High art versus Low art: Should we have this distinction? What purpose does it actually serve?

29 May


Mary Cassatt. Mother and Child. Oil on canvas, 1890. Wichita Art Museum.

Film still from Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).

Book cover of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

Book cover of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Beethoven, composer.

Incubus, alternative rock band.

Above I have listed a few images of artworks and artists that I have mentioned in the final paper I wrote for my Philosophy of Art seminar, in which I gave my take on the topic of high versus low art. If I asked a group of people to sort the above artists/works into the categories of high and low art, I think the categories would look pretty similar among everyone. Incubus, the movie Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Ayn Rand’s novel would all probably fall in the low art category, while Cassatt, Beethoven, and Dickens would all be placed in the high art category. It is natural for us to suspect that if we wanted to feel smarter for an afternoon, we are much more likely to spend that day looking at Cassatt’s artwork, listening to Beethoven, and reading Dickens than we are to have Woody Allen movie marathon, listen to Incubus, and read Ayn Rand. But why do we naturally assume that one category is like healthy brain food while the other is mental junk food, consumed only for pleasure? Why have we decided that Cassatt’s status as a painter, a woman artist, and as an Impressionist whose work we find in art museum’s is better for us than Woody Allen, or (for a more comparative example) graffiti or tattoo art? In my paper, I discuss the reasons that philosophers have given over the past several centuries to not only defend the need for a distinction between high and low art, but why high art is better for us than low art. Then I will also argue against these reasons, positing mainly that the high/low art distinction serves nothing, and that it is in fact harmful to culture and community because it preserves a sense of snobbery and elitism among those who engage in the traditionally designated high art forms over and against those who engage in traditionally low art forms.

High Art versus Low Art: A Distinction That Harms More Than It Helps


I have a low opinion of some artworks that are typically considered worthy enough to be exhibited in museums, which Richard Shusterman claims, in his analysis of the history of how we regard entertainment and pleasure, “have replaced churches as the place where one visits on the weekend for cultural edification.”[1] For example, I find Mary Cassatt to have generally produced terrible artwork, in the sense that she accomplished nothing that other impressionists she admired, such as Monet and Degas, had not already done, and furthermore, numerous other artists with similar styles and motivations did what she did so much better. I personally find the art of the filmmaker Woody Allen, whose film Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) stands out as an especially excellent example of Allen’s gift, to be infinitely more unique, well-crafted, and thought-provoking than anything Cassatt ever created. I would also say that I have always regarded Ayn Rand novels much more highly than anything by Charles Dickens or Shakespeare, although it is far rarer to find an institution dedicated to the study of literature that would take Rand equally as seriously as Dickens or Shakespeare, let alone more seriously. Am I wrong in having this opinion? Should I take Cassatt, Dickens and Shakespeare more seriously and with deeper appreciation than I do Allen and Rand?

It is no secret, whether in everyday life or in the study of philosophy, that there are notions of “high” versus “low” art, or “fine art” versus “popular art” or popular culture. Cassatt, Dickens and Shakespeare would certainly be placed in the high or fine art category more often than Woody Allen or Ayn Rand would. It means something to us whether we call something a work of high or fine art rather than low or popular art. High usually refers to what John A. Fisher calls “paradigms of art: Hamlet, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Beethoven’s Eroica, Swan Lake, the paintings of Cézanne—indeed, museum paintings generally, classical music generally, poetry generally and so forth.”[2] Fisher suggests that a work is called high art depending on whether its form is traditionally or historically considered to be high art. When we refrain from giving a work the status of high art, Fisher reasons, “it is natural to think of the term that contrasts with high art as denoting objects that are not really art.” Because of this, the high or low art distinction “approximates” the art or non-art distinction.[3]

Why the High-Low Art Distinction Has the Consequence of Creating a Hierarchy of Forms

While Fisher claims that we should not assume that the high-low distinction is the same as distinguishing between good and bad art,[4] the fact that this distinction functions essentially like the art—non-art distinction does in fact suggest that there is a hierarchy of forms of expression, with the high forms being art and thus better for us to pursue while the low forms are not art and therefore a distraction at best, a pernicious tool at worst. In his analysis of how philosophers have treated entertainment, Shusterman points out that the ranking of art forms has been a common practice by philosophers since Plato, who at the extreme end on his views of art thought that mimetic arts provided “corruptive pleasures of entertainment through imitations of the real that pretend to truth and wisdom but lack the cognitive legitimacy of true knowledge” which the art of philosophy has.[5] In more modern times, philosophers such as Theodor Adorno gave specific requirements for what true art, or the best art, does for humanity, which in Adorno’s case would be “to provide a critical perspective on society; its goal should be liberation from the social, economic, and political realities. To that end, it should be free from commercial pressures.”[6] Here Adorno draws a sharp line between art and non-art, suggesting, in the words of Noël Carroll, that “genuine art is an attempt to free itself from the social condition in which it finds itself.”[7] The very fact that we tend to think the person who reads Pride and Prejudice at the beach is more sophisticated, more intelligent, or has better taste than the person who reads The Da Vinci Code demonstrates that there is an implicit association of high art (or even just art) with superiority and low art (or non-art) with inferiority. In short, whether we call a work art or not matters because it affects how much we value it and the way in which we appreciate it.

Why the High-Low Distinction Matters, and Why It Is Wrong

Calling something art implies that it is a product of our culture, and that it is something worth studying in order to learn something about our culture. If aliens from another planet decided they were going to visit Earth but wanted to get acquainted with its inhabitants before visiting, our Earth ambassadors would surely advise them that one of the best ways they could learn about us is by studying our art. If these aliens only studied the paintings in museums, classical music, the “great” works of literature, and other forms that are usually considered either high art or the only true forms of art, they would not only develop an incomplete picture of human life, but the picture would also be wholly inaccurate. They would need to study a much broader, less specific array of works in order to get a better understanding of humanity, including television, rock music, and other forms that are usually considered either low art or not art at all. In response to this, one might say that just because these aliens should study all of these things, it does not follow that they should all be called art. Responding to this counterargument would likely dissolve into an apologetics for why these forms are just as good as high forms. But the question to which I do not see an objective[8] answer is why they should not be called works of art, no matter how awful they might be in certain cases. Even more so, I cannot find a reason to distinguish on the basis of form or genre between high art and low art.

It is perplexing to me that we have decided that certain forms, or forms which fulfill narrowly specific aims, are the only ones which can be considered high art or art at all. When it comes to defining art, it is important to have some boundary as to where art ends and products of culture begin. It is just as important, however, not to create boundaries that are excessively limiting.

But by upholding a high-low distinction in art, we open ourselves up to defending certain works as high art and certain works as low art on bases that are ultimately of personal opinion. Ted Cohen, when asking himself why it is important for him to assert or deny that a work is an artwork, realized that “When I feel like insisting or denying that something is art it is because I wish to insist on or resist the idea that the thing is to be taken seriously, that there is kind of obligation to recognize the thing as a significant item in my life.”[9] Cohen has recognized that what he calls art matters personally to him, and his classification of works as artworks is not as objective an analysis as some philosophers present it to be in their claims to define art. This recognition Cohen has humbly observed is a realization I would invite Adorno to have about his own definition of what art should be and how it should serve us.

As stated earlier, Adorno claims that art should be critical of society and that is the main function it serves. His view clearly comes from a Marxist orientation, and yet he makes universal claims about what art should do in a world that is not necessarily inherently Marxist. What if an artist does not want to be critical of society, or not be critical in the way that Adorno is critical of society? His idea of what art should be seems to derive too much from his personal political goals, which determine what he desires out of his own experience of art. By asserting his personal preference for what the best art accomplishes, Adorno denies the multiple functions that art can serve for others, some of which could certainly be opposed to his. It seems overly exclusive and limiting that no matter how much an artist thinks seriously about what he creates, no matter how much he says through the work he produces, that work is not as valuable as another artist’s work simply because his work is not critical of society while the other’s work is, if we follow Adorno’s theory.

While in Adorno’s case his dismissal of low or popular art forms appears to be overly motivated by personal political goals, other philosophers have warned against the perils of low art with reasons that make sweeping generalizations about art forms and do not stand up to scrutiny. In his book about mass art, Carroll discusses four general arguments that philosophers of aesthetics have used to support not only a distinction between fine art and mass art, but also to stigmatize mass art as a destructive force in society which decays our minds and distracts us from engaging with high art, the only kind of art that is nourishing for us. I will focus on the first two arguments Carroll discusses, namely massification and passivity, in this paper. Carroll, in his discussion of mass art, distinguishes mass art from popular art as a unique historical phenomenon created by the industrial era’s unprecedented capabilities of mass production.[10] Popular art, by contrast, is a term that is harder to define because what has been considered popular art in one century becomes fine art in another.

I will use the term low art as Carroll defines mass art because low art, in today’s world, is mass art. Broadly speaking, all of the forms generally considered to be low art can be and are reproduced and widely distributed, one of the conditions that Carroll considers necessary to classify a work as a mass artwork. The other necessary condition for something to be called a mass artwork, as Carroll argues, is that the “artwork is intentionally designed to gravitate in its structural choices (for example, its narrative forms, symbolism, intended affect, and even its content) toward those choices that promise accessibility with minimum effort, virtually on first contact, for the largest number of untutored (or relatively untutored) audiences.”[11] The idea that mass art is more accessible both logistically and intellectually is one of the characteristics theorists have used to distinguish high art from low art, and so there is no conflict with using low art the way Carroll uses mass art on the basis of this condition, either.

The massification argument, which Carroll introduces as having its origins in Dwight MacDonald’s work, “is symptomatic of a number of the recurrent biases exhibited by American cultural critics through most of the twentieth century with respect to mass art.”[12] I believe it is this bias which causes us to sneer (or feel pressured to sneer if we want to appear intellectual and sophisticated) at those who do not appreciate high art in the way we might think they should. Massification describes low art’s trait of being mass produced and meant for mass consumption. The fact that low art is easily reproducible marks its impersonal and alienating nature compared to high art’s intimate expression of a single artist’s vision. The reason that low art is so impersonal and indistinctive is because it is impurely motivated by the desire to make large profits on it, which can only be accomplished if the art is homogenous enough to be able to be consumed by the largest and most diverse amount of people possible.

This argument makes several assumptions that these qualities of low art are necessarily negative. The fact that low art can often be mass produced is a trait that, in certain ways, gives it an advantage over high art forms that cannot be easily reproduced, such as painting or sculpture. Accessibility to art is a topical political issue in the discussion of education and unequal access to educational resources. Many cities are trying harder than ever to make their high art scene as accessible as low art. Increased accessibility was one of the reasons given by the Barnes Foundation for why it should move its art collection to Center City Philadelphia despite the restriction in Albert Barnes’ will that the art could not leave the Merion building. For many people, especially those located in rural areas where the nearest art institutions are hundreds of miles away, high art’s lack of accessibility is a detriment rather than an asset. If we want more people to appreciate art and have an arts education, why would we remain in the mindset that accessibility is to be avoided? Lack of accessibility also serves to highlight socioeconomic inequality, where one’s knowledge of art and the number of museums and concert halls they can boast to have visited is directly correlated to the ability that their wealth gives them to travel easily. Similarly, a disdain for low art forms whose creation was motivated partly or solely by money also ignores the societal benefits of this trait of low art. In an economy where the job market is increasingly competitive, wouldn’t it be a good thing that the arts industry is profitable enough to contribute to job creation? And if careers in the arts can offer a way to make a living to those who are passionate about art, doesn’t that only help them to spend more of their time engaging with art and to provide opportunities for others to do so?

The second argument made against low art as identified by Carroll, which he calls passivity, is that low art makes few intellectual or emotional demands on us. Unlike high art, which requires us to have more education in order to understand and appreciate it, low art can be consumed and appreciated without any effort. It cannot be denied that high art does require education in order to be fully appreciated. As an art history major, I know that I enjoy and appreciate visual art now much more than I did before I began to study art history. I also know that it is possible I might appreciate high literature more if I took more English classes. But it is too dismissive to suggest that we do not need an education to fully appreciate low art forms. While I had always enjoyed Crimes and Misdemeanors, I appreciated it in a much deeper, more thoughtful way when I studied it alongside Kant’s Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals in a course I took on political theory. It would be much more difficult to fully appreciate the television show American Dad! if one did not understand the American political system upon which the show draws for much of its political satire. Furthermore, high and low art forms can benefit from a mutual understanding and appreciation of each other, a view that I am supporting in my choice to study Edward Hopper alongside the film American Beauty (1999) for my Swarthmore College Honors thesis. Whether an art form, high or low, makes demands on us is ultimately entirely up to us. We can decide for ourselves whether we want to study art history so that we can have a nuanced perspective on a painting, or whether we want to study Indian culture in order to more fully appreciate Bollywood films. Whether an artwork is high or low, we are the ones who determine how easy and passive our experience will be with them, not the artwork.

Many philosophers have extolled the positive effect that art can have for us, sometimes using these effects to contrast high art with low art and claim that low art does not have the same positive effects on us which high art provides. Cohen most compellingly suggested, for example[13], that art requires us to engage in metaphors of personal identification, a skill which we use in our attempts to understand and appreciate others. What is perhaps most discouraging about some philosophers’ insistence that we stay away from low art and must pay as much attention as possible to high art is that such a focus fails to be pragmatic. It will ultimately fail because it stubbornly clings to an idealistic vision of how people should act and feel.

To demonstrate this point, let us accept for a moment that Beethoven is better than Incubus, or that Milton is better than Shel Silverstein. Now imagine you have a friend who personally does not experience the benefits of a life filled with Beethoven and Milton in the ways that theorists who champion high art over low art promise we would. Instead, this friend claims that he has overall become a better, more thoughtful and insightful person because of his time spent with Incubus and Silverstein instead of Beethoven and Milton. What would we tell this friend, especially if for us we have the taste for Beethoven and Milton over Incubus and Silverstein? If we insist on upholding the distinction between high and low art and also maintain that high art is better than low art, we would have to say that this friend of ours is mistaken. He must need more education or more exposure to high art. Or he needs to approach or be taught high art in a different way that would make him realize the error of his ways. Unless we can prove that high art serves a distinct purpose that low art cannot serve, which would require us to deny our friend’s claim that low art did for him what only high art can supposedly do, there is no reason that, as Cohen puts it in his essay “Liking What’s Good: Why Should We?”, it is better to like better things.[14] But it seems awfully egotistical and presumptive to think that we know better than someone else enough to claim that we can deny their experience of art and assert that we know better than him to which art it is good for us to pay the most attention.

To support the idea that we can deny individual experiences if they do not correctly interpret art, we might turn to Kant. Kant’s theory of the beautiful posits that all humans have the cognitive faculties of imagination and understanding, and that these faculties, along with a disinterested attitude in which no preferences influence our judgment, are what help us to determine that a work of art is beautiful. Since we all determine beauty through the same process and without partiality, genuine judgments of beauty, and of art, will have intersubjective validity. This means that we will come to our judgments of beauty independently and autonomously, but we will then find that our judgments are in universal agreement with everyone who used this process.

Kant’s theory of intersubjective validity is difficult to decisively disprove, because we will never know whether we are truly making a disinterested judgment. But if we gathered one hundred people together and asked everyone to make a disinterested judgment of beauty about a particular work, what if all but one person disagreed? It is not implausible to say there will always be disagreement in the area of taste. No matter what the artwork is, there will always be at least one person on Earth that you’ll find who disagrees about whether the artwork in question is beautiful. But for that one person who disagrees with everyone, does that one person’s opinion simply not matter? Is his experience and opinion denied validity simply because he did not agree with the majority of the group? The answer to this seems to come down to how much value one puts in the collective versus the individual. And perhaps for those who hold collectivist values over individualist ones, I might never be able to convince them that it is wrong to ignore that single person’s view even when it comes in the face of ninety-nine unanimously opposing views. But if one values the individual at all, surely the idea that we can deny one person’s experience does not sit well. And for that matter, why do we think that we have the authority or the qualifications to privilege our taste over someone else’s?

How Do We Treat Art Without the High-Low Distinction?

At this point, I have defended why there should be no distinction between high and low art, but I have not explained why this distinction, even if we refuse to discard it, should not be the same as the distinction between art and non-art. It may seem as if the difference between broadening the definition of art and while allowing that some art is good and some is bad, as I am arguing we should, compared to simply calling the good things art and the bad things non-art, seems nonexistent. Because whether you believe the movies to be non-art or really bad art, you will still not take them seriously, or at least you will still not value them. The fact that you do not take them seriously is fine by itself. But it is important that you recognize that film, however negatively you may think of them, is still art[15], because to do so is to admit that you have your own biases, your perspective is uniquely your own, and that you are not the absolute authority of taste or aesthetic judgment, no matter how qualified you might think you are. By virtue of your individuality, you are subjective[16], and because you do not have all experiences and cannot know everything, you cannot claim to know truth for a fact. You cannot claim to know that truly, a movie is not a work of art, or that David Copperfield is an excellent work of art. We should all admit that our views can be nothing more than opinions and that it is unfair to judge one person to have better taste simply because of their opinions, preferences, or expertise.

Another point I think I should clarify is that there is a difference between calling an art form good or bad and calling it high or low. As I have said, I am happy with critics decrying television as foul art and praising painting as wonderful art. The reason that this is not the same as calling television low art and painting high art is because the ways that philosophy has used those distinctions in the past, for reasons which I have discussed earlier, have given the forms which fall under high or low art inherent characteristics which are inherently good or bad. But not all of the forms which have typically been considered high or low have had these characteristics, and these characteristics are not necessarily good or bad, as I have tried to demonstrate above. And even if we believed they did, we should recognize that our beliefs as such are not absolute truths about these forms, as the high-art distinction implies they are.

So with this in mind, how do we distinguish art from non-art? I would say that something is art as long as it is expressive, that the artist made it with the intention of expressing something that is true for them. How do we distinguish art from other expressive works, such as academic papers or newspaper articles? I think the difference here is that artworks cannot merely report what is observed or researched. What the work expresses has to be something beyond a single event or situation, an idea that the artist arrived at independently which could not be replicated by someone else. In the case of academic papers, articles, advertisements, or other expressive works, with enough research and expertise, someone could reasonably create on his own what the other person created on his own.

The other feature that distinguishes artworks from regular works is that artworks do not directly, plainly express what they want to express. An academic paper or article tells the reader directly what it is trying to express, whereas art forms do not. Literature creates an entire world with characters and stories to express an underlying message. Paintings use paint and through that paint create compositions, figures, and color patterns, among other elements, to give the viewer a certain message. The same can be said of television, film, dance, music, sculpture, and other forms which do not state outright what they want to express. Art uses a medium in tandem with abstract, intangible devices (such as composition, light, rhythm, dialogue, allegory, etc.) to express something through the medium and its devices, rather than simply stating, “in plain English,” what it wants to express. Certain works of art do a better job of expressing something than others, or some may do it more cleverly than others. But how well an artwork does its job does not justify determining whether it is even an artwork on that basis.


My main focus in this paper has been to fight against the hierarchical nature of the high-low art distinction. Although I have introduced my way of distinguishing between art and non-art, I realize that this is a brief introduction and would require elaboration in order to develop it into a substantive theory. Instead of extending this paper into a much longer work to accomplish that need, I will instead offer a lovely idea that Cohen presents on how we should engage with others as we engage with art.[17] If we are no longer going to spend time trying to convince others that form A is high art while form B is low art or non-art, how should we form communities of artistic engagement with different art forms? And if we are no longer going to be critical of ourselves or others concerning the character of our taste, how should we think about our taste? Cohen begins to answer these questions by imagining two circles of taste. In the center of one circle lies the Marriage of Figaro, with people of various groups who love it, such as Cohen himself, fans of opera, or fans of Mozart, situated around the circle’s center. The other circle Cohen imagines is one in which he is the center, and all the artworks he loves surround him. Cohen asks himself, what do all the people who love the Marriage of Figaro have in common? And what do all of the works that Cohen loves have in common?

Cohen’s answer is that these people and these works have nothing in common. We do not have anything in common with others who love similar things, nor do the things we love have anything in common with each other. In Cohen’s

Unabashed, romantic declaration: each work, each object of appreciation and affection is unique, and equally unique are those of us who are the appreciators, and, in addition, those bonds that link us to our loves may also be unique, or nearly. It is critical to appreciate this uniqueness, and the way to do this is to do away with, one by one, all the temptations to think we are not unique, that we are just like one another. In doing this, we have a chance to discover two things we absolutely need to know, namely just how much we are indeed like one another, and how much we are not.[18]

Instead of focusing on how to be better than other people by liking better art than others, an aim which the high-low distinction pressures us towards, I think we might spend our time more fruitfully if we allow ourselves to be fascinated and perplexed by the way that life stories shape one person’s love of Pollock and another person’s love of the band My Morning Jacket. And it is when we enter dialogues of taste and critique with curiosity and openness rather than a competitive attitude tinged with a sense of superiority that we will have the hope for a much broader, and more vibrant aesthetic community of engagement.

[1] Richard Shusterman, “Entertainment: A Question for Aesthetics,” British Journal of Aesthetics 43, no. 3 (2003): 302.

[2] John A. Fisher, “High Art Versus Low Art,” in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, eds. Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes (New York: Routledge, 2005), 527.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 528.

[5] Shusterman, 291.

[6] Fisher, 533.

[7] Noël Carroll, A Philosophy of Mass Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 72.

[8] By objective as I use the word here I mean without being ultimately subjected to personal desires or preferences.

[9] Ted Cohen, “High and Low Thinking about High and Low Art,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51, no. 2 (1993): 154.

[10] Carroll, 185.

[11] Ibid., 196.

[12] Ibid., 16.

[13] That my description of Cohen’s idea lies adjacent to my observation that philosophers have contrasted high art with low art based on its uniquely positive effects is not meant to imply that Cohen participates in that line of thought. Cohen, whose view of high versus low art Fisher describes as “pluralistic hierarchicalism” (531), believed in the high versus low art distinction, but did not believe that either group was superior to the other.

[14] Cohen, “Liking What’s Good: Why Should We?” in Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop Culture, eds. William Irwin and Jorge J.E. Gracia (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 118.

[15] But of course you are entitled to think that film is categorically terrible art.

[16] By subjective I mean that you are inextricably tied to your particular partialities as determined by your life experiences. I do not believe as Kant does that we can make truly disinterested, impartial judgments.

[17] Cohen, in Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop Culture, 126-129.

[18] Ibid., 128.

Works Cited

Carroll, Noël. A Philosophy of Mass Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

Cohen, Ted. “High and Low Thinking about High and Low Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51, no. 2 (1993): 151-156.

—. “Liking What’s Good: Why Should We?” in Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop

       Culture, edited by William Irwin and Jorge J. E. Gracia, 117-130. New York: Rowman &

Littlefield, 2007.

Fisher, John A. “High Art Versus Low Art,” in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, edited  by Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes, 527-540. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Shusterman, Richard. “Entertainment: A Question for Aesthetics.” British Journal of Aesthetics 43, no. 3 (2003): 289-307.


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