The Myth of "High" and "Low" Culture

I’ve been thinking about the concept of “high” and “low” art a lot lately, and the more I think of it, the more it infuriates me. The concept itself as it was conceived doesn’t bother me as much as does the fact that in this day and age there are people who unironically still use the terms to differenciate between “good” and “bad” art — or worse, “worthy” and “unworthy” art. The fact that they fail to acknowledge (or even recognize themselves) that the terms are rooted in classism and continue to widen the gap between classes is infuriating.

“High” culture and “mass” culture are terms that were literally created to describe art that was accessible to the public and art that was only accessible to the very wealthy. Things like classical music, operas and philosophy fell into the “high culture” category while things like TV shows, magazines, video games and mainstream music falls under the “low culture” category. The only difference between the two? The latter is accessible for anyone of any soico-econimic background while the former is often restricted to those who can afford it (literally or figuratively).

I’m a plebian through and through and it’s only recently that I learned to embrace that about myself. Before that, I was teased in school because I preferred boy bands to rock bands and the love of my fantasy life was Leonardo DiCaprio (actually, he still is because, goddamnit, the heart wants what it wants!). As I began getting older, I got into opera and jazz and independent and foreign films and felt better about myself, like I was growing and becoming wiser or some shit. All it was was that I matured in an environment where I had the privilege to be exposed to a variety of art forms.

My dad was a writer with a penchant for entertainment, so from him I was exposed to a slew of movies and TV shows; my mother is an educator and grew up a New Wave kid who loved Duran Duran and Rock Hudson and can also recite the poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz at the drop of a hat and with immense beauty. In high school, I had an amazing teacher who nurtured my love of writing and reading and gently encouraged me to take it more seriously. I grew up with access to not only my father’s immense bookshelf but also the public library, from where I borrowed thousands upon thousands of books to discover more writers (and movies and music!) to love. I went to a fairly prestigious university (even though I knock my alma mater a lot, it actually is one of the top universities in the country) and was exposed to professors who continued to nurture my skills and talents and professors who challenged me and professors whom I still loathe to this fucking day because they were just the worst of humanity. I worked and was exposed to new people, who introduced me to new art — some of which I loved immedietaly, some of which I grew to love and some of which I grew to hate. Long story short: I had a lot of fucking help.

For the most part, modern folk don’t subscribe to the labels of “high” or “low” when it comes to art, but there are always those who want to feel special or superior to others and so will shit on other people’s joy in order to bring a moth-sized flare of light into their dark, dreary worlds. Those people ignore the fact that classism is still a very real thing today. And I don’t just mean literal classism but also classism in the figurative sense. i.e.: a person with learning disabilities is not any less intelligent for not understanding/liking philosophy.

I consider myself pretty fucking smart, but my intelligence is very much curated to art. About the only thing I can say I am 100% confident about is my knowledge of the English language and how it works. I’ve made it my career in more than one way and the classism that exists in language in general is a topic for a whole ‘nother blog post in itself. My point is, I’m intelligent and learned because I had the privilege to learn. I enjoy opera a lot, but I would always rather listen to Franz Ferdinand (my favourite band ever) than Bizet. I love jazz, but I prefer crooners like Dean Martin to legends like Miles Davis. I love reading, and am pretty fucking well read, but I think Dorothy Parker’s sass is more interesting than all of the famous Russians combined. I adore films, but I will always choose to watch Miss Congeniality or Some Like It Hot over Casablanca or Pulp Fiction.

Different people have access to different art and it’s impossibly unfair to shame someone for not having had the privilege to be exposed to the same art as someone else. I admit I am totally guilty of looking down my nose at people who hadn’t heard of certain authors or seen certain movies, but a bit of self-criticsm eventually changed that. There’s no such fucking thing as “high” or “low” culture.