Alex King is an assistant professor at SUNY at Buffalo. She works primarily on issues in ethics and metaethics, but is interested in normativity generally and the ways in which different normative domains resemble or differ from each other.
It’s a sad truth that aesthetics isn’t taken particularly seriously in the contemporary philosophical scene (see here and here). And I think Bence Nanay is right to suggest that this is in part due to the perceived elitism of aesthetics. In this post, I’ll argue that we can make progress on this front by discussing an issue of independent philosophical interest: the distinction between high and low art and between so-called “highbrow” and “lowbrow” audiences. The moral, basically, will be this: Quit being so judgy.
The high art/low art distinction can sort very broad things or very narrow things:
- categories of media (fine arts vs. applied arts)
- media (opera vs. fashion)
- cross-medium movements (Romanticism vs. pop art)
- genres (drama vs. horror movies)
- sub-genres (Bauhaus vs. de Stijl architecture)
- particular intra-sub-genre works (Lady Gaga vs. Britney Spears)
Similarly, in every aesthetic arena people sort themselves into highbrows and lowbrows – the insiders and the outsiders; those able to appreciate less easy, less accessible things and those who aren’t. Film highbrows crave difficult but rewarding works by art house directors like Godard and Tarkovsky. Film lowbrows are captivated by the shiny production values of Spielberg or Michael Bay. Culinary highbrows prefer the bitter but subtler flavor of dark chocolate to the cloying sweetness of milk chocolate. Literary highbrows would rather die than read (or be caught reading?) a Harlequin romance novel. Even automotive highbrows have their preferences: the deep roar of a naturally aspirated engine to the cheap whirr of a turbo; the manual to the automatic transmission.
But there’s reason to doubt that there’s an inherent difference in quality between high art/highbrow and low art/lowbrow things. The following two arguments can help us see why:
(1) A historical argument: Many things that are now high art or highbrow, like jazz or movies film or beer, used to be lowbrow. In fact, food and drink are reaching a fever pitch of highbrow status. Following wine’s lead, coffee and beer are the subject of erudite discussions, and gourmet food stores are exploding all over. (Did you know that you can be a coffee or a beer sommelier now (called stewards and Cicerones, respectively)?) Conversely, many things that are now low used to be high (though more often, ex-high art becomes solidly “middlebrow”). Think of fashion trends and technological changes like flared jeans, Motorola Razrs, and “futuristic” Googie architecture; as well as hyper-popularized art, like Robert Frost poetry, melting Dali clocks, and Raphael’s cherubs. (If you’re interested in more, check out the amazing chart from a 1949 issue of Life Magazine). Such mobility suggests that our current distinctions don’t track anything about the objects themselves.
(2) A Bourdieu-inspired argument: We sort aesthetic objects – and ourselves – into such categories to communicate social and cultural features of our identities. This provides a much better explanation of high/low phenomena (and diversity of opinion, cycles of trends, patterns of high/low development, etc.) than actual quality differences.
You might object that the distinctions I gave above are, really, an outdated way of thinking about the high/low distinction. You would be right. Sophisticated contemporary audiences defy these traditional categorizations, maybe partly in response to considerations like (1) and (2). A preference profile with cachet need not restrain itself to opera, Romanticism, and Godard. It might now contain, alongside things like this, Jay-Z, Friends, and black velvet Elvis posters.
Some argue that this means we’re moving into a post-brow era, called by some the “No-Brow” (see here and here). But I think that we’ve actually just moved to a more complex sorting system.
My suspicion is that high art/highbrow things are now distinguished by a special mode of appreciation or engagement. You can like Kmart or Gap clothes because looking normal is a conscientious reaction to the extravagance and ultimate silliness of fashion trends (see “normcore”). You can like Buffy the Vampire Slayer for its commentary on feminism, coming-of-age stories, and superhero tropes. In other words, you can like anything – from fashion and turbos to Britney and Bay – as long as you’ve got some articulate and intelligent reasons to justify your doing so.
If that’s right, then there must be a lowbrow way of appreciating things, too. If high art appreciation is characterized by the presence of smart reasons, lowbrow appreciation must be characterized by their lack. Such art appreciation ends up looking straightforward and uncritical. To appreciate something this way is just to follow your nose and not ask why. Someone just really likes Kmart or Gap clothes; someone just has fun watching Buffy. No arguments, just enjoyment.
On this picture, highbrow appreciation is hard-fought and hard-won, and its rewards lie below the surface. Lowbrow appreciation, on the other hand, is relatively comfortable and easy. By this, I don’t mean that lowbrow appreciation is all feel-good unicorns and rainbows. I just mean that the only thing you have to do to experience art this way is experience things and feel feelings. This distinction resonates with the Bourdieu-inspired point: perhaps we’re just trying to communicate how smart, insightful, and unlike the rest we are. And of course, the more complex we make the explanation, the smarter and better we end up looking.
This new way of characterizing the distinction can sound, when read one way, as simply saying that – forget high/low – there are reasons that good art is good, and being able to articulate those reasons makes you a good experiencer of art. But that’s not what I mean. Surely both of the above reactions are important to the fullest aesthetic appreciation and assessment of things – both the instantaneous, uncritical enjoyment or aversion, and the considered analysis of value. Where would aesthetic experience be without our emotional responses and gut reactions? And where would it be if we couldn’t articulate any reasons for finding some works good and others bad?
It’s possible to take a step further, too. Not only are these immediate responses indispensable for a full aesthetic experience, but I suspect that they’re compatible with a robust, reason-responsive experience. Lowbrow audiences can still respond to the reasons that make the art good (or count in its favor), even if they can’t articulate those reasons. Maybe a teenage girl watching Buffy is responding to the humor that spoofs superhero stories; she may very well respond to the vampires and demons as a metaphor for the trials we face in becoming adults (and adult women in particular). She can do all this, I suspect, while being completely unable to make explicit why she so enjoys the show. What would she gain in being able to articulate those reasons?
Thus, it’s at least important to recognize that both ways of experiencing art are important to full aesthetic appreciation. But furthermore, how we frame the thoroughly reflective way (where we have properly explicit and spelled-out reasons for our preferences) simply may not capture what’s valuable about it. Maybe what’s good about the reflective way of experiencing art relies solely on the reason-responsiveness, and not at all on the articulation of those reasons. And if what I’ve said above is right, then many unreflective aesthetic experiences are reason-responsive.
So I worry that, even in the brave new post-brow world we’re heading toward, there’s still a pernicious distinction implicit in what we find it acceptable for people to enjoy. That distinction, in particular, isn’t merely one of good versus bad art, but of smarter versus dumber ways of engaging with art. But that’s a bad distinction. It’s bad because both ways of engaging are important, and because the inarticulate way of engaging need not be seen as dumb, unsubtle, or invalid because of it.
Hence, the moral: we, as aestheticians, as critics, and as audiences, shouldn’t be so quick to judge even those whose engagement with art seems superficial or unreflective. We shouldn’t make people feel bad if they can’t articulate the reasons for which they like things. It’s not justified by theory, and it’s practically damaging. Such behavior alienates people. It’s elitist and judgy, and we should knock it off.
Caveat: Of course, what I’ve said only gestures in the direction of a fully worked-out view, and I’ve ignored plenty of subtleties (I didn’t even discuss the middlebrow!), potential objections (what about immoral stuff?), and all that. But the issues are worth thinking about, and I hope it will generate some interesting thoughts and discussion!