Friday, June 10, 2011

High Art vs. Low Art

We often learn the classics in school, from Homer to Shakespeare, and few would debate their uncontested value today. At the same time, less entertaining writers like Pope, Dryden, and Spencer appear in many a college curriculum, much to many students' dismay, but nothing from Tolkien or J. K. Rowling ever gets mentioned. So why is some art considered just popular tripe, whereas others are deemed literary masterpieces?

Understandably, most authors are canonized once they're no longer alive and their work has stood the test of time, but this is changing. Living authors like Toni Morrison are anthologized now as well as many others that even the most well-read haven't heard about or read. Needless to say, books ought to be judged by merit and not book sales, but it seems odd that such renowned authors get left out simply due to their genre.

Think about it, when was the last time you heard of a course in school that covered a fantasy, sci-fi, or even a more recently penned historical novel? Plenty of exceptions abound, by it seems the establishment turns its nose to novels that don't deal with some esoteric form of absurdism or talk about some psychologically deranged character in order to describe our “modern” times. What do you think, is there a real difference between high and low art or is this all just a case of the emperor's new clothes?    


  1. Ah, this is something my friends and I discuss all the time. I've always wondered who exactly gets to label something as high art - who gets to decide what is worthy to be defined a classic, who decides that a certain painting is so spectacular it is worth millions, who decides that a book is so valuable to society that it is taught in schools across the nation? And how are they making these choices? Because honestly some of them just baffle me :)

    "High art" people probably hate me because I'm one of those unenlightened people that think it's insane that a painting that looks like my 4 year old painted it sells for millions while an seascape that looks so real it could be a photograph goes for $10. (Or one minimalist painting I background with a single black line down the center - it sold for over $14 million. Seriously!?)

    Anyhow, I think the same concept applies to books. Who is it who decides what is a literary masterpiece? Why aren't Harry Potter or Twilight considered such when they are so wildly popular?

    I'm always confused by the attitude toward books like the Twilight series. It's almost uncool for a writer to like them. Personally, I'm a fan. It was a great series that I really enjoyed reading. But I am literally cringing to write that because I know just how many of my peers would sneer down their noses at me for admitting I actually like those books.

    But there must be something to them if they are loved by so many people, right? I have heard there are a few college courses out there on Harry Potter...perhaps attitudes are beginning to change :) It just always seems that "low art" is what society as a whole actually enjoys, while "high art" is what they are told they should be enjoying. So, yeah, I'd say there is a definite Emperor's New Clothes situation going on :)

    Ah well. For me...I'd rather read the Harry Potter series than many of the "classics". And I'd rather look at a gorgeous street corner seascape than a $14 million dollar line on a plain background. :)

  2. Well Tolkien considered anything newer than Chaucer to be too modern, so maybe he's partially responsible :).

    I think the walls are coming down a bit. Ursula LeGuin seems to get taught. I think Harry Potter does as well.

    Tolkien also has the length problem. If he'd written a 200-page novel (say like John Gardner's Grendel), I bet he'd be assigned more often. LOTR would be a lot to read in a week when you're taking 3 other classes.

  3. The old stuff has been tested by time. The new stuff is still too new. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it ;)

  4. Michelle - Extensive and thoughtful post!!! I love your point about "low" art being what we actually enjoy and "high art" being what we 'should" enjoy. Classic! Also, your points about art in general and your examples are all good ones:)

    Hektor - It's true that length of a story does effect whether it's taught, I hadn't considered that. And I think you're correct that things are changing, I just wonder if it's changing enough.

    Lynda - I agree a 110%! :)