Some few decades ago the Museum of Modern Art staged an exhibition that explored the concepts of “high” and “low” art. I actually just picked up a copy of the exhibition catalog not too long ago. It was argued that the line between “high” and “low” was so blurred under Modernism as to become meaningless. “Low Art” was a term applied to the art embraced by the masses. It was intended as a qualitative term... a pejorative... But was this any more than a snobbishness rooted in social class?
Are we to assume that the populist/popular works of art by Daumier, Mucha, Rackham, or the finest illustrative artists of the 19th and 20th centuries are inherently “Low Art” and inferior to works of “High Art” Damien Hirst, Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons, Tracy Emin, etc...? What of the works by George Grosz, Otto Dix, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, etc... that employed forms taken from popular/populist art? As with the Calvin and Hobbes comic, are we to assume that merely changing the context... placing the comic strip within the “high art” gallery makes it inherently more profound... more intellectually challenging... better? Is Warhol inherently superior to R. Crumb (who asked this question himself) or Calvin & Hobbes’ Bill Waterson? Are the finest works of Jazz or of Broadway and Hollywood inferior to Schoenberg, Webern, Ligeti, or Stockhausen. Does anybody actually listen to Stockhausen?
Bernstein... firmly enshrined within the ranks of “High Art” in the realm of music as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic... who was behind some of the most admired recordings of classical music (especially his Mahler and Haydn)... also based his greatest composition (West Side Story) on Jazz and other American populist music. He also notoriously declared that the Beatles were the greatest songwriters since Schubert
. Phillip Glass... another classical composer (Minimalist) firmly ensconced within the “High Art” realm, suggested that the only real difference in the arts is between the inventors and those who build upon their innovations... and he admits that having listened to any number of works of Pop Music that built upon some of his own innovations, he realized that the works of those who build upon the ideas and concepts of the inventors (High Art?) is often better.
The concept of “High Art” vs “Low Art” seems to be rooted in the idea that the taste of a given audience... the wealthy and the highly educated... is superior to that of others... and thus the art they favor is equally superior. Looking at the art promoted in the major art galleries and the major art periodicals today I question this.