborate in works that can be high-, low- and middlebrow, serious and popular art all at once, annihilated the Eastern distinctions of class and culture and taste Seabrook grew up taking as given. (“The day you found yourself putting on black tie and going to enjoy the opening night of Aida as a subscriber to the Metropolitan Opera was the day you crossed an invisible threshold into adulthood.”) And it isn’t just the movies: The presence of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, George Barris and Angelyne has meant as much if not more to the community than that of Schoenberg, Brecht and Isherwood. The false front, the tinsel, the customized car, the inflated bosom — we are used here to things not being what they seem, and accustomed from an early age to take the artificial as something potentially better than real. Forget culture. I’m going to Disneyland.
NOBROW: The Culture of Marketing — The Marketing of Culture | By JOHN SEABROOK Alfred A. Knopf | 240 pages | $23 hardcover