High, Low, and Hot

The first time I encountered the question of high and low art was in college. When I questioned a professor on why Erskine Caldwell was not critically considered, I was treated to a very interested dose of double-speak, which boiled down to he didn’t know but felt obligated to defend the position of those who did. Since that time I have learned several things, not the least of which is that Caldwell’s books had, in fact, “won him critical acclaim, but also made him controversial among Southerners.” Perhaps the problem was that I went to the college in the South.

For those who haven’t encountered the terms, “high art is appreciated by those with the most cultivated taste. Low art is for the masses, accessible and easily comprehended.” It’s an idea that has its origins in the 18th century, and quickly became the “’correct’ way to classify art.”

We read over and over again that the distinction between high and low art has been eliminated. First it was the post-modernists. Then it was the French New Wave. Then it was Andy Warhol. And there were others, but the idea persists. In fact, the idea is so persistent that Ivan Hewett, writing for The Telegraph in January, 2015 asks “Is it time to end the distinction between high and low art?

Hewett is not the only one. Michael Nirenberg in “It’s a Man’s World: Men’s Adventure Magazines, the Postwar Pulps” reviews the book by the same name specifically discussing the cover art work on men’s adventure magazines of the 1950s and 1960s. Nirenberg makes the point that Mort Künstler, Norman Saunders, Clarence Dore, George Mayers, George Gross, John Styga, Joe Little, Walter Popp, James Bama, and Norm Eastman have created cover art that is nothing short of amazing. “Each page is a study in classic fine art illustration….These artists were able to harness the high art aspirations of American realism and apply it to what was considered low culture values at the time.”

Huffington Post Senior Arts and Culture Editor, Katherine Brooks also wants to end the distinction. In “I Beg Of Your, Please Stop Saying ‘This Isn’t Art” she says, “one man’s trashy art is another man’s masterpiece.” Her assertion is based on scientific studies which find that our aesthetic experiences activate brain areas “that are largely constant across individuals. But these areas are responsible for mediating our subjective and personal experiences.” She concludes that Kant’s idea that beauty is subjective is, in fact, correct and that “humans are capable of having very, very different tastes in art.”

So, at least according to these writers, it’s not about the subject matter or the appeal of the work (although some would say it is about the quality of the work). The division between high and low art is completely artificial, having grown out of a period when the classification and sub-classification of virtually everything was thought to be imperative.

It isn’t. Whether we appreciate Claude Monet or Robert Crumb or Steven King or Leo Tolstoy or Neil Gaiman or Pablo Picasso or one of the “pulp artists” listed above is not important. What should be more concerning is that there are people, educated people, cultured people, people of great taste who appreciate each of these artists. Indeed, there are some who appreciate all of these artists and many more. The question is: what to those who appreciate it all know that we don’t? Perhaps we should be learning whatever that is.

(The title? It came from a radio show that I listened to when I was quite young and radio station offerings were an eclectic jumble of shows that would appeal to different audience segments at various times of the day. “High, Low, and Hot” was an afternoon show that featured blues, jazz—old and new, and R&B, with complete disregard for which were considered high and which low. It was, I am discovering, remarkably influential in forming my personal aesthetic.)

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Date: Sunday, 6. September 2015 23:59
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