Why Elites Love Authentic Lowbrow Culture: Overcoming High-Status Denigration with Outsider Art

We develop and test the idea that public appreciation for authentic lowbrow culture affords an effective way for certain elites to address feelings of authenticity-insecurity arising from “high status denigration” (Hahl and Zuckerman 2014). This argument, which builds on recent sociological research on the “search for authenticity” (e.g., Grazian 2005) and on Bourdieu’s (1993) notion of artistic “disinterestedness,” is validated through experiments with U.S. subjects in the context of “outsider” art (Fine 2004). The first study demonstrates that preference for lowbrow culture perceived to be authentic is higher when individuals feel insecure in their authenticity because they attained status in a context where extrinsic incentives are salient. The second study demonstrates that audiences perceive the members of erstwhile denigrated high-status categories to be more authentic if they consume lowbrow culture, but only if the cultural producer is perceived as authentic. We conclude by noting how this “authenticity-by-appreciation” effect might be complementary to distinction-seeking as a motivation for elite cultural omnivorousness, and we draw broader implications for when and why particular forms of culture are in demand.

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