High and Low Art/Culture

Jean Paul Sartre asserted that the distinction between high and low culture could be made on the following basis

High culture - the individual expression of unique meaning
Low culture - the expression of a meaning potentially appreciable by all

Obviously there’s a great deal more to it, but that’s the basic distinction I’d like us to consider.

Sartre was, of course, an existentialist, and an individualistic one at that so this notion fits is with his desire to make out that high art demonstrates a greater existential capacity than low art. There is of course a tacit elitism in all of Sartre’s works, no matter how much he played the egalitarian card.

The problems I have with this theory are several

  1. Individual expression is not possible in language as language is essentially social, there is no private language
  2. The notion of expression is here derived from Husserl’s which is based on the understanding of temporality as composed of unique moments. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Gertrude Stein and Jacques Derrida (among others) have demonstrated
  3. It is harder to please everyone than to be innovative and individualistic, hence it is a greater artistic accomplishment. Maltby posits the Commercial Aesthetic (remember Andy Warhol) as one which can both be considered high art and be immensely popular. His central example is the movie Titanic
  4. Sartre’s philosphy is unashamedly anti-capitalist, this ruins any chance of it being particularly inspiring. Not because it is anti-capitalist, but because it is this before it is everything else. In France after the second world war you can see a real division between those critics who clung to Marxism and those (such as Andre Bazin, a philosopher who mainly wrote on film) who were able to move on from it.
  5. Any art that uses socially time and space (e.g. by being put in a gallery) has some responsibility to the society on which it inevitably comments. High art as defined above cannot hope to fulfill this role particuarly well
  6. (and I thank the recently deceased Mike Cross for this train of thought, he has written extensively on Sartre) High art and low art are not separate entities, they both inform one another (remember Andy Warhol)


My disclaimer: I have not read the Sartre you are mentioning. sorry

The notion of time Sartre lays claim to might have a Husserlian basis, but i’m willing to claim that we need not go into Husserl to evaluate this. Sartre’ wanting to separate and isolate the present can be done in bad faith too. so if we consider the present to be by itself we can always be both right (theoretically) and sadly escaping ourselves in bad faith (sort of pragmatically?).
i agree: i need more explanation before being convinced that the past and future are real. the name game doesn’t do it for me.

to the point:
I seriously disagree that Sartre’s philosophy is anti-capitalistic before all else. what about freedom? I thought Sartre’s philosophy spun around the freedom of the individual before all else.
i wish you would explain more about this notion of low culture. individualistic expression can often be opposed to pop culture and mass marketing technics. but sometimes an idea/thing is popular because it is so damn good. like shoes. universals aren’t necessarily low.
maybe low art is representative of art marketed to the masses. when i write marketed to the masses, i mean made cheaply, geared towards corporate profit (and this corporation could care less about individuals and their expressions), and forced upon a population. This isn’t even necessarily anti-capitalist. its putting capitalism in its place. Much art is about quality and not profit (hopefully). there can be an art to mass marketing, but a mass is a mass of individuals…where are their voices? like democracy, an informed and free thinking consumer will (voter) acting upon their values can positively influence the market (government). what if the individual demanded quality and, oh…lets say: eco-friendly products. the nature of the market (government) would/should change. but the power structure has been reveresed. and so now art places a very specific role.
not that art that appeals to many is bad by definition. maybe art made to cater to an uninformed and non-value based consumption only oriented market is low. or, hell, not art but a made up corporate solution to a made up corporate problem.

I think this depends. A strong mind suites this case; a weak suites the opposite case.The strong find the thing harder to do than the weak, yet the weak has no strength to be outstanding. When the weak has find the strenghth, it’ll proceed to be the strong; when the strong finds the weakness, he’ll become truely outstanding. A matter of balance; a matter of yin yang; a matter of fate.

but surely this is more often a technocratic acheivement which I don’t think (at least when they witness the process) would resemble what many people would honestly consider “artistic”…

whilst I’m not saying that art must be elitist or individualistic and idiosyncratic or even necessaraly difficult or even challenging…

I AM saying that an “artistic” process which is completely subordinated to reflexive monitoring in terms of a percieved “public” by those who work on it… a process which I have witnessed no a number of occasions with relaiton to music… may achieve its goal of being widely popular… of pleasing everyone… but I think most would not consider such a process artistic.

am aware here that I am very very “modernly” assuming that there is some sort of link between the artist, their process/thoughts/feelings/intentions and the finished work’s value… and I’m aware that many wont agree with that… although I’d like to debate the philosophy behind their views… I personally don’t believe most of it… decentered subjects are one thing but seriously… art does have some dimension of intentionality…


i haven’t read much Satre. so please forgive my ignorance. i will speak soulley from my own mind.

i have my own categories for high/low art (fine art and graphics) and craft.

fine art is anything made with the intention of inviting contemplation by the viewer/listener/reader

graphics is anything made with the intention of making a specific point (the aural equivalent is some pop music… if it fits into the criteria)

and craft is anything made for any other purpose… practical mostly.

in this way the same painting can be classified in each category depending upon the reason for its existence.