On High Art

by Lawrence Nannery

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, 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.

Now, it is my thesis that none of these characterize low art, which is assimilable to children's entertainment for the lack of spiritual riches they contain, and which 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 find out how these entirely obvious things have been forgotten, and what the motivations for denying obvious truths could be. I 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 deep 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 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 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.

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 made it easy to tell the difference. But, in the past few centuries, this distinction has broken down. So, in Shakespeare for example, there is a mixing of the forms of comedy with tragedy. 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 also true of Cervantes. Beginning in the 19th century the forms became so mixed sometimes that works are called "comitragedy". And, in the 20th century, with the progress of irony in art, there has been an emphasis on this to the extent that comedy has often come to play the role that tragedy used to play. So, here again there is reason for confusion.

A second reason for the confusion about this very obvious 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 seems to the guilty ones an equivalence between high income and the enjoyment of high art. Democrats from Emerson on, and Socialists have always felt that the promise of the new society that would free itself of aristocrats is that everyman can 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 fostering democracy.

It is too bad that the common man has not lived up to the expectations held for him by 19th century thinkers, but facts are facts, and there is no use denying it. 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 indeed not go very far.

The third reason for confusion, and currently the most powerful, is the current intellectual fashion in literary criticism and the cult of diversity. In the wider field of politics. 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, but assumed on sentimental grounds. This kind of attitude towards the arts, based on political correctness, is extremely pernicious. 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 the group. Here, in the current context, we have a denigration of a group, white European males, 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.

I hope to give two arguments against these pernicious views that confuse high art and high culture with physical origins or economic status

The first argument is a common one, given in different contexts by both Plato and John Stuart Mill. It is that the only judge of the relative value of high and low art is the man who has experienced both. Surely the man who has no inkling of what an aesthetic appreciation of a work of high art can not stand in judgment about it, and there can not be any individual who understands high art who has not also been exposed to low art. Consequently the second person is the only one who knows enough to make a judgment. One is never born into high art, for one is first a child, but the exposure "takes" in some cases and not in others. Why it would take in the one case but not in another is mysterious in the same sense as is sexual attraction, and will never be known. The sad fact of the lack of exposure in the poor is a cause for lament about the fact of the lack; one should not decide to eliminate the art in order to eliminate the disparity. That is a barbarism tout court.

Whatever one's origins, one grows up into high art, or a high art more likely, and develops a relative 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, viz., innocence of high culture. One can still like 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, such behavior marks the man who never really understood 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 the fact that only the very well educated are making arguments that there is no difference between high and low culture. It seems at first glance to confute what I have just stated. But, in fact, this is not so. One could argue that the institutions of learning in our society have been taken over by barbarians, but I prefer to claim that they have been taken over by a barbarian ideology. And not even that. This is a mere rhetoric, a cheap way of signaling one's own political correctness. Even those who espouse it do not take it all that seriously, since they do not actually exercise the negative side of it: they do not advocate the destruction, they do not 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 skin color 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. After refuting them, then, it is no longer necessary to waste any thought on them.

The second argument meets the worries listed above head on, and eliminates the epistemological confusions that the arguments are based upon. The work of art, no more than the person who observes it, has to remain where it originated. The work of high art is better than the work of low art because it contains the lower. Every excellence that the work of common feeling can contain is routinely contained in the great work. In terms of technique, low art is always rather primitive in comparison with the great work. And, just as important, the emotions aroused by the work is almost always rather primitive in the low work of art, never seeming to be able to rise above embarrassing sentimentality. So, in conclusion, one can say that low art is often characteristic of (though not reducible to) a certain local group, high art is always and by definition relatively universal, limited only by the fact that it is necessary to study the art form before one can fully appreciate it.

You can get in touch with the author via: lnussbaum@email.msn.com

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