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What are the "high arts"

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Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!!! I can't believe you posted this, Calliope -- Leigh and I were talking about this yesterday and thought of making it a Topic of the Week!

I think, onceuponatime, there were "the arts" And then, when other things that arts aficionados did not considered to be art, but were routinely called art ("Madonna is an artist") a distinction had to be made. Opera is a "high art," pop music is a popular art. "Low art" sounds so rude.....

Today, when there are no distinctions, there is definitely a school of thought that says there's no such thing as high art; it's passe. Who am I to say what is high, what is low? Others complain that the distinction is a race or class issue. This school of thought says that to suggest that tap is not a high art is inherently racist. And others of us say that yes, these, and other distinctions, still matter.

I think the difference is partly intention and partly form. The high arts have a long, long history of slow evolution, building on ancient principles of how to express thoughts and emotions indirectly, through artistic expression. It takes training to create and execute them, and training and education to appreciate them. The low arts, or popular arts, are more direct, more temporal, instantly accessible, and appeal to far greater numbers of people. Who then do not like being told that what they love is not "high art."

My theory on distinctions is that words have meaning. There are caps and there are hats and there are bonnets. If these three different types of headgear did not exist, we would not need to have words to distinguish them. Why should art be different?

So what do the rest of you think?


Ballet Alert!: A Speedbump on the Long, Downhill Slide

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Well I wanted to see if Miss Cleo was really a fraud or not, so I phoned and she recommended that I post this :)

I'm kidding.

So if ballet is a high art, are all ballets automatically high art? I was talking with a friend and the subject came up based on new works being created and whether or not they fell into standards with previous works. And is a more "modern" ballet company, one without an institutional past, do they fall under the same classification?

My opinion, is I think money is the determining factor. And I have pre-empt this by saying, I mean none of this personally, I just think there is an education, whether it's by fire, or by family, as to high art. And I think nowadays, at least it seems, at least in ballet, that money is dominating what's being produced. And the real "art" is being done by the "struggling" artists, because they don't necessarily have a built in audience to please.

I question whether or not art has lost it's "innocence", because so many people try to make a living out of it. Therefore, you almost have to make money, unless you're fortunate to be wealthy.

Reading over my statements, I realize that it's so personal, I don't even know if there is an answer.

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Back in the fifties, I guess it was, the term "middlebrow" came into vogue as a category separate from "highbrow" and "lowbrow." It proved useful to distinguish, say, the paintings of Andrew Wyeth from those of Rembrandt and ones done on velvet. Similarly, while Beethoven's Ninth was highbrow and "How Much is that Doggie in the Window?" lowbrow, Liberace was aggressively middlebrow. The New York City Ballet was highbrow, burlesque was lowbrow, and the Radio City Music Hall stage show middlebrow.

It's a term one doesn't hear anymore, which is both too bad and ironic. Because middlebrow has expanded to the point where it's erased most things highbrow and lowbrow. Just about anything artistic you can name today is, in my opinion, middlebrow -- the ballets of Peter Martins, Riverdance, Ice Dancing, Baz Luhrmann's "La Boheme," "The Lord of the Rings." Even the paintings of Norman Rockwell, regarded as lowbrow in the fifties, are now respectably middlebrow and much sought after.

I don't know what to make of it. Do you?

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The term "highbrow" came into use over a hundred years ago as a sort of middlebrow replacement for the highbrow word "supercilious". "Lowbrow" came in around 1900, thought often to be the product of humorist Will Irwin. "Middlebrow" first appears in the 1920s and was popularized in the 40s by Clifton Fadiman, who was writing at the time for the Luce Organization and Life magazine spread it around.

Chased back to its roots, I suppose "high" art is a sort of Platonist or Neo-Platonist construct with the concerns of the mind or spirit being noble and "high" and the concerns of the body being gross and "low".

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mel, i used to think of low art as something which you needed little or no education to practice or appreciate and high art as something you needed a long and difficult education to produce, but with some elements accessible to all and perhaps deeper elements needing some explanation on first viewing. does this make any sense?

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We had a similar discussion many years back on a.a.b on the question of Art v. Entertainment. One distinction I thought worked that is similar to Mme. Hermine's is "If it makes you think of a many other things, it's probably art. If it makes you think of nothing more than what you see in front of you, it's probably entertainment."

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So, finally, a use for my aesthetics major from college, where my first philosophy paper was on precisely this topic. As I recall, like so much, there is no unequivocal answer about not only what is high vs. low or mass art, but even, about what constitutes art at all. Different schools of thought emerge, going back to Aristotle's poetics and the notion of catharsis.

All of the criteria you suggest can be relevant in making a determination, but I was most struck by the direction the end of the thread was going -- which in essence made art and entertainment mutually exclusive, something which I would argue is decidedly not the case.

Re: the question of 'is all ballet art?' Don't forget, not all art is good. Anybody remember Leonard Pinth-Garnell?

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Oh, there can be bad art, and there can be good entertainment. I think that often gets confused -- that if someone says, "But that's not high art," they're saying it's "bad." But I don't think that's the case.

Old Fashioned, Balanchine said a lot of things :) He was a man of the theater, and as such, had to entertain, and he knew that, but I think he knew he was making art. By that, I mean he was very educated in the arts, knew what they were; he wasn't an accidental artist.

Many excellent points here that I don't have time to address now, especially the education/money issue and middlebrow -- back later :)

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oh i didn't say that right at all. what i've always seen as 'high art' (when i felt moved to define it) always seemed like something that had more than one level on which you could appreciate it, something that provoked thought or reflection even at the same time as it was enjoyable as entertainment, something that stayed with you, seduced you to come back, reminded you of itself at certain moments in life throughout your life, something that wove threads of something else throughout your experiences. it's not an easy thing to define, i guess!

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Is this another example of the class system? High art for the rich, middle art is only understood by the middle classes and low art appeals to the lower class.

Should we look at commercial art versus non-commercial art? Then we get into the argument about if something suceeds during its time is it high art? Or must the work await recognition in later times to be awarded the high art plaque?

Is art a statement of the artist or a creation focused on the populace (this may be one in the same)?

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Mel and Mme. Hermine bring up what I've always found an important point. We can debate what's high art and we can debate the accuracy of the categories, but sophisticated works of art are often appreciated in an unsophisticated manner.

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Originally posted by mbjerk

Is this another example of the class system?  High art for the rich, middle art is only understood by the middle classes and low art appeals to the lower class.  

Should we look at commercial art versus non-commercial art? Then we get into the argument about if something suceeds during its time is it high art?  Or must the work await recognition in later times to be awarded the high art plaque?

I'm not sure it really is the class system (and in America, studies show we all say we're middle-class. It would be hard to find someone who'd admit they're either "high" or "low" class). Then there's how you define class -- by annual salary? Or by "background," that amorphous concept that basically means how long have you been here and how much education does your family have. I'm sure we can all think of people who have an affinity for the high arts and didn't discover them until college, or who make scads of money but whose "artistic" world is limited to pop music and movies.

I do think that appreciation of art is dependent on education. For some people, pop art -- low arts -- just aren't satisfying, and that goes to the "levels" Mme. Hermine mentioned above.

Classification becomes difficult because in literature, say, there are literary works and pulp novels, so there are levels of art within each art form. I think that film can be a high art -- some do not -- and I think there's a difference between a "film" and a "movie."

I also agree with kfw:

We can debate what's high art and we can debate the accuracy of the categories, but sophisticated works of art are often appreciated in an unsophisticated manner.

Shakespeare looked out for the "groundlings" (by putting in bits of broad humor to appeal to the uneducated members of the audience) but some of those groundlings may also have liked the sword fights, or the pageantry, or the sound of the words, or just being there.

To go back to what Farrell Fan wrote about middlebrow, I think much of ballet now is middlebrow. The simplified versions of Petipa works -- turning everything into a ballet blanc sandwich; a three-act ballet with women in white as the second act; the simplified versions of operas.

Mbjerk's question -- "Or must the work await recognition in later times to be awarded the high art plaque?" -- may be more complicated than just the passage of time. This will sound like heresy to some, but "Giselle" and much of the Romantic ballet was also middlebrow. (Bournonville complained that "Giselle" was sentimental, and it took me a long time to understand that, but I think he meant first, by Aristotelian rules, it's a soap opera.) I'd argue that it was Petipa who turned it from a story of a teenager disappointed in love to a poem of redemption, and he did that through choreography.

Back in early 19th century Paris, you had "high art" at the Opera, and both middlebrow and low art on the Boulevards. It was more honest than today in a way. The Boulevard ballets were simplified (dumbed down) versions of the opera ballets, with emphasis on special effects. But they also mocked the opera ballets, mocked what they found pretentious and affected (because, one could argue, they didn't understand it). During the Romantic era, the Boulevard ballets moved into the Opera.

Another complication of the "today it's trash, tomorrow it's high art" idea is that we're not talking about the same audience making the judgments. When an art form turns pop, it drives out the high art audience. The new audience likes what it sees, or they wouldn't be there. So they acclaim it; it's now high art. It's like the joke about Florida demographics: Everybody is born Cuban and dies Jewish.

This whole issue is so difficult because of the class, education and taste issues that everyone has raised. And we're in a relativist age. "I don't care about high art or low art, I only care about good art." Well, duh. That's not the question.

I think the safest, most polite term currently is "serious art" versus "popular art." And serious art (formerly high art) has a different intention from pop art, or commercial art. (Sadly, in this country, there's very little real folk art; that's all been commercialized, too.) It's aimed at a very small audience, and always has been. That used to be a function of education and class; I don't think we can say that now.

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I am finding this discussion absolutely fascinating! I was brought up in a highly educated family that valued "high arts" and eschewed "low arts", but one that never discussed "art", and in actual fact, never explored arts much beyond a very occasional foray to the museum, the symphony, or the opera.

So, I find myself keying in on the relationship raised by some of you between education and "high art". What kind of education, I wonder, is necessary to appreciate art? And in turn, what is it about art that necessitates that education?

My own guess is that one has to be well grounded in the themes and ideas of a particular culture, and familiar with the ways these have been explored previously. I suspect one also has to have to facility --perhaps gained through education -- to recall these ideas, and forge links between them and the "art" one is seeing/experiencing.

The corollary, therefore, is that "art" has to suggest/promote/refer to these themes and ideas. Perhaps this is a more long-winded way of repeating Mme. Hermine's "art makes you think more deeply, takes you to a different level."

But what about the aesthetic/emotional side of art? Does one need an education to appreciate that? I am accutely aware, of course, that schooling in the particular genre is very useful for seeing things, identifying them, understanding whether they are well-executed, and appreciating how they fit into the whole. How else?

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One could also say that there is a difference between enjoyment and appreciation. For example, someone off the street might enjoy watching a ballet very much, but to really appreciate it, a fairly extensive education (and not the kind you get in a public school) is necessary.

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Originally posted by Alexandra

I think the safest, most polite term currently is "serious art" versus "popular art."  And serious art (formerly high art) has a different intention from pop art, or commercial art.  (Sadly, in this country, there's very little real folk art; that's all been commercialized, too.)  It's aimed at a very small audience, and always has been.

About the audience: you wrote "it's aimed at a very small audience", but surely there are "high art" works which were seen by a very large audience (for example there are thousands of people who see "La Joconde" every day, and several hundred thousand people saw "Swan Lake"- though in the case of "Swan Lake" there's the problem of which production, as you mentioned before...- and I can think of a few examples of films that I consider "high art" which had quite a lot of viewers), so is the important point the audience at which the work is aimed and not the one that really sees it? And when it's "successful" it's somehow a misunderstanding, or some of the audience doesn't really appreciate it in fact?

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Ah! Is art in the eye of the beholder? Can high art become middlebrow art, depending on who is viewing it, and/or how that person is interpreting it?

Estelle, I would argue that millions of people view "La Jaconde" -- known here in the states as the "Mona Lisa" -- simply because they know it is famous. I really doubt that a significant percentage of them even get to view it long enough or closely enough or thoughtfully enough to really take any of it in. They pass right by hundreds of other equally artistic canvasses. I think it is much the same with Swan Lake. People go to see it because they have heard of it. So, both are arts seen by the masses -- my question is, do the masses appreciate them as art?

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This is a very interesting topic, and one which I feel strongly about, but am so far unable to discuss intelligently. I feel the difference between "high" and "low" art instinctively, but not rationally.

Meanwhile, I am curious to know what Alexandra means by "simplified " Petipa and opera. Have I missed something here? I'm not really aware of either.

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This statement kind of recalls Mr. Justice Potter Stewart on pornography. He said that he might not be able to define it, but that he knew it when he saw it. (Such a statement might just touch off a firestorm today - "When, Your Honor, DO you see pornography???:( );)

I think that Alexandra was getting at underproduced or cut-down versions of classic ballets and operas, Baz Luhrmann's recent staging of La Boheme being an example of the latter. There are any number of half-stepping productions of Petipa works, so I won't even start on naming productions!

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I'm going to venture a toe into the discussion:

I think there are points in a "relativist" approach towards high and low art that can be argued. I recall Paul Fussell's book, Class, which recounted the details of what belonged to one class versus another (baseball caps, prep school and so on.) It had its moments, but once you leave America, none of the details are relevant, or even the mores. Do upper-class Americans, French, English think or behave alike? Do they hold the same values? What about upper-class Egyptians, Chinese or Russians? I think there are some parallels across cultures (Alexandra mentioned classical Indian dance in a conversation, I was thinking of the court literature of the Heian period in Japan like the Tale of Genji) but not in the details, and they are not perfect.

There's also cultural drift to be accounted for. Forms like opera drift up and down the scale from "high" to "low". It's a process that takes a more than a generation and it moves in both directions. But I think it can be argued that no form is immutably high or low. You have to view them on a timeline.

One definition I might try to make for "high" art is it's the art a society intends to pass down. Rather like heirloom china or "everyday". There's the stuff you eat on all the time and you buy the best suited to the purpose; it isn't junk, it's just meant to be used all the time and even broken or thrown out. Then there's the stuff you mean to give to your children when they marry. High Art is our cultural legacy. The interesting thing about this is that we've become a society which, when researching history, tends to find the everyday china more interesting. I think that mirrors the distrust of high art as well. I could be wrong, but it feels like we're trying to leave our pop tunes as our legacy - our descendants will have pop tunes of their own. It will be interesting though, to see if the three-minute song form "drifts up" or down in half a century. . .maybe it will become more like lieder?

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