Classic Essays

Why No High Art?

“Mural” by Jackson Pollock

IF LOW ART is defined as that art over which the artist has minimal control, then it is hard to argue that art is not in a state of decline. Primitive art is by definition low art as the primitive does not know enough about his materials and his medium to fully control them and achieve the desired effects. Consequently, prior to Brunelleschi and Alberti, art was necessarily a lower art than what could possibly follow, irrespective of the subject of the painting, simply because the artist was limited in his control over his subject by his ignorance of the laws of perspective.

Over the centuries we have learned many of the “laws” by which effective art, drama and literature can be created. Nevertheless, we see a steep decline. Today’s artistic bravos are reserved for the Jewish “performance artist”Allen Kaprow, which produce spontaneous reactions totally beyond the artist’s control.

John Cage is one of the best-known modern composers. His work ranges from “chance” compositions based on the I Ching to several radios turned to different stations playing simultaneously. Jackson Pollock’s “action painting,” though now somewhat dated, is still probably the most publicized representation of post-World War II art. Its influence is still felt; paintings by a chimpanzee or a pillow chewed upon by the “artist’s” cat still win prizes.

There seem to be no standards for excellence or beauty in any of the visual arts and very little public interest in so-called “serious” art for the reason that the artist has absolved himself of responsibility for his creation. He no longer has a goal which he is seeking to fulfill, but is happy to let random sensations –­ the communications engineer’s definition of noise — pass for art.

To understand what can be done to remedy this situation, it must first be realized that high art is never going to be fully comprehensible to more than a few. The popularity of high art is a popularity based on emulation. This takes us to the root of the problem. Modern times, to a greater degree than any previous age, are characterized by a lack of emulation of the intellectually and culturally superior by their inferiors. Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses contains a lengthy and excellent discussion of this problem. Unlike the case in ages past when the “mass man” knew he was ignorant and deferred to his betters in matters of taste and judgment, today’s “mass man,” buoyed artficially by the leveling of his superior’s income and schooling, has decided that his opinion is just as valid as anyone’s. Not dissuaded by the fact that his appreciation of art, music and literature is the direct result of indoctrination by a teacher or professor, he proceeds to prove the truth of Pope’s dictum by rushing headlong into the creation of “popular” art — disco music, pornographic books and pornographic movies. These he considers to be on the same level of culture as the great art of the past. Since Shakespeare was popular, the Beatles are today’s Shakespeares and Andy Warhol is the modern Leonardo.

Filippo Brunelleschi

The error here is misunderstanding why Shakespeare or Hugo or Poincare, for that matter, was popular. Creators of high art (science, in the case of Poincare), they and the elite few who could truly appreciate their efforts were the cultural leaders of their respective societies. They were popular because the population at large wished to emulate the cultural elite. Although the ordinary man could never fully comprehend what he was seeing, hearing or reading, the cultural level of the community at large was raised because people were forced to extend themselves in order to try to understand what the great artists of their times were attempting to convey.

Today anyone desiring to create truly high art will most likely be drowned in the flood of popular art. Since it is much easier to understand popular art, very few need make an effort to appreciate any higher art forms, even if they had the opportunity. Such works would then remain unnoticed or at least unappreciated. For this reason it is much easier for those who have the capability of creating a higher culture to debase themselves by pandering to the tastes of the masses or to give up the world of culture altogether for something more directly rewarding.

Changing this sorry state of affairs will involve transforming our entire culture. The two most potent forces causing our cultural decline are economics and educational egalitarianism. Rewarding everyone who can spell his name with an advanced degree for sitting through classes for a specific number of years has blurred the distinction between the truly educated and the merely schooled. For the vast number of Americans an increase in formal education leads only to the superficial knowledge provided by survey courses which make the student think he knows something when he really does not, even assuming he remembers some of the content of these courses, which most students don’t. Similarly, in the area of income distribution, the rise in the wage earner’s standard of living is not in the least attributable to his efforts, but, rather, to the efforts of the great inventors and scientists who developed the technology that allowed an increase in man-hour productivity, an increase totally usurped by the wage earner in most cases from the exploited innovator. As long as the greater portion of increased productivity accrues to the wage-earning mass man rather than to its creator, the mass man will feel himself the equal of the man whose facts he steals. Only when the income from the superior productivity caused by the innovator accrues to the cultural elite that creates the innovation can we expect the “higher” man, the only conceivable patron of high art, to take his rightful place as the leader and inspiration of the mass man.

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Source: Instauration magazine, November 1979

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