High-Brow vs Low-Brow: Does it matter?

If you’ve ever spent any time discussing topics related to the arts with anyone, chances are you’ve noticed the great (sub-conscious) divide between popular and ‘high’ culture. The deeper you dive into the topic, the more it seems as though there never will be peace. But does the difference really matter?

You probably know the type. The oh-so sophisticated person who has profound insight into everything related to culture, who only listens to music considered high-brow, reads exclusively the classics and is excessively opinionated. The type who snidely condemns reading anything regarded as popular (their targets often include books with a huge following, such as the Harry Potter series).

On the opposite end, you have those who immediately get an allergic reaction whenever anyone mentions a classical composer or a poet. They immediately assume you’re being close-minded and pretentious, and surely the only reason you like those things, they believe, is because you wish to come across as educated. And the pop/rock they listen to, the pulp fiction they devour, they think, is just as profound and insightful as ‘high culture’. If only the ‘others’ weren’t so close minded, they’d surely get just as much recognition as ‘high’ culture.

Of course, in most cases it’s not a malicious attitude, but a sub-conscious bias. People generally (but not always) enjoy what they happened to have grown up with. But is it really necessary to condemn either extreme of the debate? Is it really worth anyone’s time complaining about what other people enjoy? Surely good things can be found in both popular and ‘high’ culture, as well as in any fringe subculture for that matter?

The problem with people who exclusively indulge in ‘high’ culture

The problem with being highly discriminating against anything popular and which society wouldn’t regard as high culture is that it limits your options. Rather than going out there and exploring the market for anything new, you’ll often find that you first listen to what a particular group of people say is worth looking at / listening to / reading.

Some might consider it a rather close-minded approach. While it is true that a work of art which has withstood the test of time has a comparatively high likelihood of being good, it is never guaranteed. Also, individual tastes might mean that it just isn’t for you – even if the work, per se, is good. If you’re exclusively consuming artwork which ‘others say’ is going to expand your horizon, you’re barring yourself from finding hidden gems elsewhere.

Artists, too, never really discriminate in the same way that consumers do. Before capitalism guaranteed the emergence of the middle-class, it was very difficult to distinguish between popular and high culture – indeed, even Shakespeare first wrote and acted for a company dedicated towards entertaining ‘commoners’ in a dodgy neighbourhood. Only time (and his genius!) raised him into the ranks of ‘high’ culture.

The modernists, too, blurred the lines between the two. Eliot, Pound, Woolf, Joyce: all of them enjoyed enough privileges, but nevertheless indulged in popular culture and used it in their own ‘high-brow’ work (alongside what their contemporaries considered high-brow).

At the end of the day, limiting oneself to high-brow culture means limiting one’s perspectives. It’s essentially the same as limiting oneself to popular culture. The only difference is that the dictating entity which tells you what’s good isn’t the wider, but the ‘elite’ population.

The problem with people who exclusively indulge in popular culture

Popular culture has a much larger market, and therefore only consuming popular culture is less limiting (in terms of volume). But by condemning everything ‘high-brow’ as pretentious, you’re barring yourself from a wonderful world with a lot of variety.

Due to the nature of open markets, popular culture often lacks variety. The people creating such art know what is popular, and so they repeat the same tropes over and over again – ensuring that the consumer’s intake is less varied than may seem at first (hence why, for instance, many people say that pop music always sounds the same). It’s just a simple sales strategy.

Also, a lot of ‘good’ popular culture has its roots in high culture. Stephen King was inspired by both Edgar Allan Poe and Lovecraft; Tolkien’s work was heavily inspired by Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry. Many of our contemporary crime thrillers draw their ideas from the works of figures such as Agatha Christie. Although I must note that she blurs the line between popular and high culture…

For the sake of personal development, there are really worse things one can do than to bridge the language gap between something old (and which is therefore difficult to enjoy) and by doing that to open up the world of ‘high’ culture and to see what the fuss is about. Avoiding it entirely and condemning it as elitist is no better than condemning everything popular. Of course it may have to do with considering such art ‘difficult’. This displays an underestimation of one’s own capabilities. It may also be because it reminds you of dull schoolwork, which in reality is very different from picking it up yourself. Identify your subconscious bias and give it a go. You may surprise yourself.

The solution: mix and mingle

There’s not really any way around it. To avoid both pitfalls, all I can recommend is to be more open-minded about things. Why would you bother condemning Harry Potter for not being particularly important (in literary history) when it probably produced more new readers than any other book series before (aside from its entertainment-value)? Why would you condemn Macbeth as being elitist and pretentious when it’s actually deeply thrilling once you’ve gotten used to the language?

In the end, all you can do is to remind yourself not to close your mind to new things. No matter which side you feel more at home at. You can find hidden gems, beautiful books, gorgeous music anywhere you look. People are varied and flexible enough that a single person may equally enjoy a great deal of varied art. Muse, Klaus Nomi, Ella Fitzgerald and Gustav Mahler? Why not!

And if you don’t want to – or can’t – break out into new areas and enjoy art and culture from places and streams you don’t know or enjoy, that’s also not the end of the world. But then don’t go around complaining about other people who enjoy things you don’t. In short, act open-mindedly. Live and let live.

Closing thoughts

I must reiterate that a lot of the problem has to do with a subconscious attitude. Most people who act in that way are probably unaware of it. But it does, in the end, put a lot of pressure on an activity that should be about personal freedom, as well as the freedom to enjoy whatever you want.

Do you agree with my thoughts? Do you know of better methods to overcome the divide? Then please leave a comment. Otherwise, why not share it on the social media of your choice? Then please click on one of the tender buttons below.