Low culture is a derogatory term for some forms of popular culture. The term is often encountered in discourses on the nature of culture. Its opposite is high culture. It has been said by culture theorists that both high culture and low culture are subcultures.
Kitsch, bro, slapstick, camp, escapist fiction, popular music, comic books, tattoo art and exploitation films are examples of low culture. It has often been stated that in postmodern times, the boundary between high culture and low culture has blurred. See the 1990s artwork of Jeff Koons for example of appropriation of low art tropes.
Romanticism was one of the first artistic movements to reappraise “low culture”, when previously maligned medieval romances started to influence literature and Susan Sontag was one of the first essayists to write about the intersection of high and low art in her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp'”.
Dumbing Down and Low Culture
High culture is a term, now used in a number of different ways in academic discourse, whose most common meaning is the set of cultural products, mainly in the Arts, held in the highest esteem by a culture.
Although it has a longer history in Continental Europe, the term was introduced into English largely with the publication in 1869 of Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold, although he most often uses just “culture”. Arnold defined culture as “the disinterested endeavour after man`s perfection” (Preface) and most famously wrote that having culture meant to “know the best that has been said and thought in the world” – a specifically literary definition, also embracing Philosophy, which is now rather less likely to be considered an essential component of High Culture, at least in the English-speaking cultures. Arnold saw high culture as a force for moral and political good, and in various forms this view remains widespread, though far from uncontested. The term is contrasted with Popular culture or Mass culture and also with Traditional cultures, but by no means implies hostility to these.
T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) was an influential work which saw high culture and popular culture as necessary parts of a complete culture. The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart (1957) was an influential work along somewhat the same lines, concerned with the cultural experience of those, like himself, who had come from a working-class background before university. In America, Harold Bloom has taken a more exclusive line in a number of works, as did F.R. Leavis earlier – both, like Arnold, being mainly concerned with literature, and unafraid to champion vociferously the literature of the Western canon.
Much of High Culture consists of the appreciation of what is sometimes called High Art. This term is rather broader than Arnold’s definition and besides Literature includes Music, Visual arts, especially Painting, and traditional forms of the Performing arts, now including some Cinema. The Decorative arts would not generally be considered High art.
The cultural products most regarded as forming part of High culture are most likely to have been produced during periods of High civilization, for which a large, sophisticated and wealthy urban-based society which provides a coherent & conscious aesthetic framework, and a large-scale milieu of training, and, for the visual arts, sourcing materials and financing work. All this is so that the artist is able, as near as possible, to realize his creative potential with as few as possible practical and technical constraints. Although the Western concept of High Culture naturally concentrates on the Graeco-Roman tradition, and its resumption from the Renaissance onwards, it would normally be recognised that such conditions existed in other places at other times. A tentative list of High Cultures, or cultures producing High art, might therefore be:
- Ancient Egypt
- Ancient Greece from c650BC
- Ancient Rome from c200BC to c200AD
- China nearly continuously from c200BC
- India nearly continuously from c400BC
- Islamic Persia
- The Arab world
- Japan from about 1,000AD
- Europe from the 14th century on
Promotion of High Culture
The term has always been susceptible to attack for elitism, and in response many proponents of the concept devoted great efforts to promoting High Culture among a wider public than the highly-educated bourgeoisie whose natural territory it was supposed to be. There was a drive, beginning in the 19th century, to open museums and concert halls to give the general public access to high culture. Figures such as John Ruskin and Lord Reith of the BBC in Britain, Leon Trotsky and others in Communist Russia, and many others in America and throughout the western world have worked to widen the appeal of elements of High Culture such as Classical music, Art by Old masters and the literary classics.
With the widening of access to university education, the effort spread there, and all aspects of High culture became the objects of academic study, which with the exception of the classics had not often been the case until the late 19th century. University Liberal arts courses still play an important role in the promotion of the concept of High culture, though often now avoiding the term itself.
Especially in Europe, governments have been prepared to subsidize High culture through the funding of Museums, Opera and Ballet companies, Orchestras, Cinema, public broadcasting stations such as BBC Radio 3, and in other ways. Organisations such as the Arts Council in Britain, and, in most European countries, whole Ministries administer these programmes. This includes the subsidy of new works by composers, writers and artists. There are also many private philanthropic sources of funding, which are especially important in the US.
High culture and its relation to Mass culture, have been, in different ways, a central concern of much theoretical work in Cultural studies, Critical theory, Media studies and Sociology, as well as Postmodernism and many strands of Marxist thought. It was especially central to the concerns of Walter Benjamin, whose 1935-6 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction has been highly influential, as has the work of Theodor Adorno.
High culture has also been an important concept in political theory on Nationalism for writers such as Ernest Renan and Ernest Gellner, who saw it as an necessary component of a healthy national identity. Gellner’s concept of a high culture was much broader than just the arts; he defined it in Nations and Nationalism (1983) as: “…a literate codified culture which permits context-free communication”. This is a distinction between different cultures, rather than within a culture, contrasting high with simpler, agrarian low cultures.
Pierre Bourdieu’s book: La Distinction (English translation: Distinction – A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste) (1979) is a study influential in Sociology of a another much broader, class based, definition of high culture, or “taste”, which includes etiquette, appreciation of fine food and wine, and even military service. This partly reflects a French, or Mediterranean, conception of the term which is different from the more serious-minded Anglo-German concept of Arnold, Benjamin, Leavis or Bloom.