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Tag Archives: Matthew Arnold

Class & Culture

I’ll say it again – I thought that debate was over high culture and popular culture was over. I don’t know why I thought this, maybe it was the way that I was educated steeped in English liberal philosophy that I thought that education and culture to have replaced class. It was Matthew Arnold’s idea that culture can replace class and Arnold was the philosopher who described the various English classes as barbarians (upper), philistines (middle) and populus. Now consider Jean Michael Basquiat’s mother taking him to the public museums and art galleries in New York when he was a child.

Bang bang shooting down the high art cannon has become such a sport of class warfare. To avoid the issue people have been using phrases like ‘highbrow’ or ‘serious culture’? Really? Serious stuff? ‘Serious culture’ as a description is obviously absurd; seriously, are you going to call Dada, Duchamp and Warhol serious? What about R U Sirius? Is he serious? The swap between ‘high’ and ‘serious culture’ is just repackaging ‘creationism’ as ‘intelligent design’.

Consider Juxtapoz – Art & Culture Magazine edited by self-described “lowbrow” artist Robert Williams. The articles range a wide cultural field from skateboard, graffiti and other “lowbrow” art, to Australian aboriginal art, Balinese art, Egon Schiele, and the in between, like John Waters, David Lynch and Pixar animation.

But I’m just raving now, off in a mad tangent.

The first thing to get straight in this discussion is that class is not a culture. There is no ‘working class culture’ as a cultural is the set of all the activities involving the participation of all the people. Currently and historically artists (the cultural producers) often belong to a different class to their patron (the cultural consumers).

Instead of thinking about ways to divide a culture along class lines consider the influence of class on culture. For reasons of court protocol royalty needs art be defined so that the performances are repeatable. Consider the refined and defined actions of the royal drummers of Burundi or classical ballet that developed in the French royal court. Religious courts will also similarly want to define their culture for ritual repetition. Rural folk, although just as inherently conservative as royals, do not require the same degree of repeatability. There is consequently less of a need for the developing the codification necessary for repeatable performances.

Nor should we ignore the street subcultures, the cultural influence from what Marx called “the lumpen proletariat”. Marx despised the lumpen proletariat as parasites but consider how many bohemian and avant-garde artists would fall into that class.

What is called “popular culture” is distinctly different from what is known as “folk culture”. Popular culture is more ephemeral than folk culture because changes in fashion make money.  Popular culture is a recent development and at its most popular classless; it transcends class for it is after all it is after a commercial venture. And old popular culture can end up in the literary, musical or artistic cannon of today; Shakespeare, Mozart and John Everett Millet were all popular artists marketing their art to a mass audience.

But back to the topic at hand – why I thought this high art and pop art thing is so last century? Do I have to remind the reader of breakdown of class and racial divides are a major part of the history of the last two centuries. And that this was increasing expressed in avant-garde art in the 19th and 20th centuries with the breakdown between high art and popular art materials, techniques and themes. And that by the late 20th Century the previously excluded or marginalized ‘others’ were increasingly being recognized in participating in the creation of avant-garde art. And we are back to Jean Michael Basquiat.

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High culture & Popular culture

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.


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