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Aspects of High and Low Culture in the context of Visual / Cultural Studies

- by Jens Holze -

Studiengang Medienbildung '04 – 2. Semester
Introduction to Visual Studies – Dr. Klaus Sachs-Hombach
Otto-von-Guericke Universit├Ąt Magdeburg

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1. Introduction

Since the mid-twentieth century starting with Frankfurt school there has been an ongoing debate on the distinction of high and low culture and art. With evolution of cultural studies and especially with its latest spin-of, the “visual studies”, this distinction and the debate around it rose anew. But furthermore new aspects were established and other perspectives around the main subjects like mass media are considered. In the following essay I’m going to try to sum up some of the important positions in that debate, to give some examples to explain them and to present the points visual studies make about the high/low debate. It is however not my aim to give the ultimate answer whether this distinction should still remain or whether it is outdated or even useless. Rather I’d like to combine all the good questions regarding the subject.

2. High art vs. low art

2.1. Defining the idea

When searching for the terms ‘high art’ and ‘low art’ through the world-wide web the first (and in my opinion one of the better) definitions I found were inside the Marxwiki ([3]), a WikiPedia-style website about the ideas established by Karl Marx. In fact it is likely to be his original idea to really distinguish different forms of art by the social
environment of their audiences. “Low art” is defined here as “Cultural forms that are considered to be comprehenable to the average person” which obviously aims at any form of popular culture (like pop music, folk art). However “High art” is therefore considered to have some sort of special importance, to be understandable only to an “educated” and “sophisticated” elite. Those definitions are quite vague and the whole difference becomes clearer when connecting it with the ideas about art criticism that were developed primarily by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the so-called
“Frankfurt School”. With the beginning of mass media all those new media like movies, photographs, pop music and later television were entitled popular culture because they were consumed by so many people regardless to education and social environment. So in the definition of Adorno the quality of such art that is produced in standardized forms and even through standardized ways of production (which is very obvious if we consider the way the Hollywood studio system creates thousands of movies each year with very serious business models and sophisticated calculation concerning what a movie might cost and what money could be earned with it) is not to be mixed up with serious art which evolves from the detail and its quality that is born outside standardization. There are some more aspects which I’m going to explain in the next chapter with an example about Adorno’s view on popular music. So we have to understand that the high/low distinction is probably more a social distinction (uneducated/unprivileged/working class vs. educated/sophisticated/upper class) than a distinction of content (in fact those are its original roots back in Marxism). This is to be quite important later on when we ask the question whether and/or how the difference between different kind of media and art can be established.
Nevertheless there is also a definition of high and low art that focuses on the content. I’ll come back to that idea later on.

2.2. Adorno on popular music

As an example for the kind of classical difference between low and high culture as it was described by the so-called Frankfurt School I’ll try to describe Theodor W. Adorno’s view on popular music based on the first chapter of his essay. First Adorno states that popular music has to be seen separately from what he calls “serious music”. He mentions further that an explanation for this difference (which is “generally taken for granted” ([1], paragraph 1) could be found by making a historical analysis of music production. For he is then choosing another method I’ll be coming back to this idea later on.
His primary subject is standardization. In his opinion “the whole structure of popular music is standardized”.([1], para. 3) That is even the case if there are changes or breaks from those structures. I think this is quite obvious if we think of modern pop(-ular) music. A song (which is already one part of the structure) usually consists of different verses (with a more or less identical melody) and a repeating chorus or refrain (which usually consists of 32 bars). This is the main scheme and also some musical pieces break with certain rules they are still based on that scheme. One song mostly uses only one note and it’s respective octave.
Adorno also points out that there are standardized genres for popular music (“mother songs, home songs, nonsense or ‘novelty’ songs…”, [1], para. 3) as well as all the big hits emphasize the standard schemes especially in the beginning and in the end. They take heavy use of the familiar experience that occurs for the listener. This “joy of reoccurrence” or rather “joy of re-recognizing” (a term my former piano teacher used to describe why the main themes were played over and over again) is vital to successful popular music and it is only one possible reason to explain why certain music that Adorno would clearly call serious is so popular nowadays (e.g. The fifth symphony by Beethoven or the “Prelude in c major” by Bach). If you take a look at nowadays’ music business (which is of course even more business now than it was back when Adorno analysed it) then it becomes perfectly clear that using those schemes in more and more sophisticated ways is the key to selling as many records as possible.
Adorno continues with the details and their ways of standardization in recognizing that “a whole terminology exists for them such as break, blue chords, dirty notes. The effect of this is (as Adorno puts it) that the listener is more interested in the detail than in the whole and does not notice that “the whole is pre-given and pre-accepted”
([1], para. 5) which means that the listener expects a certain scheme and is delivered with that scheme. He knows the whole before he actually hears the specific piece because it’s just the plain old scheme he already knows. The details however if they are placed well enough are recognized better and even provide some “favourable reception”
although this never changes the basic scheme. The scheme does not depend on such details. Serious music is therefore characterized like this: “Every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece which, in turn, consists of the life relationship of the details and never of a mere enforcement of a musical scheme”.
As Adorno emphasizes the difference cannot be drawn from the “complexity of the music” or equal terms e.g. “All works of the earlier Viennese classicism are, without exception, rhythmically simpler than stock arrangements of jazz.”([1], para. 13) That is why we have to focus on the standardization and non-standardization. In popular music the standard scheme is always hidden behind whatever the music presents to the listener who will recognize the simple scheme and only recognize the complex elements as kind of decoration to that scheme because he already knows the patterns. This is not possible for serious music. Listening to and “understanding” this kind of music always needs a certain effort by the listener while in popular music “the composition hears for the listener. Now we should come back to the production process. Adorno states that, although industrial mass production always include standardization, this is only true for the promotion and distribution. The actual creation of the music-hits is “still ‘individualistic’ in its social mode of production“ ([1], para. 17) Although the actual work is divided between composer, harmonizer and arranger it is no standardized way of production which mean the costs would not increase if certain rules would not be obeyed by the producers. The standardization is therefore of a different kind than we know from other products like food or cars. The standards were established through a successive imitation of successful hits (and it seems that this development is still going on although it may be not that vivid any more) and those standards are kept up by the centralised agencies (music and media industry). If someone doesn’t keep to the rules he’s simply excluded. But nowadays those exclusions also act as a kind of attraction for customers and are therefore used very specific by the business to simulate a musical world outside the music business which is of course part of the very same.
Another term used by Adorno is “Pseudo-individualization”. That means that cultural mass production is endowed with the halo of free choice or open market ([1], para. 23). To do this the different genres as well as different bands are used to offer a virtual choice to the listener and it creates a “like-and-dislike-mentality”. As mentioned above the way of production still is somehow “individualistic” and adds to the halo by itself. And additionally trademarks and labels are established and kept inside their borders so that there are clear differences for the customer to grasp. Special social structures develop and build on those labels. The “Heavy Metal”-Community, the “folk-song”-Community or the Rock”-Community (just to give some examples) clearly separate themselves from each other and listeners from each group are no longer aware of the standardized scheme that is inside every song from either of these groups. Even improvisations which should be quite hard to put into schemes have become normalized “as to enable a whole terminology to be developed to express the standard devices of individualization.” ([1], para. 24) The real freedom left for improvisation is therefore very limited.

So if we reconsider all of Adorno’s ideas we can see that many of the reasons that make up the basic difference between high and low art can be found here. Also he doesn’t state that clearly in this first chapter, the difference is on the one hand a social one, because it comes down to having the necessary knowledge. Once the listener is experienced and well-informed he can clearly perceive the special qualities of serious music and vice versa differentiate it from the simple scheme used for popular music while the “untrained” listener will not notice any of this. This is also a question of education although Adorno explains that the “natural” music is defined during the first years by the tunes that a young human experiences over time. I should emphasize that all those ideas were established in 1941 and are still valid sometimes they even have become more obvious. This especially applies to the process of “Pseudo-individualization”. Nowadays whole new identities are created for artists and their music (sometimes a whole simulacra which means it is completely virtual) to meet the expectations of the customers. There are boygroups and girlgroups and Hip-Hop acts and so on which are simply actual forms of the standardization that manage to create communities around them and therefore offer not just the music but a complete way of life that is especially embraced by young fans who are still looking for their own way. The whole notion of being-a-fan is as such a standardized form in it itself and it uses the social needs of the customers to create an even deeper need for the product. These forms have become more specific so that they can be used for nearly any audience: Classical music for a sophisticated, upper-class audience, the hits from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s for our parents (to remind them of their youth in a nostalgic way) and the latest hits for nowadays teenagers. Each group connects certain kinds of music with certain events of their past (or present) because this has been established back then. What Adorno described as the radio-generation has become the MTV-Generation. But although the names might have changed all the basic rules still apply. And with music becoming more and more electronic and technical even the production process might have lost some more of its individuality, for this is sometimes not even considered art but simply an ability of pushing the right buttons at the right time. But as I remarked at the beginning some of those patterns also work for classical music and more un-popular music (which I consider to be serious music based on Adorno’s point of view). The same schemes of industrialized promotion and distribution are used for those kinds of music and that poses the question how un-popular music has to be so that it may be called serious. Artists like Bach, Beethoven and Mozart are indeed popular although their audiences may differ from the one popular music aims on. If the standardization can be applied to these to make them more popular although the art is considered to be more demanding then the argument of the connection between the whole and the detail is probably not as firm as Adorno puts it. I hope that this example makes Adorno’s theory more understandable while, in my opinion, it already brings up some question about how sure we can be about the differences he tries to establish.

2.3. The two positions in visual studies

For Visual Studies there are two positions concerning the high/low debate. They are defined in James Elkins’ “Skeptical introduction” to visual studies. The first one simply says “High and low art remain importantly different” ([2], p. 45). In his explanation Elkins also refers to the ideas of Adorno which I tried to explain in the last chapter. His statement is that High art follows a certain logic and throughout its development “successive negations” ([2], p. 47) have taken place. The question is whether serious discussions like about high art are not possible to do with popular art and art published through mass media if they follow that logic. Elkins however states that “there has not yet been an account of which parts of the high-art discourse are lost when high and low are mixed in visual culture.” ([2], p. 48) He then brings up an example with the work of artist Jules Engel which I will use here as well.

Jules Engel on the one hand was an animator for several animated features and tv series (e.g. the animated Disney feature film “Fantasia”) and among them the famous tv show called Mr. Magoo. The show was very popular in the 1950’s and 60’s. It is therefore considered to be part of the low art. On the other hand Engel was a serious painter and even founding director of the Experimental Animation at Cal Arts. His high modernism-paintings are certainly to be considered high art. But when having a profound discourse about the work created by Engel, should the non-serious part of it simply been left out? As Elkins says: “The color fields in Engel’s paintings overlap just as the light areas in Mr. Magoo often do. It would be legitimate, then, to write about Mr. Magoo and high modernism together.”([2], p. 48) As the example shows the style established by Engel is to be found not only in his so-called serious work but also in the popular art he created and it is not considered to be less interesting for a scientific discourse. This is just one example for the dilemma when the distinction between high art and low art is no longer as clear as it’s meant to be. For visual studies which focuses on the whole picture it is therefore necessary to combine both domains but by doing that there might be a loss of seriousness especially for art historians and art critics that demand this distinction.
So the point here is that it is not easily possible to overcome “the great divide by producing a true integration of the two domains”. ([2], p.49) But on the other hand the consuming of high art is no longer limited to upper class as I explained earlier. While even sophisticated upper-class people use to watch tv or the latest action movies in cinemas and consume the daily mass media, the working class visits museums and theatre and if they watch television it may well be that they enjoyed a documentation about renaissance art and or a discussion about postmodernism…

There are many theories that are based on these facts and they lead us to the second position Elkins defines for visual studies: “High and low art are no longer separate.” This idea has primarily developed among cultural studies / visual culture which are the foundation for visual studies. The assumption is “that contemporary culture has already mixed the elite and the popular, the fine and the vulgar, modernism and kitsch, to the point where it is no longer sensible to treat them separately” ([2], p. 50) All forms of culture are therefore consumed in everyday life and because of this
consumption they are offered as products whether they are high or low art. That leads to a certain kind of standardization, a kind that Adorno always connected strictly with the sphere of low art. A museum visited by thousands of people like the Louvre in Paris must be considered a mass medium but would anybody call the Mona Lisa a product of the popular culture or even “low art”? It may have become part of popular culture but it existed prior to that. Elkins cites Fredric Jameson explaining that he “is not claiming that there is no such thing as high and low art; the idea is rather that they superseded, absorbed, and reconstituted as commercial culture”. ([2], p.51) That means that the realm Adorno claimed for the “production” of high art is no longer separated but has fused with all the other ways of cultural production and possibly with their standardization. But on the other hand it should be obvious that there are of course
differences between certain products concerning their quality, their importance and their need for a more educated and experienced recipient. There are in fact more people visiting cinema than there are people visiting theatres and some kinds of movies or plays find more visitors than others. These are also points in the definition of high and low art and they are not overcome easily by the new definition and the fusion of the both spheres. Even the aspect of uniqueness is still of great importance when we think about what the original picture of the “Mona Lisa” is worth and what we pay for replicas to hang around the house. It should make no difference for they all show the same picture (and one could say they’re all just simulacra and therefore copies of an original that only existed inside da Vinci’s head and is now dead) but it obviously does. So there still is a force that is hard to define properly that keeps the spheres from merging completely. And as Elkins keeps it: “…the view that high and low art wholly mixed and therefore no longer exist as such is more a rhetorical stance or an assumption than a condition, a fact borne out by visual-culture texts themselves.”([2], p.52+53) His example then is about the Benetton advertisements which I will explain and compare with other forms of advertisement here.

The main reason for advertisement for a long time has been promoting a certain product. Using all available mass media (newspapers, magazines, cinema etc.) the viewer should be informed about a new or established product, its benefits for his life and ultimately people should be persuaded in some way to buy the product. While that was the main idea there has been some new aim of advertisement over time. Industry created brands to connect people to a product more firmly and over a long period of time. Nowadays adverts not only show a certain product but they are meant to create a certain feeling, an image for a brand and its product and produce a kind of metaphysical argument (or aura) to reach the ultimate goal which of course still is that products are bought. During the last decade Benetton has done that in very sophisticated ways. Although their business is textile they created a brand that they attached to many different ideas which are now connected with the brand and people who identify with such ideas might also identify with the brand and therefore buy the product. An example is a campaign where faces of human apes were presented on posters along with their names. This campaign (which was done together with Jane Goodall, who is famous for her research on that subject) was meant to promote the danger of extinction of the great apes. Just the little green label shows that it’s Benetton who does this campaign. This has clearly nothing to do with their product it is not even involved in the campaign. But this whole enterprise with it’s political, ecologic spheres creates some kind of synergic effect that attaches people to the brand and the company. For all the products in that business might be of equal quality and even price it’s up to those values to convince people. There have been other campaigns based on such pictures and they have of special interest to visual studies because they are considered “more ambiguous, innovative and complex than other ads” ([2], p.53) Benetton ads as a whole are considered more important than usual ads because they have certain “high art ideals” to them. They even have, as I said, a political sphere which is clearly not common to low art. This example makes it quite clear that there are indeed differences and that there remain distinctions even among samples of the same medium. The medium therefore cannot be a sole reason to distinguish high and low art. It is well possible that a medium that is considered to present low art is used in a high art way as it was done with the Benetton ads. And of course this works the other way around. So when trying to find a way for visual studies to deal with the distinction it is necessary to remember about changes that happened to the media and to question the established points of view. Especially Adorno’s position concerning mass-media is in some way outdated when it comes to those examples although it should be noticed that such forms of high art evolve in a way where certain standardizations are disobeyed which means that their special quality evolves from being less standardized just like Adorno suggested.

3. Conclusion

Having established those different viewpoints we now have to ask if the time period that lies between them does have an impact on the whole issue. I’d like to think that it does not, for several reasons:
As I explained earlier all the basic ideas Adorno established are still valid. Although the media landscape changed dramatically from 1941 to now (over 60 years later), many new media were established and probably their influence on the people has become much stronger, I don’t see that the scheme has changed fundamentally. As I tried to show with the popular music, if something like this basic scheme really exists then the music business has become much more sophisticated in its use and even in diverting us (the customer/consumer/listener) from that fact. We are not aware of the manipulation that is done to us (that probably doesn’t change even when we’re aware of it). And likewise there might be such a manipulation in all the other “new” media such as movies and literature to an extent were no real serious art is produced and only the simulacra (as Baudrillard defined it) of what Adorno had in mind is still existing. It may well be that none of the art that is produced at present (and distributed through the new media) would be able to satisfy the rules of serious art anymore because any of it is produced inside the standardized system and any effort outside this system is either destroyed or assimilated. An example for that could be the story of a german band called “Wir sind Helden” where the band managed to make a video clip on their own and sent it to various television stations until it was finally shown on MTV. By that time they had no record deal and remained a kind of insider tip but with growing popularity they were successively integrated into the whole media and public relation scheme that the business is bound to and I would now consider them part of the very same business while they’re popularity is still based on the assumption that they are not (that’s what makes them different and offers people an “alternative choice”).

One question that remains is if the difference between high (serious) art and low (popular) art has become somehow a historical borderline which marks the transition from the one kind to the other. Then Adorno’s concept would be simply about a time prior to that transition which we could call the serious art period and a time from that transition on that we could call the popular art period. But what we are looking for in context of the visual studies is a more persistent kind of difference that applies to modern and/or popular art as well as to classical or ancient art and that explains why some art is considered more important or interesting than other. And therefore I consider it necessary to also focus on the content. As we can see with the examples of Jules Engel and the Benetton ads the established high and low difference does not work well enough and also the whole idea of art criticism is based on it, it does not apply as such on popular art which can indeed be as important as serious art or that is simply distributed by popular media although it differs only merely from fine art. I think it is quite obvious that the difference is far from vanishing. As Elkins explained:
“If the field were really level, with high lowered and low raised and nothing to count as avant-garde, then scholars interested in advertising would study all advertisement equally, indifferent to whether they are ambiguous, innovative, complex, or politically engaged.” ([2], p.53) Obviously that is not the case and so new ways of distinguishing must be found and probably some old ones need a lot of improvement to achieve the desired outcome. I definitely lack the skill in art history and visual culture to give any detailed thoughts how this could be done but I hope that through these questions I could clarify that changes are necessary and that those changes are worked out at the moment by visual
studies writers. This probably remains one of the most important tasks for this young discipline.


[1] Adorno, Theodor W. : “On popular music”, originally published in: Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, New York: Institute of Social Research, 1941, IX, 17- 48. I used the text found here http://www.icce.rug.nl/~soundscapes/DATABASES/SWA/On_popular_music_1.html
(last visited August 16th, 2005)

[2] Elkins, James: “Visual studies: A sceptical introduction”, Taylor & Francis Books, Inc. New York, 2003, 45-53

[3] marxwiki
http://www.dci.pomona.edu/~kfitzpatrick/marxwiki/index.php/Main_Page (last visited November 22th, 2005


http://www.benettongroup.com/apes/downloadimg/bonny/images/02b.jpg (last visited August 17th, 2005)

© JHE 2005

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