Popular Culture – High and Low

A society, as it becomes less and less able, in the course of its development, to justify the inevitability of its particular forms, breaks up the accepted notions upon which artists and writers must depend in large part for communication with their audiences. It becomes difficult to assume anything. All the verities involved by religion, authority, tradition, style, are thrown into question, and the writer or artist is no longer able to estimate the response of his audience to the symbols and references with which he works. In the past such a state of affairs has usually resolved itself into a motionless Alexandrianism, an academicism in which the really important issues are left untouched because they involve controversy, and in which creative activity dwindles to virtuosity in the small details of form, all larger questions being decided by the precedent of the old masters. The same themes are mechanically varied in a hundred different works, and yet nothing new [bold is mine] is produced: Statius, mandarin verse, Roman sculpture, Beaux-Arts painting, neo-republican architecture. – Clement Greenberg, Avant Garde and Kitsch

In today’s art world we must ask – how do we define what is high or low? These cultural boundaries, since the death of the avant garde in the early 60s, have been blurred, and in some cases, erased entirely. Art in the hands of the Postmodernists is contingent on the never ending contextual flow of Popular Culture, which in itself is tied to precedent, production and proliferation. It is the essence and play between High and Low that Postmodernism no longer understands or exploits. Postmodernism and its parasitic relationship with Popular culture is mired in the middle brow – neither one nor the other, neither fish nor fowl. Where does this failure of artistic intention come from and how did we arrive here?

First let’s tackle the idea of Low art. This is fairly simple and always has been. This is the art of the out-class, and by out-class I mean the disenfranchised, the waylaid, the darker and meaner parts of society. Low art is about “sex, drugs and rock & roll” – not as it is relayed to us in Pop movies or TV, but in the physical sense of Eros and Thanatos, life and death. I define this further as Rough Trade, the hard parts of culture, the unrefined emotional parts of existence that lie close to the bone. Low art generates from the body and indulges in what Freud defined as the id. It is the forbidden visual, the angry declaration and the dark magic of existence. This is where Picasso’s exploitation of Primitivism came from, it is where Monet’s break down of visual mechanics begins, it is DeKooning’s gestural urges and Pollock’s drips, and it is Caravaggio’s prostitutes and peachy bits of Rough Trade transformed into saints and martyrs. The Low is not art – it is libido, it is present, urgent, immediate, but mostly it is a dissent from artistic norms.

The High is defined through a two-fold transformative process. The first part of the process is the encounter with one’s own being, one’s own experience of life. The High interprets and explicates one’s emotional and intellectual understanding of lived experience. It is similar to Low culture in its close reading of life, but the High has a necessary critical element that allows for deeper involvement in the visual processes that create meaning. Perhaps more importantly, it is a confrontation and break with the history of other High culture. The High must encompass both a continuity and a transformation of traditional cultural forms as it defines new experiences of understanding. In order to attain the High one must assimilate and understand the past and confront that collective memory from a new perspective. High culture is more than being a part of one’s time or one’s attitude (like Low culture.) Anyone can express their feelings or explain ideas, but for art to be High culture one must push those ideas beyond the known and accepted tropes and solutions of previous visual solutions. One must overcome the strong artists, the transformative artists – the artists of precedent. High culture is not immediately accessible – it is not outwardly apparent what it is. High culture does not set out to deliberately obscure meaning, but rather, its provocation of historical precedent creates a “strangeness” or “discomfort”. Understanding and acceptance are not necessarily apparent. New visual meanings are revealed in the work as one confronts the break with history. High art obsolesces the previous idea, the previous meaning, and the strong historical precedent. It is new.

Michele - Last JudgmentBecause Low culture has a similar power of immediacy and dissent it makes a great starting place for the critique that must be engendered by new High culture. Advanced western visual culture has typically applied this combination of High and Low since the Renaissance. The rediscovery of the high culture of ancient Greece and Rome prompted an historical artistic reevaluation, and a new visual culture based on the human figure emerged allowing artists to put their finger in the eye of the institutional medievalist art of the time. The new High culture would re-examine the purposes of classical art and meld it to their times helping to define a new and dangerous emerging humanism. The debates that raged around Michelangelo’s transgressive frescos are a wonderful case in point, as many of those institutional authorities were aghast at the nudity and not-so-closeted homo-eroticism of his work – Biagio da Cesena “…that it was a most dishonest act in such a respectable place to have painted so many naked figures immodestly revealing their shameful parts, that it was not a work for a papal chapel but for a bathhouse or house of ill-fame.” In the detail on the left Michele strikes back at Biagio with a refined graffiti – he paints this man’s portrait with the ears of a jackass and a snake devouring his genitals – an infamy he will endure for all time. These sorts of Low images were often scratched or drawn on the walls of Rome to ridicule and deride. Michele’s feelings about his critic couldn’t be clearer, his use of Roman Classicism and the always contemporary Low in his highly refined manner makes these frescos a priceless critique of the High art of the day. When High and Low come together as both a moment in a life and a sharp critique of precedent it creates a new visual power and an historic visual change in the art world.

We can see this process unfold in the work of other great artists as well. But for the moment, let’s discuss Monet’s visual transgression. Now normally we don’t believe that Monet was ever transgressive. His work, after all, has come to be seen as being about a facile visual beauty. However when Monet began his work he was deconstructing the idea of vision, the need for a “refined” subject matter and the entrenched academy. The institutional critics were ruthless, because his challenge was real. In this work Monet uses an element of the Low and the rough to develop his style of painting. MonetHis art took him out of the studio and away from lens based depiction. He worked “en plein aire”, he worked directly from nature, but mostly, he painted everyday life, the common. It was a labour of sight and vision that captured the passing of time and light in crude strokes and blobs. There was nothing transformative about his subjects, nothing refined in his technique, and yet, he upended the institution. The Low for Monet is his visual critique engendered in his break with the  academic optical hackery that ruled the Salons and galleries – his work was an intense observation of the mundane life around him – a personal statement of fact. Most all of the greats had this vision of High and Low, the historic and the transgressive in their work.

Today we do not use High and Low in the same way. The High and the Low become gradations of the vast sea of commerce known as the middle. Formerly Low things like Pornography, Tattoos, blue jeans, graffiti, or electric guitars are now fuzzy fashion statements. High ideals like rebellion, thought, vision, iconoclasm or dissent are taught as professional courses at universities. The idea of struggle or clash with power structures or institutional ideas of any kind is reworked as a kind of Research or Development – a corporate necessity for creating the New New. A creeping Professionalism has infected both the High and the Low. To Illustrate consider the MTA’s proposal to raise advertising money on the subway. Basically it allows corporations to cover a subway car in whatever imagery it chooses. “In the future, when able to be sold as a single package, these strategies will create a dramatic new symbiotic station advertising product that will command a premium above any other display sold on its own. Such a premium package will generate an additional $1 million per year in advertising revenues for the MTA from the Shuttle alone. If this test at Grand Central/Times Square stations is successful, other high-traffic stations could easily be included for similar sales packages.” Nowhere in this release is the precedent for this advertising “idea” acknowledged. If it were then there might be trouble. The MTA would have to confront their own historic critique against grafitti – “eyesore”, “illegal act”, “affront to hard working New Yorkers” – all of it would have to be addressed. In the 70s and 80s graffiti artists covered the decrepit subway cars in exactly the same way only they did it as a dissent, a personal artistic statement. Today’s corporate graffiti only wants your money while it levels out the personal statement and the idea of the individual. This is what Popular Culture expects. Postmodernism in its efforts to re-contextualize the entire lens-based world is forever reinterpreting the middle brow. It panders to the middle in a desperate attempt to be liked and appreciated from the get-go. It offers no real critique of ideas, but only a tarted-up version of cultural acceptance. The middle is where Popular Culture resides. It levels out the sharp edges of culture to appeal to masses of paying customers, and it is the paying customer that drives the economic imperative underlying Kitsch as explained by Greenberg.

High and Low as we once experienced them have been lost to us. The new corporate paradigm that drives the art world is awash in Kitsch – the middle brow. What is needed today is a new understanding of High and Low, a rediscovery of what those concepts mean.

We will continue this discussion in the next post: Popular Culture – Middle Brow.

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