I haven’t really thought about high culture and popular culture for decades but it has come up recently in comments and conversations. It always felt like a slippery concept and boring as it was involved with finance and connections with European royalty. I do know that ancient Rome had two types of art: the high classical art and the popular style which can be seen on Hadrian’s column (high) and Trajan’s column (popular). I thought that the distinction wasn’t relevant in a post-modern world where high culture mixed with popular culture. The destruction of the boundaries between high and pop art was blurred by everyone from Robert Venturi considering the architecture of Las Vegas to PILtd doing a dub remix of Swan Lake. My view of culture is larger, multi-cultural and post-colonial idea.
It was the English critic, Matthew Arnold who invented the terms “high culture” and “popular” culture. It wasn’t a good theory from Matthew Arnold in 1869 and it remained Euro-centric and poorly defined. Was the term “high” an indicator of quality or class? It was not as if Arnold had a high regard for the any class; he described the upper class as “barbarians” and the middle class as “philistines”. However, Arnold’s readers were enmeshed in 19th Century class distinctions and if he didn’t consider popular culture as working class his readers did. Arnold’s terms then become class distinctions rather than a qualitative term. The “populus” was Arnold’s term for working class and seemed to indicate that popular culture was be working class but if Arnold’s intended this then he would have used ‘barbarian culture’ or ‘philistine culture’ instead of the term “high culture”. Bringing class into the discussion simply confuses the simple point that Arnold was making that the popularity of art does not equal its quality.
Arnold believed that culture would eventually destroy class by replacing it. Arnold might have meant by high culture something that worked for the improvement of humanity. In this version of high culture and popular culture The Wire is high culture and Big Brother is just popular culture. The quality of The Wire can be measured in many ways whereas the quality of Big Brother can only be measured in the ratings. However, by the time The Wire and Big Brother came along the terms high culture and popular culture had developed to mean something very different. High culture means the cannon of art, literature, music etc. taught at university and not a way of distinguishing between different types of TV shows.
Arnold’s theory barely lasted a century before it collapsed. Maybe we need a new terminology to distinguish between work with blue chip enduring quality and the junk bond equivalent in art or a cultural nutritional utilitarian value of the ingredients. Maybe the terms are already there, ordinary words like: quality and trash.