Lessons from Lowbrow Art

Velani Dibba

Velani Dibba was born in Palo Alto, California to a West African immigrant and a first-generation Polynesian-American. She is the eldest of five children in a family of Muslim, Catholic, Mormon, Methodist, California-liberal, Texas-conservative, Polynesian, Caucasian, Asian, and African heritage, and is exceedingly grateful to this family for teaching her the importance of acceptance. She lived in California for the first ten years of her life before moving to The Gambia in West Africa for three years. During her sophomore year of high school, she studied abroad in Maddaloni, Italy and taught herself Italian while attending school with her host sisters. Throughout these relocations, she developed a passion for learning about different ways of life and an immense appreciation for the cross-cultural communicative power of art. She is currently a Culture and Politics major in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She serves on the board of Nomadic Theatre, and serves as a director, producer, and stage manager in DC. Velani seeks to create theater that questions our understanding of those who are different from us, and reaches across our erected borders to further our understanding of the universal human experience.

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.6

Like many millennial Americans, I was raised by television. I would run into the living room every day after school, toss off my backpack, and snatch the remote to switch on whatever was lined up for that afternoon.

Back then, there were fears that television negatively influenced kids. The medium was decried as an intelligence-stunting distraction: it was too easy to consume, depicted too much violence and base humor, and was thus relegated to the category of lowbrow entertainment.

Lowbrow includes magazines, video games, rap music, internet memes, etc. These media are usually commercial, widely consumed, and often associated with violence, licentiousness, or other societal vices. In contrast, highbrow media include opera, modern art, theater, and classical music. Highbrow art is typically less accessible and considered more sophisticated in nature. What these associations fail to recognize, however, is the cultural significance of lowbrow media and its crucial role as the cornerstone of society. But despite its reputation, television taught me values, fueled my dreams, and gave me perspective. From sitcoms to documentaries, from cartoons to the evening news, television gave me insight into the world beyond my living room.

As an international relations major and theater director, I study the power of art within society. In measuring impact, lowbrow artforms are the most significant aspect of any culture because they influence so many people. Modern millennials, like myself, learned family values from Boy Meets World, racial tolerance from That’s So Raven, and even bioethics from Teen Titans. Television, once considered to be the procrastinator’s pastime, has grown into a means of reinforcing values, perspective, and ideals.

If future artists wish to create art that is impactful, it is important that we recognize those art forms, which have already captured the attention of society and examine why they have been so successful. Economic accessibility, format, and even stylistic traditions are all ways in which commercial art has managed to stay relevant and influential within society. What is often criticized as ‘pandering to audiences’ is actually an important process of exploring how society prefers to consume its entertainment. When we write off lowbrow entertainment as a lower art form, we undermine the power of its reach. Commercial art is typically regarded as base and inauthentic, but it often communicates in a language that audiences understand. Rather than expecting viewers to catch up with art that some deem to be worthy of their attention, we as artists must meet our audiences halfway in order to create art that is truly impactful and contributes to a more cultured society.