--The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin, 1936
Is there any more contentious question in the art world than the concept of “high” versus “low”
art? Who gets to judge? What are the parameters in which to judge? There is no standard definition for either concept and personal explanations range from simple to incredibly complex.
|I like venn diagrams. |
And shouldn't art really be in the middle?
One common theory about how to explain the difference is high art is “popular” and low art is “unpopular”, that is, appealing (or not) to many people. This also links to another version of the difference: that high art fosters the widest connection between people while a smaller subsection enjoys low art.
This is in direct contradiction, though, to the idea of low art being part of mass culture (raising yet another question of “is art culture” or merely a component of it?) while high art is elitist in nature, appealing to only those who have the proper education to appreciate it.
A more formal definition of high art is that with “a genealogy, a “lineage”, or history. It is the primary material with which any history of art in this century must contend.” Low art are those “forms and styles associated with urban culture in industrialized nations... whose primary social and psychological characteristics are self-conscious, streetwise, and commercial.” (Karp 14) Is Shakespeare’s canon high art because it has been produced, dissected, and critiqued for 400 years but both hands theater is low art because it is new and written collaboratively between two untrained playwrights and their actors?
Some critics contend that high art is that which is able to move people emotionally and low art doesn’t but this begs the question of how do you empirically know how any one feels about a piece of art? Without asking each and every person throughout history? The ballet of Diaghilev or modern dance of Martha Graham may be considered to be high art by critics. Does this make the breakdancers on the street or the Vogue dance movement from the gay youth in Harlem any less moving because they arose from the crowds or are not as widely taught?
This leads to another way of distinguishing between high and low: high is seen as something that only trained professionals can do whereas low is something anyone could do. Some critics want to dismiss folk art as unimportant. If the NEA funds it and internationally recognized schools and museums feature it, it can’t possibly be unimportant. Bach and Beethoven, classical music, is generally preferred as high art, possibly because highly trained professionals usually perform it. Does this make the local mariachi band at the Mexican restaurant or the jam sessions of Appalachian bluegrass players any less inspirational?
“High art consists of the meticulous expression in fine materials of refined or noble sentiment, appreciation of the former depending on such things as intelligence, social standing, educated taste, and a willingness to be challenged. Low art is the shoddy manufacturing in inferior materials of superficial kitsch, simply catering to popular taste, unreflective acceptance of realism.” (Delahunt) While this is a normal approach to defining paintings and sculptures by Renaissance masters as high art, where does this leave modern photographers such as Helmut Newton or Annie Leibovitz, arguably two of the most realistic photographers of our day? Just because their most well known work appears in the covers of mass-culture magazines (Vogue, Vanity Fair), does this mean that their work is low art?
Coming at this from an audience perspective, another description of the two is that high art “challenges and questions audiences’ expectations” whereas low art “comforts, satisfies, or reassures audiences’ expectations.” (Geerink) She uses the example of literature: Harlequin romance novels are considered low art precisely because they comfort the typical reader. James Joyce, however, challenges expectations, or, in other words, makes the reader think.
Perhaps, at the core, the difference between the two categories, should come down to just that: making the audience think. Marlon James, a Minneapolis based author, said, “We do not recognize or appreciate critical thinking nor do we think critically.” By including each individual audience member in the definition, it forces responsibility on every one to determine their own response to a piece. Good art is that which makes a person take a second look. This could be what are traditionally thought of as high art (Hemingway, Tolstoy, Balanchine, da Vinci, Picasso, Ibsen) but just as easily refers to what is often sneered at as low art (outsider art, comics and cartoons, improv and stand-up, science fiction). Some education is necessary for the process of critical thinking, not for the enjoyment of the art. Encouraging the audience to intimately engage with the art on their own terms is what we should be asking, rather than offering a determination for them.
Delahunt, Michael. “Art Dictionary”. Artlex.com. n.d. Web. 11 Aug 2011
Geerink, Jan. “Pure Examples of High and Low Art”. Jahsonic.com. 20 Jan 2007. Web. 11 Aug 2011
James, Marlon. “High Art, Low Art, and Critical Thought” marlon-james.blogspot.com March 13, 2007. Web. 11 Aug 2011
Karp, Ivan. “High and Low Revisited” American Art Vol. 5, No. 3 (Summer, 1991): 12-17 JSTOR. Web. 11 Aug
This was the first piece I wrote for the Master of Arts in Arts Administration program at Goucher College. I still love it.