Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

"Highs & Lows" by Alex King


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!

21 thoughts on “"Highs & Lows" by Alex King

  1. Why is it pernicious, as opposed to socially useful?


  2. Well, it's theoretically pernicious because it relies on a bunk distinction. (I think *both* ways of enjoying art are important.) It's practically pernicious because it's alienating.

    The fact that it's alienating is also it's not socially useful. Maybe you think that alienating non-insiders or the inarticulate is socially useful? I guess it is, in a way, but things can be useful for bad ends.

    Maybe I'm misunderstanding your question, though. Why do you think it's socially useful?


  3. Alex, how about the following:

    Perhaps the notion of the high/low distinction just simply tracks our expectations with respect to our engagements with works of the same sort. Both Tarkovsky's Stalker and Bay's Transformers are movies and so demand we engage with them as such. That the former is high, the latter low doesn't signal a correspondingly different mode of appreciation but rather a correspondingly different set of expectations as to story complexity, pacing, thematic profundity, camera shots/angles/movement, acting nuance, thin/thick characters depicted, plot resolution, forgivable/unforgiveable mistakes, the presence or absence or sophistication of CGI, entertaining/provocative, etc. On this reading, those imposing the expectation set of the one onto the engagement with the other are fundamentally motivated not by elitism or populism but invariably by some mistaken and wholly unargued for medium specificity claim–i.e., a claim about what works in that medium ought concern themselves (qua film, qua novel, etc.). This is why the (low) audience lambasting the snail-like pacing of Stalker and absence of alien CGI and the (high) audience derisively pointing out the wafer-thin characters in Transformers along with its seemingly nonsensical plotting both make the very same kind of mistake: that for works of a certain sort (film), there is but a single correct set of expectations (their own) that ought inform proper engagement with and critical appraisal of those things qua works of that sort (qua film).


  4. Christy,

    First – thanks for inviting me to do this!

    Second – I hadn't considered that at all before! What a neat suggestion. In general, I'm a fan of the idea that certain types of works are properly assessed according to one set of criteria while others are properly assessed according to another. The only thing I'd resist is that the set of expectations that go along with the high things (like Stalker) are themselves necessarily better, more correct, or worthier aesthetic criteria than the set of expectations that go along with the low things (like Transformers). And you didn't suggest that, but it's also not, as far as I can tell, inconsistent with what you suggested. So in general: yes! As to further conclusions: maybe not.


  5. I find it hard not to be judgy at times. I look back at my younger self and what I liked and feel that I have moved on from that appreciation of things. I don't get the same entertainment or aesthetic value from things now as I did when I was a kid. When things aren't that complicated, they get boring.

    However, low-brow doesn't mean boring. High-brow can be boring, too. I don't know if there is any simple way to predict non-boringness, and/ or non-subjective non-boringness. But if I am yawning, I'm generally judging the work to be poor.

    Anyone propose a uni-brow theory?


  6. Christy,

    How does your proposal account for a work (or class of work) that shifts from low to high, for example, without a corresponding change in the expectations that should be licensed for it. Jazz for instance, in shifting from low to high, does not seem to have been attended with the sort of features that make your transformers/stalker comparison so compelling, in part because some of the same pieces of jazz that were once classified as low are not regarded as high, and also because the changes and evolutions in the form of music overall don't seem commensurate with the degree of shift in its status.


  7. Hi Noah,

    Hmm, middlebrows, no-brows… don't know about the uni-brows. 😉 (Maybe a Frida Kahlo view.) (Ooh, bad joke.)

    I think the conditional “if yawning, then poor” is more plausible than the converse. It seems like lots of things that aren't boring can still be aesthetically poor. Think of a movie that's painfully or laughably bad – and so not *boring*, but clearly it's not good.

    But even the conditional seems iffy: if you're trying to study bad art, you might learn a lot of things from it, but your lack of boredom wouldn't make it good, right?


  8. @Lewis Yeah, I like that way of putting it. That's a way of getting at the further conclusion I was worried about – that certain sets of things (like jazz or art house film) might be judged according to their own sets of criteria, but that there's a temptation then to say that some sets are better than others.

    But maybe you had something else in mind. Are you saying with jazz: “Look, the set of expectations for jazz when it was low art is the same set of expectations we have now that it's considered high art”? Which would mean there's a problem in Christy's suggestion that the possible difference between high and low art is simply the content of the different sets of expectations?


  9. Yeah, Lewis! What Alex said.

    I'm not familiar enough with Jazz (though familiar enough to recognize it's signature foul aural stench) to get a firm grip on what you're saying. If you're claiming the jazz case to represent an (intra-medium) transition from low to high without a corresponding change in engagement expectations, then I'm having a hard time seeing how that could be the case. For example, consider Creepy or Eerie comics. Previously thought the gutter-trash of comics–the stuff of prurient teen boys and presently or soon to be incarcerated violent and deviant felons–they are now consumed almost exclusively by comic snobs and fanboy elite. However, it would be a mistake to think the expectations remain fixed despite their shift from the low to the high brow set. Quite the opposite in fact. Unlike the low audience way back when, the contemporary comic readership has little to no interest in the stories they tell or receiving their narrative uptake. Instead, the primary interest nowadays lies with the illustrations and the appreciation of their artistic and formal features–the very sort of thing their early juvenile and reprobate readership almost wholesale ignored. To be sure, the fact that the comic medium has matured in such a way so as to allow in-depth and purely visual appreciation of the illustrations (absent their service to the comic narrative) explains how formerly low-brow works can transition to high-brow; such transition, however, comes with a corresponding shift in expectations governing or informing audience engagement with those works. I assume this also to be the case elsewhere in other media (Shakespeare from low-high theatre, pre-1920s proto-documentary films (e.g., Lumiere, Doyen, Marinescu), 17th century Dutch landscape prints, etc.).


  10. “Hmm, middlebrows, no-brows… don't know about the uni-brows. 😉 (Maybe a Frida Kahlo view.) (Ooh, bad joke.)”

    Am I high-brow for (barely) knowing enough to find that joke funny? Or low-brow for actually enjoying it?


  11. Hello Alex,
    If we are studying the art, then we aren't doing the same thing as appreciating it. So not being bored by studying the art is not the same as not being bored when appreciating the art.

    I think “laughably bad” is somewhat similar to being boring. You are entertained by something laughably bad as long as you can hold out putting up with the art, but then it just turns boring. Perhaps there is an aesthetc pain threshold.

    (Or would it be Diego Rivera's view?)


  12. Christy,

    My thought was that early Jazz enthusiasts were not in the dark about the features that contemporary Jazz enthusiasts have come to appreciate. I am not a jazz person, so I don't know how to talk about these particular features concretely.

    I guess what I was thinking is that an expectations account has to be relativized to a particular group's expectations, or to something like a normative ideal (“the expectations appropriate to the work”). And even when jazz was low, I assumed some people had high expectations for it. I just wasn't sure what to make of the proposal for that case, whereas, I understood that no one expects (or should expect, rather) deep characters and well structured plot from Transformers.


  13. Elitist here…!
    I fully understand the urge to avoid being judgmental. It's an antisocial behaviour, and it can be harmful to those in society who deserve support. However, anti-elitism in academic theory is just bizarre. First, an aesthetic theory which fails to distinguish between good and bad art is surely deeply impoverished? If aesthetics is to do anything at all, then surely exploring artistic quality must be a part of its mission? Second, you say, “We shouldn’t make people feel bad if they can’t articulate the reasons for which they like things.” Sure, no-one should ever make anyone else feel bad. But in your institutional setting, you ask young people to pay thousands of dollars so that they can learn to better articulate thoughts about aesthetics – including, presumably, reasons for which they like things. “Maybe a teenage girl watching Buffy…completely unable to make explicit… What would she gain in being able to articulate those reasons?” Aargh, I didn't mean for this comment to be pointed, but this strikes me as really disingenuous from someone who teaches aesthetics.
    Perhaps I'm misreading the post. Are you just showing commendable social humility? If those comments weren't meant literally, then I'm horribly wrong and I apologise!
    As the subject of movies came up, I wanted to mention Tony Zhou's series of video essays on movie technique . Every time I watch in depth, technical discussions of artistic technique, it seems to become clear that “good” artists (whatever that might mean) are in fact extremely talented technicians. At the very least, I think that technical virtuosity is a reasonable criterion for distinguishing some artists from others, and some forms of appreciation from others.


  14. I've been thinking more about this and trying to work out what it's about, and I wonder, is it this: the distinction between high and low art is very problematic; some people (hipsters?!) might think that ironic enjoyment of low culture would be a way to break down the high/low distinction and dissolve the problems; in fact this kind of enjoyment just shifts the problematic distinction from the type of art to the mode of appreciation; so the problems remain unresolved.
    I could agree with all of that. I just wouldn't agree that the problems with the high/low art distinction mean that we have to abandon it; and therefore(?) the problems with the distinction in the modes of appreciation don't make me think we have to abandon those distinctions, either.
    It seems like those two separate parts of the argument could be usefully teased apart.


  15. Why read it as disingenuous rather than as soul searching?

    What would she gain, and would it be a gain in aesthetic experience, or just in having a theory of such experiences?


  16. You're right, disingenuous was the wrong word, because this isn't about the OP's character. Confused is the right word. The OP has confused the social sphere, in which it is a laudable egalitarian impulse to deny that any person is better than any other person, with the theoretical sphere, in which the failure to allow that some art (or maybe some ways of appreciating art) is better than others simply indicates that the theory is insufficiently fine-grained.


  17. I think you're confusing the content of the theory versus the practice of theorizing. It may be that theorizing aesthetic value requires making these reasons explicit, even if actually appreciating those values (in the way that our theory would say makes them genuinely more valuable) does not require such explication.

    I mean, isn't that kind of the meaning behind the title of this blog? Theorists need aesthetic theories – artists (and art appreciators) just need aesthetic experiences.


  18. Hang on, what do you think the theory is about? Theory isn't divorced from aesthetic experience; aesthetic theory is (at least to a very large extent) a theory of aesthetic experiences. I agree that artists and art consumers do not need theory; but the theory is about them. And the OP's theory denies distinctions among them: “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.” If this is the kind of theory which the theorist holds, then she cannot shed any light on aesthetic reactions. She is less able to distinguish among them, categorise them, reason with them. She has talked herself out of a job. And she seems to have done so out of considerations of courtesy: “It’s elitist and judgy, and we should knock it off.” That's a really bad motivation for theory.

    So to the extent that this post represents theory, I can't see that it takes us anywhere useful; to the extent that it represents social advice, it's right, but not in a way which is informed by aesthetic ideas – don't be judgmental is a pretty basic universal.


  19. Perhaps my argument with Derek is all about this sentence:
    “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.”
    “Judge” as in condemn – agreed. But “judge” as in make discriminating judgments about – that's the aesthetician's job, isn't it?


  20. Hey, sorry, I just saw that the comments section really blew up since the last time I checked. So, chinaphil, if you're still around:

    “First, an aesthetic theory which fails to distinguish between good and bad art is surely deeply impoverished? If aesthetics is to do anything at all, then surely exploring artistic quality must be a part of its mission?”

    I am by no means suggesting that there's no difference between good and bad art! I'm just suggesting that (a) the difference between high and low art (whatever that difference is supposed to be) does not track the good-bad distinction; and (b) that the experiencer's ability to articulate those reasons is not essential to a worthy or worthwhile aesthetic experience.

    Of course we as philosophers are rightly interested in those reasons, i.e., in what actually makes good art good. But we don't need to think that aesthetic experience, to be worth anything, must involve that articulation. Pithily: to have a worthwhile aesthetic experience doesn't involve being a philosopher of art. (Think, by analogy, of morality: morally good people aren't a fortiori also ethicists with the right theory.)

    “Second, you say, “We shouldn’t make people feel bad if they can’t articulate the reasons for which they like things.” Sure, no-one should ever make anyone else feel bad. But in your institutional setting, you ask young people to pay thousands of dollars so that they can learn to better articulate thoughts about aesthetics – including, presumably, reasons for which they like things.”

    Well, I think “no-one should ever make anyone else feel bad” is strictly speaking false. But that aside, I think the institutional stuff is simply beside the point. I also, in some sense, ask young people to pay thousands of dollars so that they can learn about ethical theory; others ask them to pay to learn about Plato or Confucius or Marx or Virginia Woolf or stuff like macroeconomics. That doesn't mean I think that they have to have taken an ethics class to be good people; or that they in some way need Plato, Confucius, Marx, Woolf, or macroeconomics in their lives.


  21. I don't see what's to separate the thesis on offer here from the general drift of aesthetics since before TS Eliot was cold in the ground. You could almost sink a battleship with the stacks of articles calling us to rethink high and low culture. Actually, it's a prime example of something sliding from high to low, to the point where it seems almost a go-to casual topic when we cannot think of anything else to say. And almost all of it comes down of the side opposite of 'elitism' (so maybe it's better to say the field is 'listing', not drifting).

    Still and all, I find myself agreed with about half of it – and this piece is pretty representative of the short-form argument.

    To start with the agreement: Complexity,  subtlety, interpretive richness and technical craftmanship can all be lost on a work that ends up the aesthetic equivalent of a show pigeon, even if the audience could conceivably 'get it'. This is why I count myself with the 7 billion philistines who couldn't give a toss about James Joyce. By the same token,  mongrel flocks of Stephen Kings can be quite handsomely iridescent in the right light.

    Contemporary academic aesthetics rightly understands it must play the sommelier while integrating everything that makes aesthetic experience common to all. But its practitioners have a bad conscience about the integrating since it ultimately requires subordinating some things to others – an affront to our egalitarian manners. That is the entire social impetus behind the generational consensus.

    That consensus is not only a majority position,  but both near-unanimous and long-stagnant (basically for living memory); it is the graveyard silence behind all chirping appreciations of pulp and pop. Aesthetics could learn a lot from logic (or frankly,  the dictionary): what is subsumed in a hierarchy is not excluded. What is ruled out by mannered consensus, is.

    I sympathize with anyone charged to the pastoral care of undergrads' egos. Manners are necessary,  and any teachers should try to meet their students where they are. But teaching aside and for all of the effort sunk into this boondoggle,  I will not pretend to have gotten much more than a few leads on pulpy pleasures from the technical literature and casual conversation of high v. low-brow.



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