Zach Marschall is a PhD candidate in the Cultural Studies program at George Mason University. His dissertation project, “The Democratization of Art,” examines criticism, curation and policymaking in the United States and Great Britain after World War I. A trained multimedia journalist, Zach currently serves as Director of Publishing and Program Development at the Policy Studies Organization. Zach earned a bachelor’s degree from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and received his master’s degree in Arts Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
Each summer the Public Theater in New York City stages Shakespeare productions in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater for free. The audience enjoys these first-rate productions, known as Shakespeare in the Park, staged by first-rate talent. The barriers to attend these events could not be lower for city residents; Central Park is easily accessible by foot or cheap subway fares, and everyone can afford the ticket price. And yet these plays are written by William Shakespeare, whose prose must not only be learned, but also constitute the foundation of the Western canon. Consequently, this dichotomy between free access and acquired taste presents a conundrum. Is Shakespeare in the Park an example of high or low?
The answer is not straightforward. High and low are tenuous terms to describe elements of Western culture, to which this article limits its scope—specifically American and British cultures—to avoid the implication of universal claims through a Eurocentrist viewpoint. They are used metonymically to describe traditional and popular cultures, respectively. Furthermore, the labels highbrow and lowbrow may ascribe levels of refinement to an individual’s artistic and cultural taste. Popular culture speaks to a conception of the arts and cultural practices as functions of ordinary life. Consequently, lows are tied to popular culture because they are grounded in everyday experiences, as opposed to high culture’s emphasis on the few examples of great achievement that can only exist as exceptions to the ordinary. The pinnacles of achievement—the best—can be understood metaphorically as highs.
However, there is not necessarily always a clear distinction between high and low in cultural programming or works. Relatively recently, American opera companies have been incorporating musicals with operatic scores into their programming. The prestigious Glimmerglass Festival in New York, for example, features Oklahoma! in its 2017 season, which follows previous stagings of Carousel, Camelot, and The Music Man earlier this decade. These musicals’ operatic styles expose historical conflations between high and low—often a result of influence between styles and artists—at a time when opera, as an elite cultural institution in the United States, has had to refigure how it attracts new audiences to sustain the art form. But despite some similarities between opera and operatic musicals, the former still retains its rarefied reputation, most likely a result of its unpopularity in the United States. In a report on national arts participation in 2012, the National Endowment for the Arts (2013) found that only 2.1% of Americans had attended an opera performance that year, making opera the least popular art form that American adults either performed, practiced or shared socially.
The simulcasts of Metropolitan Opera performances in movie theaters across the United States demonstrate that the distinctions between high and low can act more like a spectrum than a binary, if not a Penrose triangle. The Met simulcasts purposefully intersect traditional culture and film, which originated as an art form from twentieth century popular culture, to broaden opera’s popularity. But to focus on the two concepts exclusively ignores the cultural middle ground. To understand middlebrow taste, a term that originated in pre-World War I United States (Collini 2008), is to understand how the traditional and popular are situated in relation to the middle. That there can be middlebrow drama, literature, painting, and music demonstrates that the difference between high, low, and middle is not about form, but primarily a distinction of aesthetics.
Aesthetics and aesthetic theory make art into an abstraction of taste. While theory and abstractions are not always conducive to understanding the practical—such as a festival—there is value to using aesthetics to understand the significance of the moment of engagement between the individual and artwork. Aesthetics help explain how low culture emanates from the popular, but also the intellectual and spiritual fulfillment that comes from participation in high culture. The power of the latter demonstrates why high art should not be viewed as an exercise in elitism, but embraced as a key to the positive experience of cultivating the mind. This byproduct is the value of high art—and aesthetics helps show how the individual relates to it.
Theodor Adorno (1972) argues that the aesthetic is embedded in art and provides the work with the quality necessary to provoke a critical reaction from the observer. Adorno explicates how the aesthetic does or does not make for beautiful art. He argues that there is a competitive tension, or dialectic, between beauty and ugliness in each successfully executed work of art. For him, the critical function of art is wholly dependent in the presence of both components because beauty projects out of the dialectic tension with ugliness in the spectator’s reception of the work.
Beautiful art appeals to the best elements of human nature; these works make us better, as cultured individuals, through engagement with them. But the desire to cultivate the mind is under threat in the West from pervasive incuriosity. A new and optimistic defense for it is needed. High art sharpens our ability to think critically. The individual with highbrow taste genuinely prefers reading serious literature, interpreting an abstract painting or trying to articulate how a classical score makes him feel. There is a disinterested passion not only for these works’ aesthetic qualities, but also in the sensation of intellectual growth.
The unwillingness to grow the mind has many causes, but in culture it is aided by art created with the sole intention to please through contrived representations of undiluted beauty. Adorno labels these works as kitsch, or “sugary trash”, because they are packaged to consumers for the sole purpose consumption as an enjoyable experience. Kitsch is the object of middlebrow taste. Consider Alberto Giacometti’s evocative Man Pointing (1947), currently on view at Tate Modern, and then consider the un-subtlety of Best Time Ever, Neil Patrick Harris’ short-lived 2015 variety show on NBC, and the difference becomes apparent. The latter, whose title anticipates the futility in promising exponentially increasing amounts of fun, was doubtless sugary trash.
To prize a creative work for its accessibility and ease to enjoy appeals to the basest human desires. High art, on the other hand, remains beautiful through epochs, but it also challenges audiences to engage and develop intellectually and spiritually as a result of their participation. There is a tendency on the left to blame the proliferation of kitsch on the Culture Industry, the economic complex that Adorno and Max Horkheimer theorize as an explanation for how capital dictates cultural consumption and tastes to the masses. The Culture Industry is a persuasive text, but it fails to acknowledge that the individual is his own agent fully capable of making discriminating choices. Consequently, Adorno and Horkheimer do not investigate what motivates the individual internally to choose entertainment over art, to value ease over meaningful contemplation. I argue—in short—that those decisions are informed by taste. Taste is heavily theorized as a socially conditioned phenomenon—most famously by Pierre Bourdieu—but it also resides within us and informs the choices we make. Surely, if there was not already a market for kitsch, comprising individuals with prefigured tastes, companies would cease producing this “sugary trash”.
Taste orients focus to the individual. Some individuals take pleasure in highbrow over middlebrow because some have more refined taste than others, which speaks to the vertical ordering high culture needs to locate and disinterestedly celebrate accomplishment and intellect. Likewise, Roger Kimball (2007:4) reminds his readers that high culture is a “moral endeavor in which the notion of hierarchy, of a rank-ordering of accomplishment, is integral”. If hierarchy sounds anathema, it exposes the reflex in democracies to view cultural practices through an egalitarian lens—the idea that there’s no high or low, just difference. Roger Scruton offers a compelling counter response. He writes (2011:112), “In a democratic culture people are inclined to believe that it is presumptuous to claim to have better taste than your neighbor. By doing so you are implicitly denying his right to be the thing that he is.” In other words, the refusal to acknowledge different levels of taste equates to the refusal to acknowledge the experiences, upbringings and interests that make us all individuals.
But unlike middlebrow culture, which packages ersatz artistic experiences, low culture does not pretend to be what it is not. Reality shows, pop music, street performances, and YouTube videos are examples of low culture. They do not try to package affective responses as alternatives to high art. The critic Joseph Epstein uses this distinction to explain how low culture, as popular culture, is not equivalent to middlebrow culture. He (2016) writes: “Of course not all popular culture is drivel or crap. Lots of it gives pleasure without bringing corruption in its wake. Much of it informs us, in ways that high culture does not, about the way we live now…”. Works associated with popular culture do have the capacity to explain the daily lived experience. I noticed that function during my master’s program when I completed an extensive project on public art in an Upstate New York community. Mural painters, sculptors, and other artists went before a local arts commission to submit proposals for their works, which were used by the local government to brighten urban spaces. These artists were talented and offered urban residents opportunities to interact with creative works on a daily basis. And as opposed to kitsch, there was no pretense to contrive residents’ response to the art—no artist called his creation “Best Sculpture Ever”.
While taste suggests that Shakespeare in the Park is an object of high culture because its audiences presumably comprise individuals who already know Shakespeare, examples of free public art suggest the performances are examples of popular culture. Yes, Shakespeare is associated with high art and intellect, but these productions exist to provide access to his work in a similar way that public art encourages popular engagement. Emphasis on the popular must make Shakespeare in the Park more low than high, even though some may strongly argue it embodies a hybrid of both—as the case of opera already demonstrates a blurring between the two terms.
To say that Shakespeare in the Park is in the domain of low culture does not necessarily devalue it or any other object of low culture. Just as everyone should have the right to enjoy public art murals, anyone who wants to watch Shakespeare for free should do so. It is better for more people than fewer to be culturally literate. But that sentiment does not mean that all cultural programming, including the festivals at Edinburgh, should organize themselves exclusively according to the principles of pluralism and inclusion. While there are compelling arguments for festivals and programs to be sites of social integration between cultural authorities, elites, and populations often excluded from arts participation, those arguments seek only to accommodate the preferences of the larger polity. When these kinds of events become about people more than artistic excellence, the politics of filling seats makes attendance the endpoint of exhibiting art. We need spaces isolated from fleeting popular trends and preferences where high art and high culture can thrive.
Preference for high art should not be taken as elitist in the term’s pejorative sense. Rather, highbrow taste results from the optimistic awareness of what art is capable of providing to the individual. And this capacity is not just applicable to the plush comfort of an arts festival. In the most extreme example of suffering and despair, thousands of Jews packed serious books into their suitcases during the Holocaust as they were relocated to Theresienstadt, a near hybrid between a ghetto and concentration camp the Nazis created as a town of celebrated artists and intellectuals, which was used as a façade of normalcy to fool the international community. Prisoners did not surreptitiously create a 60,000 volume library in the ghetto (Intrator 2015:516), nor did others stay up all night to stage Carmen in their native Czech before the Nazi decree that everything be performed in German (Karas 1989), because it would liberate them. Rather, these prisoners used opera, literature, classical music, and painting as survival tactics because they preserved what was left of their humanity and allowed them to endure. But more profoundly, they found pleasure in recreating cultural practices from their former lives, especially music as it was central to Central European culture. Adorno’s (1997:13) statement that for the European bourgeois subject “the deprivation of art would be unbearable for him” helps explain the way in which so many prisoners feared losing the arts. If performing music in the ghetto guaranteed the continuation of European-Jewish culture, the individual Jew could survive Theresienstadt (Tuma 1976).
Whereas low art is often fun and pleasurable, only high art can sustain and inspire the human condition. We are the only ones responsible for nurturing the quality of our own experience.
(2013) How a Nation Engages with Art: Highlights from the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. National Endowment for the Arts. Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts.
Adorno, Theodor. (1972) Aesthetic Theory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Adorno, Theodor. (1997) Aesthetic Theory. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Collini, Stefan. (2008) Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Epstein, Joseph. (2017) The Cultured Life: And why it is worth pursuing. The Weekly Standard. March 20.
Epstein, Joseph. (2016) Where Have All the Critics Gone? Commentary. March 16.
Intrator, Miriam. (2015) People were Literally Starving for Any Kind of Reading. Library Trends 55 (3): 513–522.
Karas, Joza. (1989) Music in Terezin 1941–1945. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press.
Kimball, Roger. (2007) The Fortunes of Permanence. In Counterpoints: 25 Years of the New Criterion on Culture & the Arts, eds. Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer, 3–21. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.
Scruton, Roger. (2011) Beauty: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford.
Tuma, Mirko. (1976) Memories of Theresienstadt. Performing Arts Journal 1 (2): 12–18.
Image: George Romney [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons