Hunting High And Low Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2015-09-26 17:00:00 No comments

Somewhere along the way in my reading in years past, I'm not positive where, I came across the assertion that we need separate critical standards for "high" & "low" art. The face of the assertion alone was already causing my knee to jerk hard enough to kick the underside of the table I was sitting at. I couldn't figure out why at the time I was instinctively rejecting the theory; I think now I know why.

Most of the way this idea is expressed goes something like this: When you have something that aims to do more than merely entertain, as opposed to something that is just chewing gum for the soul, you need different critical standards. You can't talk about Seinfeld with the same critical apparatus you use for Shakespeare.

Sounds fine until you start to rub the braincells together. For starters, how are you supposed to know which of the two buckets something belongs in to begin with? Second, how do you know it's going to stay there? Third, isn't the only way to find any of that out to bring an open-ended critical standard, one that doesn't automatically assume where it came from is the same as what it is?

What was a profound masterwork in its time may be unmasked before long as pretentious treacle; what was thought to be a frivolity in its age may be seen as serendipitous genius. B movies that were largely ignored by the critics in their time are now seen as pavement-level masterworks; Oscar winners from days of yore now look stagy and false.

In other words, it's not that there's no such things as high vs. low, but that said distinction has more to do with what amounts to the marketing of something than its actual value or relevance. And it has a hell of a lot less to do with critical standards than has been made out.

If someone does try to apply critical standards in a way that seem ill-suited to the material, that's something that should be left to after the fact, not before. A theory that says something useful about Seinfeld might well also say something useful about Shakespeare, or the other way 'round — how else do we found out except by applying said theory and seeing what comes out?

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I'm reminded of what Lou Reed talked about when he described his annoyance with RCA over the marketing of Metal Machine Music. RCA wanted to put the album on its Red Seal ("classical") label, and Reed felt like that was just chucking it into a music ghetto. Why not give the record the broadest possible audience and let people figure out for themselves? (Even if the record was nothing more than a gimmick and a middle finger to RCA.)

Perhaps the dichotomy isn't between "high" and "low", but between "proven" and "unproven". Things that last and have something to say across more than just their specific moment in time, and for more reasons than just mere appeals to cultural authority.

A work should get a fair shake from the ones best qualified to see it for what it is, without being either hyperbolic or condescending. High and low are things that require that very analysis to be seen in the first place — assuming they're not just artifacts of the moment.

Tags: art criticism critics entertainment