High culture v low culture

This is a topic that fascinates me. It has been debated over and over whether “low culture” (by which I mean such things as gossip magazines, tabloid newspapers, celebrity biographies, trashy romance novels, generic Hollywood romcoms, generic Hollywood action films, reality TV, soaps, graffiti, all-girl pop bands, etc etc) is somehow a threat to “real” art and artists, or perhaps to society as a whole. Is it demeaning to people in general to pitch the majority of culture to the lowest common denominator? Or does popular culture exist because people…want it?

I have no problem with debate but I do get annoyed with the demand that you must take one of two extreme opposite sides and if you don’t you are indecisive, woolly and not worth listening to. I am perfectly capable of forming an opinion. Sometimes that opinion sits squarely, or close to, one side of a debate. But not always. Sometimes my opinion is genuinely inbetween two extremes or a combination of both sides. Sometimes I struggle to see why there has to be division in the first place. But that’s just me (I’m not naive, just peaceloving).

In this case I am a lover of some forms of both high and low culture. I mean, there’s examples of both that I consider to be vile, but we’ll steer clear of that for now. I have read both Ulysses and Harry Potter and did not love either. I am a big fan of the theatre and films but I am also a telly addict and have spent many happy hours watching Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, Black Books and a host of other shows. Not reality TV though. None of that.

10 thoughts on “High culture v low culture

  1. Andy Bee March 20, 2010 at 8:57 am

    I’m with you on this one. There is room and indeed, a need for both. At times I want to be mentally stimulated & informed. At other times I want to lean back, relax and be entertained.
    Plus the money from the blockbusters of film, dvds, books is what funds the infrastructure to allow the “hi” brow to be delivered.

  2. Lloyd March 20, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Hi Kate.
    Liking the new website; looks good.
    2 points on this one.

    We definately need both “high” and “low” culture and people who disagree immediately blinker themselves to alot. We will always have “confirmation bias”, too. For example if I like girl bands and dislike boybands I will say “The Supremes are waaaay better than Jedward” and if the reverse is true I will say “The Jackson 5 are waaay better than Shampoo”. In other words comparing the best of my favourite genre to the dirge of the one I dislike, dismissing everything in between.

    As for there being something inherantly “wrong” with pitching culture to its lowest common denominator. My problem is more that art becomes linked with profit. And it becomes judged on its ability to shift units rather than artistic merit. (see: Dan Brown, whose skill and craft surely doesnt deserve the dollaz he’s made?!) Following this to its conclusion means art stops before it begins if it doesnt seem like a profit will be made. I guess Im saying that the appreciation of an art form is always subjective but the “reason” for its production can morally devalue some art forms, if that makes sense?!

  3. Nose in a book March 21, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    Andy: yes, that’s true but isn’t it sometimes galling (as Lloyd says) that the producers of the rubbish make so much money from it when the producers of quality often barely scrape a living?

    Lloyd: thanks! And it’s easy to jump to the defence of things you like while assuming everyone must hate things you don’t and that creates an odd double standard. Plenty of people who appreciate “high” culture also like Dan Brown but hate sitcoms, say, so their opinion of “wasted” money and marketing would be different. I think it’s always been true that art that didn’t make money stopped being made. I mean, unless you had a rich patron but then you had to make art that your patron liked, which isn’t much different from getting a celebrity endorsement these days.

  4. satt melf April 9, 2010 at 11:20 pm

    I’ve been enjoying this blog muchly, when i can find a moment to dip into it. I’m glad you’ve found the time to set it up. Reminds me of the reviews you used to write for Spark, so much more disciplined and interesting than my purile efforts.

    This debate has always interested me. In my younger days I probably would have tried to argue more snobbishly that there was a massive difference between high and low culture. Now i’m not so certain that a lot of the definition is forced upon us by the insiders of institutions within the literary or film hierarchy. It brings to mind a thought Kurt Vonnegut presents regarding this in Breakfast of Champions. In this he suggests that in art criticism the middle classes invented the idea of high art in order to give greater material value to individual pieces of work. In that way they turned Art from simply a form of expression to a way of investing wealth.

    This topic also always brings to my mind my favourite writer, JG Ballard. For a lot of his career he was seen as slightly seedy or trashy, and outside the literary elite. As far as i can tell this was mainly beacause he wrote genre fiction, which Booker types tend to look down on.

    I hope to continue reading some interesting reviews in this blog. It may direct me toward reading some interesting recent releases, or at worst, allow me to pretend to more intelligent people that I’ve read them. Actually, I’m not sure i have the wit to pull that off, maybe I’ll wait till their too drunk to notice that I haven’t really read the books in question!

    finally, I know it’s early and rather presumptuous of me to suggest titles for your blog, but I’d really like to see some other opinions on ballard novels. maybe High Rise, which has one of the more unusual openings to a novel

    “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.’

    or maybe that one is a bit on the brutal side. There are many other interesting titles in his cannon. Drowned world has some wonderful images of a flooded london in. Many on his short stories are rather funny. Or maybe The unlimited Dream company is the most strange, in which a man obsessed by flying (not piloting a aircraft, literally flying) steals a plane from heathrow, crashes in shepperton and embarks on an odyssey of creation.

  5. Nose in a book April 10, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Hey Matt! The only Ballard I’ve read is Drowned World, but I really enjoyed it so maybe I’ll give one of his others a try. No doubt we have one on our shelves somewhere. I still buy more books than I read.

  6. Charlie July 26, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Is high culture of more value than low/popular culture?

  7. Nose in a book July 28, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Hi Charlie. No, not necessarily, though it’s often longer-lasting.

  8. Charlie July 28, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Thank You. I shall add this to my debate 🙂

  9. Bryan Lloyd May 27, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    A post modernist from the realitive side of the culture debate would argue that all cultures are equal.

    For example the theorist Williams says we are all still our own individuals. The theorist Fiske argues we do uprise against the capital and high culture by doing outrageous and unexpected things.

    The theorist Strinati says even if we do participate in lower cultural practices, we choose to do so, therefore we are empowered. We chose to watch X factor over the Queens Speech – for example.

    The theorist Adorno says lower culture is easy for the brain to digest and consume. We just take it in, unlike higher practices such as Shakespeare which requires analysis.

    The theorist Leavis says that only a select few should be able to access high cultural practices and that the upper class should hide these practices away from the masses in the “Canon”. A Marxist would say that unless the masses try and access the high art forms then the captial absolutists have won

    High Culture is only really seen as being the best as it has stood the test of time.

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