While watching Pollock for maybe the sixth time, I found myself intrigued anew by Ed Harris as the titular splatter king. Once again, I wondered what it was about his performance that kept me tuned in. It could have been the conviction with which he conveyed his alter ego’s determination to express himself as an artist. It could have been the balletic grace with which he dripped and dropped his paint. Then it hit me: It was his brow.
Look at the film again. Observe how Harris pours (and pores over) his work. As he ventures forth onto the canvas, splashing his oils in anarchic order, it’s not his stirring stick that is the center of the action. Rather, it is his high dome, clenched in intensity, focusing precisely on where the paint should go and guiding it accordingly. It is the advance guard of his creation. It’s even better than Jackson Pollock’s anatomical original. And it epitomizes a largely unappreciated statement of personal maleness.
Welcome to Brow. In this world, the frontal lobe asserts authority. The forward portion of one’s noggin exudes totemic dominance. This is a skull that takes no prisoners. Brow is literally a masculine state of mind.
Let’s get a couple of things straight: Brow is not bald. Bald can be beautiful; bald can be natural; it can even be, as Telly Savalas and Yul Brynner famously proved (yes, I’m dating myself here), sensual. But it is just not Alpha. Nor can Brow be achieved simply through the shaved look. I have a few good friends who have scraped their uppermost reaches entirely and keep themselves waxed accordingly. They look great. But somehow, they are just not exuding Brow. For Brow is more than an absence of hair. Brow is a projection of character, of force. It does not merely exist as an aspect of visage. It leans in—with a vengeance. Brow is the most obvious extension of cranial capacity. It emanates will and strength. And it must ultimately come from within.
This is a rare combination of commodities. Unsurprisingly, not everyone can achieve it. Indeed, we have beheld only intermittent glimpses of true Brow.
Henry Luce had Brow. As Wolcott Gibbs wrote, the Time magnate possessed “brows too beetling for a baby.” With his empire-building journalistic ruthlessness, Luce had not only eyebrows but Brow itself. Indeed, when Luce was thinking of hatching a magazine aimed at intellectuals, its working title was—yes—Brow. Pablo Picasso had Brow, too. Neither his corpus nor his topmost story was overwhelming. But look at that forehead: Behold a great artist and great Brow, the only kind that could have given us Guernica.
The brooding Dostoyevsky had superb Brow. So did the imperious Tolstoy. As did Leonardo da Vinci, from whom issued everything from the Vitruvian Man to flying machines. Galileo helped reorient our entire conception of the cosmos. He simply could not have done so without Brow.
These examples, alas, are the exceptions. Superior achievement, no matter how many of your follicles are depopulated, does not necessarily translate into superior Brow. Montaigne, for example, pretty much created the modern essay. Now, that is a formidable literary legacy. But in his portraits and his prose alike, he is quiet and contemplative—and therefore not exactly Brow material. The same goes for Shakespeare: No matter how colossal his command of drama or how sure his poetry of the mother tongue, the Bard was simply not a Browmeister. Even Edmund Wilson, for all of his authoritative, aggressive criticism and cueball appearance, never achieved Brow. How could he, when his nickname was Bunny?
Given its power, Brow can be (and often is) political. Its actual manifestation, however, is a ticklish business. In keeping with his nonaligned status, Jawaharlal Nehru maintained perfect Brow equilibrium, evincing deep reflection while defiantly proclaiming India as a major world player. Lenin’s Brow was murderous, but it took a Brow such as his to wrench Russia into the 20th century. Nikita Khrushchev was a Brow contender, but he had more brawn than Brow. (No wonder he was gently retired to his dacha.) As for the appalling Mussolini, he thrust forth Brow when thundering from his Rome balcony. Unfortunately, Il Duce’s arrogant, jutting chin tended to upstage the rest of his head.
When it comes to Brows in high office, incidentally, this country has fared pretty badly. Adlai Stevenson was perhaps the most (ahem) highbrow public servant of his time, but his professorial persona got him castigated as an “egghead.” In a bitter irony, he lost the presidency twice to Dwight D. Eisenhower—who, for all of his undeniable leadership, may not have quite risen to Brow status himself. Let’s not even discuss John Quincy Adams or Martin Van Buren.