[All uses of the word “you” are general; they are just to you, the reader, not to any particular person.]

Yesterday I blogged a response to an article about art education, and I used the word “snob” a lot, which angered some people (of course… it reads very insultingly, and not very many people want to be considered snobby).  My use of the word “snob” was in response to a few ideas I was getting from the author’s writing.  (Whether or not the author truly holds these ideas is another matter.  This can be a pretty complex issue.  There are probably entire books dedicated to the subject.)  The main idea I attribute the word “snob” to is the idea of there being a “high art.”  Does that not seem snobby?  Doesn’t that imply the existence of “low art” that “high art” is “better” or “more important” than?  If not, why use the phrase?

Dictionary.com defines a “snob” as:

a person who believes himself or herself an expert or connoisseur in a given field and is condescending toward or disdainful of those who hold other opinions or have different tastes regarding this field

Using the phrase “high art” or “serious art” seems condescending to me.  If that’s not snobbery, what is?

What’s considered “high art”?  That’s probably subjective, but what comes to my mind is opera, symphonies, art galleries, Shakespearean theater, and university professor-approved literature.  What’s “low art”?  Brittany Spears, Spongebob Squarepants, heavy metal, Nancy Drew, etc.

(I am definitely NOT saying that anyone who likes opera, symphonies, Shakespearean theater, etc, is a snob.  Nor am I saying that anyone who doesn’t like them is not a snob.  But if you think the symphony orchestra is important for reasons beyond personal interest, if you think there’s something about it that all citizens should know about and appreciate, that’s snobbery; it’s false, and it’s condescending to people who don’t want to go to the symphony.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t support or advertise a symphony; it’s about why you feel the need to.)

I think most people in our culture are certainly aware of a difference between these artistic areas, separating them on a mental spectrum, whatever their personal artistic tastes.  And there is a difference, obviously; I’m not trying to claim all art is the same.  What I find snobby is the notion that “high art” is innately and/or intellectually superior to other art.  The idea that only certain art is “high” or “serious” connotes this.

I’m surprised more people don’t have an issue with using phrases like “high art” or “serious art” … I suppose it’s because these terms and the idea of there being a big difference between “high art” and “non-high art” has just sunk too deeply into the mindset of our culture, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.  (Especially if you enjoy “high art” and want it to be more popular.)

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The big complex issue, I think, is in trying to answer the questions: Why might some art be considered “higher” or more “serious”?  What exactly is the difference between “high art” and “low art”?

There may be as many answers as there are people.

What comes to my mind the most strongly are the intentions of the artist.  For high art, the artist intends his art to be high; the artist creates his art in a conscious effort to have his or her artwork become a part of the high art world.  For low art, the intention is just to decorate something, or to make money.  The high artist strives for quality, the low artist for a quick paycheck.  The high artist has something deeply important to say to humanity and wants the audience to think deeply, the low artist just wants to have fun.  The function of the high artist’s art is to only to be considered art.  The function of the low artist’s art is to entertain.

I reject this notion.  It would mean we’d be basing our evaluation of a work of art on the intentions of the artist.  We’d be evaluating the intentions and not the art, only how well the artist’s intentions are executed.  And we’d have to be sure to know the intentions of the artist.  How do we know the intentions of the artist?  Just ask him?  What if we’re wrong?

You might say “Well, can’t we see in intention in the art itself?  Or in how the artist shares it?”  I don’t know.  How can anyone know?  You can certainly get a message out of art (especially in literature or theater or film, perhaps the least abstract arts), but how do you know that’s the message the artist was trying to communicate?  What if you don’t get a message or you’re confused about a message?  If the artist’s intentions (apart from what intentions we see in or infer from the art itself) should matter in our evaluation of art, our own opinions of the art itself become invalid and our understanding of other people’s artwork can only ever be incomplete.  We wouldn’t be able to think for ourselves, we’d have to look to the rest of society and make sure the people we want to be associated with agree with us.

Of course, some artists have known this and have played around with it.  What happens if you draw a can of soup?  What if your sculpture is a urinal?  What if you call random noise “music”?  How did we get to the point where we had to ask these questions or think them profound?  Methinks snobbery had something to do with it.

I could go on about this point, because it’s a complex one, and wording my argument isn’t easy.  Maybe I’ll dedicate an entire future blog post to this point.

Anyway, moving on…

One could also bring up the matter of influence… high art influences many high people.  But it’s easy to see why this explanation breaks down.  It turns art into a popularity contest; the more popular something is, the better.  And low art becomes popular all the time, yet it can never join the ranks of high art.

What about complexity?  High art is complex, and high artists spend years of practice and dedication to create their works.  Low art is simple.

Too subjective, right?

What about timelessness?  High art lasts hundreds of years, low art is soon forgotten.

Well then we got a long wait before knowing what high art is being created today.  (Perhaps there is none?)

What are some other answers to these questions?  I’m not sure off the top of my head, but they’re out there.  If there’s one out there I don’t reject, I’ll have to change my beliefs and take back what I say in this post.  But, come on, that’ll never happen!  Bwah ha ha ha ha!!  Aha ha ha!  Aha!  *Narf*

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In conclusion: the term “high art” and “serious art” and “high culture” and related phrases (and the world-views they imply) are snobby.  I hope you now understand why I think this.  And if we truly want “high art” to be more popular, we’ll have to rid ourselves of any appearances of snobbery.

“You know what I’m craving? A little perspective. That’s it. I’d like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?” ~Anton Ego

Categories: Philosophy

7 Comments

Anonymous · September 23, 2010 at 8:46 AM

so. Is not a great peice of classic music such as Beethoven’s 9th w Ode to Joy a better peice of music than most Meatloaf songs? And what of blogs?

S P Hannifin · September 23, 2010 at 2:35 PM

Innately? No; it would be snobby to think so. Subjectively it could be, depending on who you ask.

Plus, if you call Beethoven’s 9th “great” as you ask the question, you’re prejudging it in a question about its judgment. It’s only “great” if it’s thought to be “great” … that’s why anything is “great” … “great” is a concept of human consciousness, based on our desires, emotions, memories, beliefs, choices, etc.

(We could say that the moral message we obtain from such pieces is objectively good or bad, but this emerges from our religious beliefs, not aesthetic perceptions. And we still have to keep in mind that others may be perceiving a different moral message. Even with language, perhaps the least abstract human creation, our meanings can sometimes get misinterpreted.)

And what of blogs? I’m not sure many people would treat blogs as “art” (save for perhaps the webdesigns in which they are presented), but if they were, the same properties would apply. One could still think that a blog post is wonderfully written but has a wrong message, and vice versa, and there’s nothing about a blog’s aesthetics that would be objectively great or better than the rest. We could say there are some principles of webdesign that every blog should follow because of similarities in most of our psychological perception (e.g. some fonts and color combinations make it hard to read), but, again, certain aspects (like the font choice between Arial and Verdana) are aesthetically subjective, and it would be snobby to think one *objectively* aesthetically better than the other. But, of course, that’s a small and simple thing; when it comes to music and literature and film, etc, the gap is far wider, and the propensity for snobbery magnifies.

S P Hannifin · September 23, 2010 at 2:50 PM

And by “Subjectively it could be, depending on who you ask” I mean that one person could get greater emotion from Beethoven’s 9th, and one could get greater emotion out of a Meatloaf song. Which would have the stronger emotional effect would be affected by the listener’s memories, desires, mood, etc, not *just* the music itself. That’s what makes aesthetic perception complicated and subjective. To separate “high art” from other arts (to even use the term in the first place, unless you’re just not thinking about it) is to deny that different people will perceive the *same* set of qualia (i.e. sights and sounds) differently.

It’s not really a world-shattering concept, it’s just that our particular culture today doesn’t always seem to treat it as if it’s true, as is evidenced by the use of the phrase “high art” and “serious art” and the academic or subcultural exclusion of “non-high art” based on the concept rather than the admission of having a personal subjective opinion.

S P Hannifin · September 23, 2010 at 2:52 PM

Which might perhaps stem from low self-esteem and a fear of being wrong, which is ironic, since that itself leads to being wrong… but that’s just speculation, I could be wrong…

S P Hannifin · September 23, 2010 at 3:04 PM

I think the best thing a person can do is to be honest with himself in his response to artwork and not to use any culturally preconceived notions of “high art” in judging the art. You don’t have to mentally separate your aesthetic tastes to fit into culturally defined venn diagrams. The point of doing that, ultimately, can only be because you are uncomfortable with your own opinions as compared to other people’s, and thus uncomfortable with yourself, if only subconsciously.

S P Hannifin · September 23, 2010 at 3:06 PM

If not uncomfortable with yourself, at least afraid of the possibility of becoming so…

OK, I’ll stop blathering now…

S P Hannifin · September 23, 2010 at 3:18 PM

One last thing… I do think the perception that “high art” is “snobby”, whether true or not (though I do think there is a grain of truth to it), *does* ultimately hurt the potential audience for “high art”, and this is the fault both of the audience members wanting to promote it (such as by using such terms as “high art”) and of the organizations themselves who spend more marketing dollars trying to please their wealthier patrons who sometimes more likely rather enjoy the exclusivity of it.

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