February 19, 2009

"How Low Can You Go ?", by Lin Bee

An article written by Lin Bee from

Everything being relative, let's open the debate !

I’ve been reading some rather pretentious literary web sites which spend a great deal of time pontificating about “high art”.

The terms "high art" and "low art" have always struck me as pretty meaningless.

IMO, trying to classify art as “highbrow” or “lowbrow” seems an entitely subjective process and ultimately rather pointless in this modern day and age. We've evolved beyond such nonsense, surely ?

Vahid Naziri -
"Chain Reaction"

Art Model NevaehLleh

The notion of brow levels came about in the early 1900’s when free public schools first started. The sudden growth of education and the spread of literature resulted in the creation of the first national newspapers, which caused great outrage amongst both artists and intellectuals who argued that all these popular rags did was to reduce literature to the lowest common denominator. Baudelaire even referred to newspapers as “satanic.”

The arguments continued to rage until eventually English culture divided into two : highbrow and lowbrow.

Each individual fell into one of the two classes, depending on his personal taste and choices in books, art and hobbies. If you liked popular “mass” culture, this meant that you were lowbrow. The chasm continued to widen until journalism and popular culture became poles apart from “high art” and literature, never again to merge.

David Winge
"For Freedom"

Art Model NevaehLleh

Nowadays most of us only know the differences between high art and low art by the reputation of the medium.

Broadly speaking sculpture, painting, music, poetry, cinema and classic English literature all fall into the “high art” category, whereas tattoo art, children’s stories, comic strips, video game design and so forth would all classify as “low art.”

Some modern art critics argue that with the growth of technology and the modern media, the distinction between high art and low art have now become permanently blurred. Some computer games, for example, can now be so sophisticated that they contain a detailed plot and character development, just like a good novel.

At what point does the medium cease to matter and when exactly does lowbrow evolve into highbrow ?

John Peri -
"Matter of perception"

" Some people are unable to make the distinction and will insist on calling this kind of photo an "open leg shot" (OLS). It is a question of perception.
An OLS denotes focus on a woman's anatomy. Quite apart from the fact that nothing shows here, the attention is on glamour and not sex. I maintain that someone can be dressed and look vulgar, undressed and remain elegant and refined."

Jarda Balek -
"The Break"

GW Burns -
"Field of Optimism"

IMO, nowhere do these abstract lines between high and low blur more than with the nude photographic medium, largely because it is very difficult to objectively catergorize images of naked women.

High art is seen to be spiritually moving, sophisticated and philosophically challenging, so when does a photograph meet this specification ?Low art is a derogatory term which can be classified as popular culture which may be visually entertaining, but which is nevertheless intellectually sterile, nothing more than commercial pap to feed the masses.

So what kind of nude photograph would satisfy this definition ? Which type of nude image is high culture and which is popular culture ?

Is it really as simple as :

High Art ? (B+W fine art nude)

Low Art ? (Colour erotica)

Which image is high art, if any ? Which of the two is deeper, more exciting, more sophisticated and philosophically challenging ? The medium is the same, so what’s the difference ?

François Benveniste -
"Forgive my sins"
Art Model Julia

I would suggest that the difference isn’t merely to do with lighting and composition. IMO it largely depends on intent.

What type of emotional reaction did the photographer want to generate ? What was his creative vision ? What market was the photograph aimed at ? Or does it purely come down to personal taste ?

So if we use these criteria then the first image is more tasteful, non-sexual and more likely to stimulate the intellect and is therefore more towards the "high art" category, whereas the second largely stimulates the male groin, and would be lower - very low, in fact, which is a shame because I actually prefer the second above the first, although I can't for the life of me figure out why ? Maybe I'm just a lowbrow kinda girl ?

Scott James Prebble -
"Perfection is relative"
Art Model Rosie

Frankly all this categorization seems like blatent snobbery to me.

IMO, classifying a particular type of nude photograph as “high” or “low” is pure pompous elitism. Isn't black and white “fine art” photography nothing more than lowbrow with different packaging, nekkid chix re-invented and re-wrapped for the titillation of the very same supposed highbrow intellectuals and art critics who would otherwise condemn all nude photography as non-artistic ?

Maybe we haven’t really grown that much
in a hundred years after all...

Mic Ardant -
"Quite Relative Timidity"
Art Model Brandy

1 comment:

unbearable lightness said...

Thank you, Lin and Chris, for this thought-provoking post. The prejudice toward popular culture flourishes in the academy, too, despite the fact that some great art, music, and literature began as popular culture.

Case in point, Charles Dickens published some of his highly revered novels as newspaper serials first. American novelist Jane Smiley has commented on his public celebrity and compared publication of his novels as pop culture serials to today's soap operas on television.

Indeed, this comparison brings us to Lin's distinction of low brow art as having greater emotional content and thus evoking a greater emotional response in the viewer. Like Lin, I prefer the erotic, emotional second photograph (Honey B) over the first one. If emotion is the deciding factor in whether art is high or low brow, then how do we explain Dickens's place in high brow literature? No one evoked more sentiment and tears than Dickens the novelist. How do we explain the great Baroque sculpture that in fact more resembles the second image of Lin's comparison than the first.

Baroque art--literature, fine arts, and music--carried great feeling and reached exaggerated emotional heights at times. One of the great works of the Baroque is Bernini's "St. Theresa in Ecstasy," an erotic sculpture that evokes the same low (groin-level) reaction as the image of Honey B.

So what really is high brow and low brow? It is what a small band of the elite decide it will be in a certain time and place.

Over time, what we see are periods in art, each with its own distinctions and characteristics. The only commonalities the periods of great art share over time are:

1. they communicate the viewpoints and values and conflicts of their time;

2. and they lay the foundation for the art to follow, i.e., they break new ground in some way.

Let this be our criteria for judging art.