High Art vs Low Art and the Importance of Expression in the Modern Age

High Art vs Low Art and the Importance of Expression in the Modern Age

Mickey Lonner, Editor-in-Chief

Over the past few months, I’ve been forced to reflect on art and what gives it value. My thoughts led me to the ongoing discussion about high art vs low art, and as I’ve read, I’ve come to some important realizations about my own biases. 

High art is renowned. It is old and has stood the test of time. People see it as beautiful, historical, and fundamentally important. Van Gogh paintings and Roman statues are examples of high art: priceless pieces with recognized worth. 

Low art, on the other hand, is art ‘of the people.’ Anybody can make low art. Current music, literature, art, and television is seen as less worthy or important than older pieces with more widely recognized importance. Some “instant classics” can almost immediately be placed into the realm of high art, but for the most part, newer things are always seen as less important than older ones. Low art is comic books, Taylor Swift, graffiti, and Percy Jackson. It might be just as artistic and valuable as older pieces of art, but they will not be valued the same. 

Here’s the thing, though: high art almost always starts out as low art. Modern day romance novels are seen as trashy even though Jane Austen’s novels are renowned.  The Beatles are now seen as one of the best bands of all time, but during their peak, they were dismissed due to their primarily female fan base. Most famous painters didn’t become popular until after their deaths, because before then, their pieces were “low art.” 

Moreover, low art is more likely to be queer, female, poor, and PoC. Anybody can make low art, but art by privileged creators is more likely to be seen as ‘valuable’ in the long run. While underprivileged creators can and have gained notoriety and acclaim for their art, there are more road blocks in their path that keep them from ever being on equal footing with other artists. Dismissing all low art as less valuable is dismissing the perspective of those from marginalized communities. 

Here’s where a superficial distinction of  “old” things being sophisticated and “new” things being trashy becomes dangerous. If we judge art based on this kind of distinction instead of drawing a side by side comparison, we risk undervaluing the voices of those who have been previously marginalized. 

For example, which has more value? To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee—a piece of renowned high art with indisputable cultural significance that is still, undeniably, a “white savior” narrative—or A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, a YA book written by a PoC author about her experiences and observations of race in the modern era? There is no right answer, but valuing one over the other because of its age and status is dangerous. The problem with white savior stories is that they center white experiences of issues that aren’t primarily experienced by white people, and in doing so, oversimplify or misrepresent an issue to the audience. Oftentimes, these stories can represent race in terms of racists vs “good” white people and fail to recognize the role we all play in institutionalized racism. While To Kill A Mockingbird was groundbreaking for its time and remains a vital piece of literature, centering a white woman’s contribution to a conversation about racism is problematic. It grows even more concerning when you realize that this book is valued over others largely because it’s older. It was written at a time when authors of color weren’t even allowed to be part of the conversation. 

In contrast, A Very Large Expanse of Sea is written by a Muslim woman of color and is inspired by the oppression and discrimination she faced growing up after 9/11. Its discussion of race is more complex, and it centers the voice of a protagonist of color. It’s the exact opposite of a white savior story. Nevertheless, if you asked the average reader which novel has more intrinsic value, they probably wouldn’t give A Very Large Expanse of Sea a second glance. 

This contrast is present in so many more areas. Pride and Prejudice is a novel by Jane Austen that is undoubtedly romantic and decidedly feminist for its time. Still, a reader would be judged for reading a modern-day romance novel—even something like The Simple Wild by KA Tucker, a brilliant novel that navigates grief, relationships, forgiveness, and closure. The contrast between high art and low art is clear here, too. Even a shining example of modern day art that progresses more contemporary values will almost never be taken as seriously as its high art counterpart. 

High art should be recognized for its brilliance, but it’s important to focus on newer forms of art in order to center the voices of previously underrepresented groups.