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Art, High and Low
by Dr. Lawrence Nannery
2012-03-13 07:42:20
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It is to me an amazing fact that today the common opinion is that there is no difference between high and low art, high and low culture.  The point of this paper is to reiterate the differences, and to explore reasons for the current confusion. 

    Let's make a list of the things that characterize high art and distinguish it from low art. 

1.    Complexity of formal properties.

2.    Complexity of the responses to the works’ emotions, which sometimes have no name.

3.    The fact that a full and fuller understanding of the work (either the form or the content) allows for an ever fuller  enjoyment of the work.  One has to gradually grow into the work.  It does not reveal everything it has in one exposure.

4.    The fact that a full understanding of the work can enhance an understanding of other aspects of life as well.

5.    The fact that great works of high art are cross-cultural.  They can be enjoyed by people of other cultures who have no other experience of the culture that generated the great work.  Each great work of art is potentially a work of world art, not subject to the conditions of its composition.

6.    If, according to 5, the work does not fade with distance, it is also true that it does not fade with time.

7.    Works of high art are deeply related to morality, in the widest sense of the term, and sometimes problematize morality itself.

8.    High art has a history, in which styles, techniques, genres and the entire orientation of the work of art is changed.  Properly speaking, low art has no history.

9.    Works of high art are individual.  They bespeak a personality behind the work.  Low art is best when it is anonymous.

None of these elements characterize low art, which is similar to children's entertainment for their lack of spiritual riches, and which tend to grow boring with repeated exposure.

In examining the astonishing fact that these propositions are all regularly denied in discussions among highly educated people, I set about to discover how these entirely obvious things have been forgotten, and what the motivations for denying obvious truths could be.  I have found three.

First, there is the fact that there is no absolute dividing line between high and low art.  In fact, in modern industrial society, low art has disappeared and been replaced, for the most part, in adult entertainment, by what has been called midcult.  Hollywood movies are usually good examples of midcult.  Sometimes a work of midcult can be so fine, so complex in form, so evocative of emotions, that it seems to be an example of high art.  Hence it can sometimes seem reasonable to say that there is no difference between the two.  In the event, however, it has been my experience that the crossover from midcult to high art is very rare, and comparisons are made in the heat of initial enthusiasm.  The best examples of midcult are often borrowings from high art, as in musical themes found on soundtracks for movies and cartoons.  This perhaps elevates the masses into an uncritical introduction to high art, but it should not lead to a confusion over the distinction between the two categories.

Contributing to this confusion is the fact that in the past fifty years there has been an implosion of forms in the high arts, and a seeming end to the resources of the culture to produce fine works of art.  We are in a very low ebb on the scale of civilizations that have produced good works of art.  So, it has been a rhetorical device that justifies the low state of affairs to say that there is no difference between the two levels of culture.

Also contributing to the confusion is the role of comedy.  Generally, through artistic history, comedy could not be considered an element of high culture because it lacked high seriousness.  This criterion made it easy to tell the difference.  Thus we have Greek tragedy, which does not allow for humor, and comedy, which is never serious.  But, in the past few centuries, this distinction has broken down.  So, in Shakespeare for example, there is a mixing of tragedy with comedy.  In Cervantes one will find the same mix.  This by itself places comedy in a context where it can be expressive of more serious matters than it could under a regime where the two forms were more rigidly separated.  This is true in a reverse manner in Cervantes. 

Beginning in the 19th century the forms became so mixed sometimes that works are called "tragicomedy".  So, here again there is reason for confusion.  Modern drama is very different from ancient drama.

A second reason for the confusion about this subject is political.  There is a general feeling of guilt on the part of many educated people about the fact that, in general, only well-educated people develop a taste for high art.  There is in practice a connection between high income and the enjoyment of high art.  Democrats like Emerson and Socialists have always felt that the promise of a new society free of aristocrats can raise everyman to be an aristocrat in taste.  But this has not happened by any means.  And so, there is a lingering suspicion that the poor are being oppressed in this field as in others.  And from this suspicion comes the resolve to simply deny the obvious truth, in the name of democracy, or, perhaps, in the name of feeling egalitarian.  This orientation seems to have been influenced by the modern social sciences, which use the word “culture” to mean the beliefs and practices of any group of people, without distinguishing between high and low.

It is too bad that the common man has not lived up to the expectations held for him by 19th century thinkers, but it may be some consolation to note that bad taste prevails among the rich as among the poor, and also that it is not money alone that determines whether one can acquire good taste.  But these observations do not go very far.  One need only go to museums and theatrical productions to see for oneself who attends such performances and goes to these venues.

A third reason for confusion, and currently the most powerful, is the current intellectual fashion in literary criticism and the cult of diversity.  This is an extenuation of the second reason, but it is so pronounced that it calls for a separate treatment.  It is a reduction of human expression to the origins of that expression, which is quite a questionable thesis, assumed on sentimental grounds.  This kind of attitude towards the arts, based on political correctness, is pernicious.  Oddly, it is always present, as when a local community celebrates its "contributions" to the arts or to anything else.  Necessarily, within such a context, one is going to have an inflation of the merits of mediocre works to satisfy the sentiments of such a group.  Political correctness, on the other hand, denigrates the productions of white European males, a position that is vicious because generated out of ressentiment.  It may make for good politics, or, rather, good academic politics, but it is very bad for art. 

There are two arguments against these pernicious views that willfully confuse high art and high culture with physical origins or economic status. 

The first argument is a strong one, given in different contexts by both Plato and John Stuart Mill.  The only judge of the relative value of high and low art is the man who has experienced both.  Surely any person who has no inkling of what an aesthetic appreciation of a work of high art is, can not make a judgment about it, but there also can not be any individual who appreciates high art who has not also been exposed to low art.  Consequently the latter is the only one who knows enough to make a judgment. 

No one is ever born into high art, for one is at first a child, and, over time, the exposure to high art "takes" in some cases and not in others.  Why high art would take hold of one person but not in another is as mysterious as sexual attraction, and will never be known.  The sad fact of the lack of exposure to good art in the poor is a cause for lament, but one should not decide to eliminate the art in order to eliminate the disparity.  That would be barbarism tout court.

Whatever one's origins, one grows up into high art, or one high art more likely, and gradually develops some understanding of the value of the different levels.  One will also tend to seek out the companionship of those who have developed similarly, because it is annoying to have to explain oneself to people who just don't understand what you are talking about.  Having thus grown, it is not possible to return to one's place of origin, innocent of high culture.  One may still enjoy the low art of one's childhood, or even some elements of entertainment that are admittedly low, but one can never make the mistake of discarding the work of high art in favor of the low.  Indeed, to argue on the other side betrays that one never really experienced and appreciated the high.

This argument is circular, but necessarily so.  Its being circular does not impugn its correctness.  What is so disconcerting in today's environment is that fact that only the very well-educated are making the argument that there is no difference between high and low culture.  It seems at first glance to be at variance with the process I have just described.  But, in fact, this is not so.  What really has happened is that the academic world has given itself over to a barbarian ideology.  And not even that.  This is mere rhetoric, a cheap way of signaling one's own political correctness.  Even those who espouse it do not take it seriously, since they do not actually exercise the negative implication of it: they do not advocate the destruction, nor even refrain from enjoying the works that for generations have been considered high.  They may try to argue that certain works ought to be added to the canon based on the uplifting notion that a different ethnic identity or sex makes an author's work important, but they have not, so far as I am aware, advocated the destruction of any great work of art.  They are not, therefore, to be considered dangerous. All they are after is to be included in the high estimation the well-worn works have been given (“the canon”), without having to go through the baptism of fire that is part of critical estimation.  Thus they imitate the narrow type of those who celebrate “their” art on the single basis that it reflects themselves.

This second argument meets the worries listed above head on, and eliminates the epistemological confusions that the arguments are based upon.  The work of high art is better than the work of low art because it contains the lower, and more besides.  It transcends local origins, and remains valid in all parts of the world and all cultures.  Every excellence that a work of achieved feelings can contain is routinely contained in the great work, and then much is added.  This is the prime reason it is cosmopolitan.

In terms of technique, low art is always rather primitive in comparison with great work.  And, just as important, the emotions aroused by the work are generally primitive in the low work of art, never seeming to be able to rise above embarrassing sentimentality.  The great works in any are can be sublime, with conflicting and problematic emotions.  Last, it is obvious to anyone with any acquaintance that repetition and study of the great works of art never wear out.  The subtlety and brilliance of a mind and heart behind a masterpiece comes out the more intimately one becomes an adept in any given piece that fits this description.

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