Nobrow Culture

Why it's become so hard to know what you like.

From The New Yorker
September 20, 1999

Because I live in Tribeca, I end up walking around in SoHo two or three times a week. I usually have a destination in mind--to shop for food at the Gourmet Garage, or to look at the clothes at Helmut Lang or Agnes B., or to see a show at some gallery, though I don't do much of that anymore. I'm almost always looking to buy something. And there's a lot to buy in SoHo: it is a village of fancy sunglasses and "authentic" Indonesian furniture, edible flowers, high-design soap dishes and fifty-dollar Kliss Touch scissors, twenty-one-year-old Balsamic vinegar, plastics, fashion, and cell phones cell phones cell phones. One walks in and out of shoe shops, jewelry stores, and art galleries, and the shoes, the jewelry, and the art don't seem any different from one another as objects. This is Nobrow--the space between the familiar categories of high and low culture. In Nobrow, paintings by van Gogh and Monet are the headliners at the Bellagio Hotel while the Cirque du Soleil borrows freely from performance art in creating the Las Vegas spectacle inside. In Nobrow, artists show at K mart, museums are filled with TV screens, and the soundtrack of "Titanic" is not only a best-selling classical album but one that supports the dying classical enterprises of old-style highbrow musicians.

Today is Sunday, and the nominal purpose of my SoHo excursion is to get some good tomatoes at Dean & DeLuca, on Broadway at Prince Street. I walk across Franklin Street, which still has lots of old, ungentrified loft buildings that look as if they belonged to Original Tribecans: people who passed on SoHo in the seventies, when the commercialization started to get bad, and moved into lofts down here--cast-iron buildings with big, grimy windows.

At Broadway, I turn left and start heading uptown. Below Canal are the Chinese fabric places, where the cloth is one step up the production chain from textile factories--in bolt form, available only to the trade. Across Canal, the fabric emerges from the bolt state, rendered into T-shirts and jeans and shorts and khakis, hastily stitched together in a local sweatshop, and selling for tendollahtendollah and eightdollaheightdollah out on the street. Then, around Broome, you come to the hip-hop emporia that have sprung up around Canal Jeans. These stores, like Yellow Rat Bastard and Pulse and Active Warehouse, are also selling T-shirts and jeans and shorts and khakis, but something has been added to the clothes--the brand. In buying the shirt, you're buying the label, which will become part of your identity in the mosh pit of identities out on lower Broadway. The branding is done by combining a commercial trademark with one or another subcultural motif, a subculture the buyer belongs to or wants to join: surfing, skateboarding, and all-around hip-hop bro'dom are the main motifs in these stores. The brand is the price of your admission to the subculture. The brand is neither quite marketing nor culture; it's the catalyst, the filament of platinum that makes culture and marketing combine.

Young brands, like Porn Star, Exsto, and Triple Five Soul, jockey for attention within the thirteen-year-old demographic. Yellow Rat has created urban scenes for displaying different groupings of clothes--a fleabag hotel, a bodega--so that it feels as if you were slipping into something more than clothes, into a whole street identity. The Wu-Tang Clan's vaguely sinister appropriation of imagery from seventies kung fu movies has filtered into a lot of logo design. By the time I reach Active Warehouse, where some of the young salespeople wear futuristic headsets, it feels like I'm in a Puff Daddy video.

This lower third of the brand hierarchy ends just south of Spring Street, with Old Navy, which mainstreams the out-there subcultural styles in the hip-hop stores into a more universally accessible look. Around Spring, the welter of low brands resolves itself into the middle-brand stores: Guess, then Banana Republic, then Club Monaco; there's even a Victoria's Secret, up at Prince. These stores are selling pretty much the same stuff that they sell down below Spring--T-shirts, khakis, jeans--but the quality and the tailoring are better, and the price is steeper.

A cluster of high-fashion boutiques has recently taken up residence just west of here, on Greene and Wooster Streets: Louis Vuitton, Helmut Lang, Costume National, and Prada. The clothes here are more expensive still, and the fabrics and the tailoring are apparently even better. But what's noteworthy to the student of Nobrow is that the hierarchy of price is not a hierarchy of style. The styles at the lower end of Broadway have more influence on the styles up here than those of the élite have on the masses.

For more than a century, the élite in the United States distinguished themselves from consumers of commercial culture. Highbrow-lowbrow was the pivot on which distinctions of taste became distinctions of caste. The words "highbrow" and "lowbrow" are American inventions, devised for a specifically American purpose: to render culture into class. H. L. Mencken popularized the brow system in "The American Language," and the critic and scholar Van Wyck Brooks was among the first to apply the terms to cultural attitudes and practices. In "America's Coming-of-Age," he wrote, "Human nature itself in America exists on two irreconcilable planes, the plane of stark intellectuality and the plane of stark business." These are the planes that Brooks labelled highbrow and lowbrow.

There's more than a whiff in those words of their rank etymological origin in the pseudoscience of phrenology. But the words' roots also underscore the earnestness with which Americans believed in these distinctions: they were not merely cultural; they were almost biological. In the United States, making hierarchical distinctions about culture was the only acceptable way for people to talk openly about class. In England, where a class-based social hierarchy existed before a cultural hierarchy evolved, people could afford to mix commercial and élite culture--think of Dickens and Thackeray, who were both artistic and commercial successes, or, more recently, Monty Python, Laurence Olivier, and Tom Stoppard. In the United States, though, people needed highbrow-lowbrow distinctions to do the work that social hierarchy did in less egalitarian countries. Any fat cat could buy a mansion, but not everyone could cultivate a passionate interest in Arnold Schoenberg or John Cage.

The difference between élite culture and commercial culture was supposed to be a quality distinction. One could confidently say that Mozart's Requiem was better than Nirvana's "Lithium," or that a handmade suit was better than an off-the-rack suit. But these aesthetic distinctions easily lent themselves to distinctions of social status, too. As long as commercial culture was assumed to be inferior to élite culture--TV was considered a dumbed-down form of theatre; Elvis-on-velvet paintings a bastardized form of art; mass-produced furniture inferior in quality to handmade furniture--the people who patronized commercial culture ("the masses," or, more recently, Joe Six-Pack, that reliable lower-middle-class redneck against whom all others, both the rich and the virtuous poor, can distinguish themselves) could be conveniently placed lower in the social hierarchy than the people who patronized élite culture. This system had the added benefit of giving rich people a practical reason to support the arts. The status advantages that accrued from one's patronage of high culture were like the tax benefits one got for giving money to charities: they might not be your reason for doing it, but they were a powerful incentive.

In Nobrow, however, commercial culture is a source of status and currency rather than the thing that the élite define themselves against. In Nobrow, the challenge that élite institutions such as the major museums face is how to bring commercial culture into the fold--how to keep their repertoire vibrant and solvent and relevant without undermining their moral authority, which used to be based, in part, on keeping the commercial culture out. Thus the must-see blockbusters have replaced the old, quieter exhibitions--a practice that was recently defended in the Times by Ben Hartley, the Guggenheim's director of corporate communications and sponsorships. "We are in the entertainment business," he said, "and competing against other forms of entertainment out there."

Élite designers find themselves in a similar position. There was a time when mass merchants like the Gap knocked off the styles of élite designers like Helmut Lang, selling inferior versions of designer clothes at much cheaper prices. But now in the Helmut Lang store you find knockoffs of the T-shirts and cargo pants and cords sold in the Gap, except that Lang's clothes are made with better fabrics and with tailoring expensive enough to warrant charging twenty times as much for T-shirts as the Gap charges. Still, Lang's styles are the same as the Gap's styles, and this is exactly what makes them distinctive.

Taking a detour from my destination, I stop in at the Helmut Lang store on Greene Street, where these Gap-style T-shirts and faded jeans hang next to seventeen-hundred-dollar suits. The only sure way to tell the women's clothes from the men's is by the color of the hanger. In some pieces Helmut seems to be out-lowbrowing the Gap--going for the thrift-store look. All the impulses toward casual dress that I struggled with so ungracefully in my boyhood closet have here been resolved into the ideal Anti-Closet.

As I walk in, they're playing that Olivia Newton-John song from the seventies "Have You Never Been Mellow?" It sounded bad to me when it was new, but now something about this song--the negative nostalgia of it--is sweet. My eyes stop on a T-shirt. I look at the price: two hundred dollars. Jesus.

"Excuse me. What's the best way to wash this?" I ask the salesperson.

"Well, actually it's better if you don't wash it," she says. "I know that sounds terrible, but the color fades easily."

Hmm. No washing. What does that mean? I guess you dry-clean it.

In the changing rooms, which are tastefully designed, the fashion psychopath makes an appearance. Buy it, he whispers. Go ahead. Buy it. You know you want it. Then you can be part of that whole hip-hop thing happening down Broadway, while at the same time being secretly above it all. You'd spend two hundred dollars for a dress shirt, so why not a two-hundred-dollar T-shirt that you'll wear a lot more? It's anti-status as status, another important principle in Nobrow.

I try the T-shirt on. It feels great. And fits beautifully. A high-fashion T-shirt that looks utterly ordinary. I take it off and leave the dressing room. As I walk up to the beautiful, lanky English girl behind the counter, I don't know what I'm going to do. The fashion psycho likes to make a Zen thing out of it.

Then I hear myself saying, "Thanks, but I'm not ready to spend two hundred dollars on a T-shirt." I give her a smile, and I'm on my way, feeling victorious.

In 1980, in the Times Magazine, Barbara Tuchman published an essay entitled "The Decline of Quality," in which she explained in the gentlest and most disinterested way possible why it was necessary to be an élitist. "A question that puzzles me is why inexpensive things must be ugly; why walking through the aisles in a discount chain store causes acute discomfort in the aesthetic nerve cells," Tuchman wrote. The question, of course, wasn't puzzling at all: as the old standards of craftsmanship and quality were replaced by market-oriented standards of popular appeal, the inevitable result was poor workmanship, homogenization, and general ugliness. Of course handmade goods, made by a craftsman who cares about his work (whose impulse in making the thing is not merely utilitarian), will have a kind of quality that machine-made goods don't have. After pondering this question awhile, Tuchman concluded, "Quality is undeniably, though not necessarily, related to class, not in its nature but in its circumstances."

Nearly twenty years after this essay was published, there is reason to suspect that Tuchman's "circumstances" have changed significantly. What has happened in all the arts, broadly defined--in the decorative as well as the fine arts--is that quality, which was once the exclusive property of the few, has slowly and inexorably become available to the many. The old reasons for deploring the mass manufacturing of clothes and home furnishings--workmanship and design--have become the very reasons for applauding mass marketers like Patagonia, Banana Republic, Crate & Barrel, and Pottery Barn in the late nineties. Why buy furniture from Herman Miller or Knoll when you can get that clean modernist line and sturdy workmanship at ikea and Hold Everything for a fraction of the price, and you can drive off with it in the trunk of your car? Quality is no longer very closely related to price, at least in fashion and furnishings. Manufacturing has improved; the principles of good design have spread. The craftsmanship and style of the goods sold at Nine West as well as in Banana Republic and Pottery Barn are so much better than the goods from a Korvettes or a K mart, or the other discount stores in which Tuchman might have experienced aesthetic discomfort in the late seventies, that comparison is hardly possible. While it is true that these chain stores cause standardization of style, it is also true that the good design of the products promotes an interest in good design generally, and this sends better-educated consumers off to the smaller, more independent stores.

But if the old totem of élite culture, quality, which at one time could be acquired only through that magic triumvirate of status indicators--knowledge, time, and money--is made into a commodity that can be purchased by almost anyone, then the élite can no longer rely on the old method of conspicuous consumption as a means of distinguishing themselves from the masses. If real quality is knocked off and made for a lot less, like the imitation Prada and Louis Vuitton bags you can buy on Canal Street, the owners of genuine Prada and Louis Vuitton goods are forced to become, in effect, inconspicuous consumers--to take inner pride in the fact that their bag is the real thing, even if only a few cognoscenti know it.

Thorstein Veblen wittily skewered the rich for their obsession with handmade goods, arguing that such objects, being imperfect, were actually inferior to machine-made goods, yet the rich had managed to make those imperfections into virtues (such as uniqueness). By the late nineties, though, that trick was nearly up. As the middle class got better and better at appropriating the distinctive styles of the rich, imperfections and all, the rich were forced to go to ever greater extremes of imperfection to distinguish themselves, making high fashion out of clothes and furniture so imperfect and ugly, in such poor taste (in the old high-low sense)--like the thirty-eight-hundred-dollar ripped and beaded Gucci jeans that were all the rage last fall--that no self-respecting middle-class person would want to knock them off.

As usual, this part of SoHo is shoulder to shoulder with pedestrians in hot pursuit of status in Nobrow. When you do away with the old high-low hierarchy, people become more obsessed than ever with status. The action is happening out on the streets as much as in the galleries. At a group show in the Sonnabend Gallery, I turn and for a moment my eyes lock on an interesting rectangle of space. Then in the next moment I realize that it is a window and I am looking out onto West Broadway.

The downtown Guggenheim is displaying the works of the six finalists for the Hugo Boss Prize, a competition for groundbreaking artists, and I want to catch the show before it closes. I pay my eight dollars and go upstairs, where I discover that all six of the finalists are multimedia or installation artists. There isn't an old-fashioned painter or sculptor in the show.

After walking around the exhibit, I sit on the floor in front of a video installation by a thirty-seven-year-old Swiss artist named Pipilotti Rist. Entitled "Sip My Ocean," Rist's piece is
a music video based on a Chris Isaak pop song called "Wicked Game." In the video, Rist, a former rock musician (which helps to distinguish her as a fine artist in Nobrow), sings Isaak's song
in a goofy, slightly hysterical-sounding voice, while the camera catches glimpses of the artist's body underwater, in a tropical ocean, wiggling semi-erotically to the music. The video (actually two videos, joined at right angles on a large, L-shaped projection surface) is shot in the familiar MTV-surrealist style.

I ask myself the usual questions, strain to make the usual judgments. I slip out my once trusty slide rule of status and attempt to measure "Sip My Ocean." Is this avant-garde or kitsch? Art or advertising? Good or bad? The old categories and hierarchies aren't very useful here. This isn't quite art and it isn't quite advertising; it's art that has been made out of the discourse of advertising. A video, which is neither art nor advertising but a hybrid of both, is repurposed and used to market . . . the artist herself. And yet you couldn't really accuse Rist of "selling out." Her installation isn't really a commodity, though it's made out of a commodity. Rist probably couldn't sell this piece. (Why bother to buy it when you can watch it on TV?) Like many installation artists, Rist lives more on the patronage of museums and marketers like Hugo Boss than on the sale of her works.

The audience is at least as interesting to look at as the art is, and it seems to be aware of that. A few people carry into the Guggenheim an air of town-house seriousness--the earnestness with which one goes to "get" high culture at the Met or at the opera. But most people are here just to chill out and watch one another, secure in the knowledge that they are the culture.

As I sit here I see hip-hugging cargo pants, with both turned-up and straight cuffs, old brands (Polo, Tommy, Guess) and newer labels, like Muss and L.E.I. There are X-Large brand T-shirts, rave-style acid-house logos and cloche hats, gangsta-style high-slung drawers, Tims (Timberland boots), and Tommy Hill. Tommy Hilfiger, like Ralph Lauren before him, had tried at first to market to the upwardly striving white middle class by imbuing his advertising with images of Wasps at play. But it wasn't until the black hip-hop kids in the cities started wearing Tommy that the white kids decided it was cool to wear him, too. Hilfiger has a $3.2 billion company, largely because he was the first white designer to realize, with the help of Russell Simmons, that white kids would buy what black kids bought, not the other way around.

"Sip My Ocean" is like a paradigm of a transaction that is going on everywhere in the room--the art of representing identity through commercial culture. In using a music video and a well-known pop song to sell herself to this audience, Rist is doing in a more dramatic way exactly what people in the audience are doing when they choose their clothing or buy CDs. When someone says about a painting or a music video or a pair of jeans, "I like this," they make some sort of judgment, but it's not a judgment of quality. It's not as if you're saying I prefer this suit to these jeans, and the fact that I make this distinction (which in the old days was a distinction of quality) says something about my status. In Nobrow, judgments about which brand of jeans to wear are more like judgments of identity than of quality. Brands are how we figure out who we are: "We have a Lexus." "We have a Volvo." "What kind of skateboard do you have? A Shorty's? That's cool."

Fanship, brandship, and relationships are all a part of what the statement "I like this" really means. Your judgment joins a pool of other judgments, a small relationship economy, becoming one of millions that continually coalesce and dissolve and re-form around culture products--movies, sneakers, jeans, pop songs. Your identity is your investment in these relationship economies. Investments in certain tried-and-true properties are virtually risk-free but offer little return (saying you like the Rolling Stones resembles buying thirty-year Treasury bonds), whereas other investments are riskier but potentially more lucrative (such as saying you like Liz Phair: are you investing in her image as a strong rock chick, which is cool, or are you standing up for an indie sellout and cK jeans model, which would be uncool?). The reward is attention and self-expression (your identity is in some way enhanced by the culture product you invest in); the risk is that your identity will be overmediated by your investment and you will become like everyone else.

These cultural equities rise and fall in the stock market of popular opinion, and therefore one has to manage one's portfolio with care. No value endures: the seeker of identity through culture has to take care to surf ahead to the next subculture before he is mediated out of existence. You want to be perceived as original but not so original that you are outside the marketplace of popular opinion. In the old high-low world, you got status points for consistency in your cultural preferences, but in Nobrow you get points for choices that cut across categories: you're a snowboarder who listens to classical music, drinks Coke, and loves Quentin Tarantino; you're a preppy who likes rap; you're a chop-socky B-movie fan who prefers Frusen Glädjè to Häagen-Dazs, or a World Cup soccer fan who wears fubu and likes opera.

Chris Isaak, a slightly schmaltzy country crossover crooner, whose own video for "Wicked Game" features him in erotic clinches with a topless model, is, at first glance, a risky investment for Rist to make. But Isaak has a lot of his own identity as a pop singer invested in the blue-chip equity of one of the white fathers of wiggling--Elvis Presley--and Rist's underwater body wiggling seems to sample the image of Elvis's onstage wiggling, which is part of the common language that everyone in here shares. Yet, at the same time, the art is very much about Rist. Just as MTV videos are ads for the music, so Rist's video is an ad for the artist--and that's what makes it art.

Back out on lower Broadway, I walk a block up the street and get pulled into Pottery Barn, at the corner of Houston. There's also an Eddie Bauer store across from the Guggenheim, next to an Armani Exchange, and up the street from that is a Sunglasses Hut. This block is beginning to feel like Fifty-seventh Street or the new Times Square: I could be in any upscale mall in America. (And soon there will be another Prada store, in what used to be the Guggenheim's lobby.) As I walk past these stores, I can feel this new, upscale mass culture pressing in on me, trying to make me and the rest of the people on the street exactly like each other--each of us a demographically desirable Banana Republican out for a little Sunday consumption.

The Pottery Barn feels like a museum, too. Seeing in the physical world furniture that you are already familiar with from its reproduced image in a catalogue gives it a kind of aura it wouldn't ordinarily have. There's even a sense of connoisseurship in this store. Some tastemaker has been at work in here, selecting traces of designs from different cultures (Southeast Asian colonial, French, Indian, and American, of different periods), lifting styles out of their cultural and historical contexts and recontextualizing them with other styles (a Montana cowboy goes on safari in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore) in such a way that no one style is obvious. It's similar to the sampling process going on in the Guggenheim--an identity is constructed out of the shards and scraps of any number of subcultural references--but here the purpose is to create a dominant, mainstream identity that's too bland to be really unique but is enough to make these mass-produced objects feel special. 

Toward the back of the store I see a coffee table called the Cairo Chest. There's not much that's Egyptian about it, although it does make stylistic reference to a chest that a sea captain might have, and Cairo is on the Nile. The table is two hundred and ninety-nine dollars--cheap.

I have been looking for a coffee table on and off for the last twenty years. I realized not long ago that I would probably never find one I liked, because what I was really doing was trying to recover the simple cartography of status mapped out on my parents' coffee table, where cocktails and coffee were served, each at the appropriate hour, and where certain magazines (Holiday, Town & Country) made it clear exactly what place in the cultural hierarchy we belonged to. I lift a corner of the Cairo Chest: it has a pleasing heaviness. I have confidence in its workmanship, in contrast to that of a supposedly authentic Indonesian coffee table I saw recently in a store on Wooster Street, which cost five times as much. But do I really want to buy a table that eight million other people will have in their homes? Not according to my old high-low system of status, but maybe there is a Nobrow currency in owning the Cairo Chest which I don't understand.

Once again, I take out my slide rule, and apply it to the Cairo Chest. I make an earnest effort to find the table in poor taste, along strict high-low lines: mass-produced objects are low, and cheap mass-produced furniture is particularly tacky. And, once again, my sense of taste is oddly frustrated. The ingenious blend of approximate identities out of which the Cairo Chest is constructed has made it oddly impervious to any individual act of taste. It is as though taste, formerly in the eye of the beholder, had been built directly into the table itself.

Martha Stewart is an example of this kind of tastemaker. Stewart is saying, in effect, that if you follow these complicated and time-consuming instructions--if you put this parchment under your tablecloths, and put these rose petals in the napkins, and set out these different bits of colored glass in wooden bowls on the table--then you'll have good taste. Having access to Stewart's taste is like having insider information. It used to be that only the élite had access to insider information. Now, thanks to the Internet, everyone can have it. Even Stewart's personal taste is not particularly important to her authority as a tastemaker, which rests more on her celebrity and on her authenticity as a lower-middle-class Polish immigrants' granddaughter from Nutley, New Jersey. According to the logic of Nobrow, because Stewart's background suggests that she has no special attainments in the way of taste, her taste must be impeccable. Nor is it a blot on her authority that, according to the biography by Jerry Oppenheimer, "Just Desserts," she is foulmouthed and dirty-minded. Just as people can deplore Clinton's morals and like him as a President, so people can deplore Martha's crassness and commercialism and like her as a tastemaker.

Without making a decision about the Cairo Chest, I walk back out onto the street and down Broadway to Dean & DeLuca, across Prince Street, to accomplish my errand: to get the tomatoes I need for tonight. Dean & DeLuca is my favorite downtown market. It looks like an atelier, with its high ceilings and big clean windows. The food is, in my judgment, inferior to the food in Balducci's, on Sixth Avenue, but the larger space at D. & D. inspires the mind to higher contemplation of artworks like the chanterelle mushrooms (twenty-three dollars a pound) than does the low and souklike Balducci's.

I become absorbed in testing the Belgian tomatoes against the late-season Jersey tomatoes, neither of which are cheap (three dollars a pound). I take refuge in this act: here, within this circumscribed space, my judgment can still operate. I cannot say whether "Sip My Ocean" is art, nor can I say whether the Cairo Chest is in good taste, but I can at least pick a good tomato. Tomatoes are my folk culture--a part of the cultural inheritance that has come to me unmediated from the place where I grew up. South Jersey doesn't have much going for it in the way of culture except for the tomato.

As I'm comparing the Belgians and the Jerseys, I remember an unpleasant experience I had in a cultural-studies class taught by Raymond Williams at Oxford, in 1983. This class, one of a series of lectures organized by a dissident, French-influenced, anti-F. R. Leavis band of English Lit students who called themselves the Oxford English Union, came at the end of my higher education in the values of Western civilization. Professor Williams had been talking about the problems of assigning value to nineteenth-century pulp romance novels, when I, without bracketing the word in ironic quotation marks, innocently suggested that one standard might be taste.

In the early eighties, it was still possible to have made it through six years of literary studies at two world-class universities without encountering any significant challenge to the notion that an individual's taste--the ability to tell a good book from a bad book, say, on the basis of certain accepted standards, which you could learn--was one of the most important qualities a civilized person could possess. Taste was the concentrated essence of one's cultural capital--the syrup made from all the great works of Western civilization you had imbibed, boiled down, and refined. Now that I had nearly finished accumulating cultural capital, I hoped soon to begin to earn income from it, by making judgments based on my taste, whether in academe or in publishing or in some other part of the cultural field.

"How dare you talk about taste when there are people in the world who don't have enough to eat!" someone shouted at me. He was a pale, intense-looking graduate student, and he was very angry. I was somewhat shocked at his response. Part of the appeal of taste was that it felt incontrovertible: it was like a fact, somehow beyond argument. I said something about taste being a metaphor and about the importance of distinguishing, as Kant did, between taste as an act of judgment and taste as an act of sensing--the difference between that which pleases and that which gratifies. According to Kant, the man of taste can't judge adequately unless he has a full belly ("Only when men have got all they want can we tell who among the crowd has taste or not"). But this argument lacked the moral force of the graduate student's position, which was that no one has a right to judge as long as other people are hungry. For, after all, taste was based on privilege. That the cultural arbiters of old were privileged was not at all remarkable--it would have been remarkable if they hadn't been. But in today's multicultural world privilege is a reason to suspect the tastemaker. Sixteen years after our disagreement, neither my élite notion of taste nor my fellow-student's socially responsible notion of taste holds sway. The concept of value, once defined in aesthetic terms (and, perhaps briefly, in some circles, in "politically correct" terms), has given way to a cheerfully unabashed "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" standard of value. In this new world, a Helmut Lang T-shirt, "Sip My Ocean," the Cairo Chest, and the Jersey tomatoes I select at Dean & DeLuca all share equal status as consumables, and as shares in the market of identity. I carry my tomatoes and two beautiful lamb shanks, wrapped in thick wax paper, away from the Valley of the Shadow of Nobrow and get home in time for the six-thirty news. I take out the olive oil, pour it into the pan, and begin to chop celery. Then I cut into a Jersey tomato and discover I've been fooled. The tomato, which looked perfect on the outside, and which should be fresh, since it came from just fifty miles away, has the gluey, frosted-looking interior of a common, lowbrow supermarket tomato. I should have gone with the Belgians.


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