our useless cultural hierarchy

October 3, 2008

Postmodernism means never having to say you’re sorry. So, I make no apologies for wanting to admonish the purely adverbial distinctions between high and low cultures (or for stealing my opening line from an essay about how the movie Judge Dredd is a modern fascist manifesto).

From Panic! At The Disco (did they lose their exclamation point?) to Jared from Subway (he lost part of his stomach), aspects of popular culture that are outwardly asinine can actually have a higher cultural significance—and are worthy of more critical thought—but are never given the chance due to our currently-flawed cultural hierarchy.

In Lawrence Levine’s book, Highbrow, Lowbrow, he describes culture’s tendency to stack its components on top of each other, like “an infinite vertical scale,” so that it becomes unable to compare things. If we start thinking of our culture not as an ultimate game of Jenga, but more as a sprawling one-story metropolis (like Los Angeles!), then we can make accurate comparisons and truly assess the value of our culture.

The current system is built on a flawed cornerstone of elitist opinions and, from its evolution starting in the late 1800s, the highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy has obstructed cultural growth and the development of critical thought. With intersections between high and low becoming more frequent than ever, placing aspects of our culture into specific categories is proving futile and in a society where Mel Brooks is revered, The Fly gets its own opera and Chuck Klosterman gets paid to “talk about Def Leppard in these really intellectual, almost academic terms,” something’s got to give. And I’m hoping its adjectives.


First, let’s define a few terms.

The long list of adjectives used to describe the bottom half of the vertical hierarchy ranges from the more traditional descriptions like “mass culture,” “low culture” and “lowbrow” to more modern specifics like “trash culture,” “beer culture” and, of course, “popular culture.”

There are so many adjectives used for our culture’s current state of affairs that in his book High Culture, Popular Culture: The Long Debate, author Peter Goodall fears the word “might have entered into a terminal phase of uselessness.”

“The more frequently it is used,” he says, “the more regularly it seems to need another word to prop it up and define its field of reference.”

The upper half of our Jenga game, however, only goes by two descriptives: high culture or highbrow and both are on a pedestel—considered to be culturally above the trash and beer of popular culture—as immutable and impenetrable as the Indian Caste system.

High and low art live side by side in a New York City subway station

In the British city of Southampton, this glass ceiling mentality could not be more literal. In 2004, as part of the city’s cultural redevelopment plan, the Above Bar and Below Bar sections of downtown will be turned into the “Cultural Quarter,” with segregated space according to how the people of Southampton use their leisure time. According to an essay in Property Week, “if they want art galleries and experimental theatre, they will stay on the higher level; if they want pop groups and bars, they will head for the lower level.”

By giving the Above Bar area to what city officials deem “high culture” and leaving the Below Bar for “low culture,” they are making a statement as metaphorical as it is literal—that Rodin is somehow above Radiohead—and that the people enjoying each should be segregated as such. With the new quarter being a large part of “the cultural vision for the city in the future,“ Southampton is only perpetuating a largely unjustified elitist vertical hierarchy.


So where did this hierarchy come from? It obviously does not have a creationist theory, with its own Adam and Eve that popped out of nowhere to spawn the differentiations between what is high and what is low. In fact, Picasso, Mozart and opera were a part of popular culture before they were exalted into the pantheon of the high. And this seemingly absolute—yet undeniably questionable—world of adjectival boxes and what Levine calls “crude labels” has evolved from the opinions of those wielding cultural power to a classification of aesthetics based merely on the cultural tastes of these elite.

The one thing scholars can agree on—because it definitely isn’t definitions—is that the categorization began as our society began to shift in the late 1800s. It was not until the 1920s and 1930s—the period of modernism—however, that “culture” became another word for “high art”.

This bifurcation is best exemplified by the role of Shakespeare in popular culture in the 1800s. While researching minstrel show dialogue, Levine determined that the nature of the Shakespeare references and parodies in jokes during the show means that “Sheakespeare must have been well-known throughout the society since people cannot parody what is not familiar.” The discovery surprised him:

How could a playwright whom I had been taught to consider so formidable a talent as to be almost sacred, and whose plays were demanding even for the educated readers of the twentieth century, have been accessible to the broad and far less well educated public a century earlier? It took a great deal of evidence to allow me to transcend my own cultural assumptions and accept the fact that Shakespeare actually was popular entertainment in nineteenth-century America.

The “sacralization of culture,” as Levine calls it, came to an important crossroad with the rise of John Philip Sousa and his popular marching band. By the 1850s Italian operas were all the rage and cities like Chicago and Boston were establishing symphony orchestras while Sousa copycats flooded the streets, steamboats and gardens, creating a “pandemonium of sounds” that were seen as more of a nuisance than art. A classical music journal of the day called for an adoption of “an authoritative standard;” another maintained that it “is, or should be, a religion.” Noses flew into the air so fast that one opera singer returned after a decade entertaining Europe to discover that her favorite encore was no more than “a cheap Sicilian ditty.” And a cultural dichotomy was born.


Even as the nineteenth century came to a close, the highbrow and lowbrow lines were easy to draw—classical music performed at a concert hall on one side, obnoxious street bands on the other—but as American society advanced faster than its descriptive adjectives, some things found they did not fit in on either side and increasing mutual interactions between the two blurred the once-definitive lines.

Evidence of high and low intermingling can be found in every aspect of our postmodern culture—film, art, music, celebrities, comic books, advertising—and this bridging the gap is not only making the distinction between high and low more ambiguous but is also making the “authoritative standard” seem more bizarre than ever.


Newtonian thought would say that the obvious direction of influence is from highbrow aspects to lowbrow culture. And in many cases, this is true. In fashion, for instance, styles take several seasons to make it from fashion week in Milan to the designers at Wet Seal and Wal Mart. The best explanation of this theory is given in the mediocre-but-okay-because-Meryl-Streep-plays-the antagonist movie, The Devil Wears Prada:

Andy Sachs (assistant): No, no, nothing. Y’know, it’s just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y’know, I’m still learning about all this stuff.
Miranda Priestly (Editor in Chief of fictional Runway magazine): This… “’stuff’”? Oh… ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.

This cultural trickle-down theory created the snobbish foundation for mass culture criticisms like Dwight MacDonald, who asserted in his book Masscult and Midcult that it “is a parody of high culture.” Popular culture, he says, borrows the forms of high culture, reduces their complexity and then substitutes “infantile” or worthless content. “Destruction of art.” While it’s true that much of our trash culture is regurgitated Anglo-Saxon classics and power chords for the possibly-inbred, there are many more-interesting instances when the cultural influence flows in the opposite direction and the lowbrow aesthetics trickle up.

Angelina Jolie brought unnecessary sex appeal to the movie version of the classic epic Beowulf, essentially “dumbing down” the tale for the low-culture masses.

Like in the complicated world of modern art, for example.

In the early 1990s, MOMA paused “to look at the importance of the low, or popular, arts in the creation of the art regularly to be seen on its walls.”

Focusing on what curator Kirk Varnedoe deems the four “vital low arts”—caricature, comics, graffiti and advertising—“High and Low,” digs deep into the histories of modern art movements to discover their low-culture roots. Besides discovering the “ultimate Duchampian irony”—that the, to him, commonplace urinal of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” is, actually, “impossible to find today”—and making the obvious Andy Warhol remarks, Varnedoe goes on to uncover if the modernization of sans serif typeface.

In his extensive show-preparation research, Varnedoe constructed a metaphor for the “patterns of interaction” between high and popular cultures. He calls it the “Agha’s weel,” after Russian graphic designer M.F. Agha who scattered “plain geometric typefaces” throughout Conde Nast’s high-fashion and lifestyle magazines in the 1930s (and unknowingly giving eternal credibility to “the oldest, cruddiest typeface”).

The wheel started turning before Agha, however; with the cubists, namely Picasso, who scoured French newspapers for paper maché material. Skipping over flowery and ornamental fonts like Art Nouveau, these artists clipped the advertisements and, instead, incorporated the crude, old-fashioned sans-serif type into their cubist works. But when everyone outside of France saw the works, they didn’t see The Pennysaver or classifieds, they saw type as modern as cubism itself.

Not long after Picasso’s works began spreading, the Bauhaus in Russia adopted sand-serif as its house style. A decade later, corporate America did, too. MOMA’s show notes, in its description of this phenomenon, acknowledges that the font used for gallery signs and museum publications is—you guessed it—sans-serif.

MOMA’s new treeless paper packaging, bearing its house sans-serif font

The influence of a seemingly innocuous portion of low-mass culture—advertisements—that wound its way around Agha’s wheel to become not just the basis of an avant-garde art movement, but a reigning modernist royal standard font, proves that the power of low art is often more than it gets credit for.

Popular culture, once thought to debase and degrade the accolades of high art, is actually showing to contain unexpected control over it. This control comes from not only the bore with outdated classification systems, but also the rise in cultural consumers that have the ability to be cultural producers.

Michael Moore dropped out of college, but took a camera to Charleton Heston’s house and asked him about the murders at Columbine, Kelly Clarkson went to an audition at a local Raddisson and ended up with a record deal and somewhere in upstate New York, 4 year-old Marla Olmstead is painting her next expressionist masterpiece. The fact that you are reading this on a website that I set up for myself and you—through who knows what random sorts of events—ended up here, reading this, is more proof. I am a creator. Leave a comment and pay your culture forward (like that weird movie with Haley Joel Osment where he gets stabbed by a Hispanic kid for being too soft-spoken).

In many respects, the frequency of popular culture breaking through the grey area and pushing hard against the glass ceiling is proving to be more socially relevant than those works already deemed highbrow.

Four year-old Marla Olmstead poses in front of “Zane Dancing,” one of her many expressionist pieces

That is why I intentionally view the despised forms associated with the low culture as though they were the Sistine Chapel and examine people and situations involved under the same critiques we use on high-culture because, just as the creepy kid in the waiting room told Neo in The Matrix, “there is no spoon,” there is no cultural hierarchy.

We’ve already negated so much of the original “authoritative standard” idea that if we continue to insist on the charade of titling, sub-culturing and placing cultural artifacts into specific spheres, we are bound to lose it all. Articles attempting to understand film director Frank Capra by placing him “within a larger tradition of post-romantic expressive American culture,” should not shy away from the prospect of eroding the definitions of high and low because without giving cultural legitimacy to the current popular culture, America will not have a highbrow retrospective to pat ourselves on the back with when this ship goes down.

Today’s fast-paced trashy, beer-filled, lowbrow culture deserves more room to grow than a playpen walled with adjectives.


One Response to “our useless cultural hierarchy”

  1. Nadia said

    This girl is 4 years old and she’s doing expressionist paintings?? Really interesting post btw..your last line says it all.amen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: