Highbrow, lowbrow. Chic, passé. Entertaining, boring. Elitist, popular. How many times have we heard these words? For centuries, the high culture and low culture paradigm has existed to ascribe labels to art that is supposedly “for the masses” and art that is “for the elite.” But what defines high art? Is mass consumption and popularity conducive to art that is somehow lesser? The high-low culture paradigm is, essentially, a flawed method to delineate art that is supposedly of a higher caliber from what we consider popular and for the masses.
“Art isn’t easy…anyway you look at it,” Stephen Sondheim famously wrote in the song The State of the Art from his 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George. Truer words have never been spoken (or rather sung). When we stop to examine, consider and critique art, it is always an arduous process where the intellectual must work alongside the emotional. Art is, above all, a very personal enterprise both for the artist who makes the work of art and audiences who process it and decide what it means the them.
Music is a perfect example of this. As Alex Ross wrote in his 2010 book, Listen to This:
“Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values. The best music is music that persuades us that there is no other music in the world. This morning, for me, it was Sibelius’s Fifth; late last night, Dylan’s ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’; tomorrow, it may be something entirely new. I can’t rank my favorite music any more than I can rank my memories. Yet some discerning souls … say, in effect, ‘The music you love is trash. Listen instead to our great, arty music’ … . They are making little headway with the unconverted because they have forgotten to define the music as something worth loving. If it is worth loving, it must be great; no more need be said.” (Ross, 2004, p. 3)
Music is an art form that relies particularly on personal preference from an audience perspective. But that does not mean it is immune to the aesthetic standards that all other forms of art are subject to. For example, what makes a concerto by Bartok superior to, say, a song like River by Joni Mitchell? Well, not much really. Bartok’s ingenious, sophisticated use of harmonic language could easily be compared to the intricacy of Joni Mitchell’s prose. When viewed in that light, both works can be considered masterpieces.
Another example of the blurred distinction between the high and low would be the Broadway musical. Mark N. Grant writes in his book The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical:
“Are musicals primarily fun or are they art? Why should people go to musicals to seek drama and catharsis, when they can go to Sophocles, or Shakespeare, or A Streetcar Named Desire, or Tosca? During the belle époque on Broadway some highbrow drama critics like George Jean Nathan thought that musicals should have rested content with being merely diverting. If musicals are only mindless and superficial, there can be no argument about a rise and fall. But the best musicals of the canonical era are dramatically challenging as well as tuneful and entertaining…Just as Wagner introduced to opera the idea of closely correlating text and music, the belle époque Broadway musical achieved a higher level of expressive power when it started more tightly correlating text and music. But it didn’t thereby cease to be entertaining.” (Grant, 2004, p. 6)
In the 30s and 40s Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwin brothers and Irving Berlin produced shows at a spectacular rate, two a year in some cases. Works were written for specific performers and theaters. When a cast changed, or a show went on the road, scores were often altered to accommodate new stars and circumstances. These shows contained some of the most revered classics in the American songbook today. With their hair-thin plots and emphasis on hit songs, these shows now bare a striking resemblance to the blockbuster movies of today which often emphasize special effects over plot and character. But it is the beautiful music of these shows that has endured.
In this sense opera is no different. Gaetano Donizetti would have been right at home in the world of Broadway or blockbuster movies. Though he is revered today as a towering, influential figure in Italian opera, Donizetti was first and foremost and shrewd showman and entertainer who wrote for large audiences. This does not diminish the genius of his music nor the dramaturgical acuity of his operas, but serves as a reminder that great art can be popular as a mass medium.
Though he died at 50 in 1848, he wrote some 70 stage works, of which Lucia di Lammermoor is arguably the finest, certainly the most popular. Wanting a delicate, otherworldly instrument to entwine melodic lines around Lucia’s vocal ones during her revealing arias and mad scene, Donizetti composed a part for the glass harmonica.
But shortly before the premiere of “Lucia” in Naples in 1835, Donizetti rewrote the glass harmonica part for the flute. What most likely happened is related by Philip Gossett, an expert on 19th-century Italian opera, whose book Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera is an extensive an examination of the era. Mr. Gossett writes that the glass harmonica player at the theater in Naples was battling company officials over a contractual dispute, and Donizetti was probably advised to not get involved. So the composer’s final score indicates that the part should be played by solo flute. (Gossett, 2006) This shows that Donizetti, though a consummate artist, was not above compromise and pragmatism. Willing to change a key for a performer or add an extra aria if needed, Donizetti wanted to put on an entertaining show and move audiences. After all, as A.O. Scott, the chief film critic for the New York Times rightly observed in his 2001 review of the movie Tosca:
“The great Italian operas of the 19th century were the Hollywood movies of their time: Grand popular spectacles brimming with sex, violence and outsize emotion, and dedicated to the passionate marriage of sight and sound.” (Scott, 2001)
The purpose of all art is to move an audience. Yet, great art also provokes, probes and encourages its audience to think about larger issues and themes. Lulled out of a state of complacency, great art can provide catharsis but also unsettle us at times. This does not mean that all such virtues are to be found solely in Chekov plays or Donizetti operas (which typically fall into the highbrow, boring, elitist category). Some of the most insightful, witty, intelligent satire can be found today on television - a great, populist medium for decades.
In 1989, when The Simpsons debuted on Fox, it was an instant hit. The premise played like cast iron satire: An animated caricature of Nixon’s nuclear family, set in a fictional town that served as a metaphor for America itself. A wholesale demolition of everything pious, hypocritical and dumb in American culture and society, The Simpsons was initially viewed as a crass, vulgar divertissement for the adolescent minded. But with age comes perspective, and The Simpsons has grown in stature and gained considerable gravitas and is now regarded as a sharp, audacious commentary on our society as well as a pop-culture milestone. In his 2007 review of The Simpsons Movie, A.O. Scott wrote:
“I have long been of the opinion that the entire history of American popular culture — maybe even of Western civilization — amounts to little more than a long prelude to The Simpsons. I don’t think I’m alone in this belief…The Simpsons is an inexhaustible repository of humor, invention and insight, an achievement without precedent or peer in the history of broadcast television, perhaps the purest distillation of our glories and failings as a nation ever conceived.” (Scott, 2007)
The Simpsons mixes puerile humor and vaudevillian slapstick with references to Dadaism, Shakespeare and Freud. To me, this makes the show an example of great art. The Simpsons reflects a mirror on us as a society, and for all of its gut-busting humor, The Simpsons is at times uncomfortably, appallingly truthful in its depiction of the human condition.
The Simpsons is hardly the only show on television today that bridges the high-low culture paradigm. Television is, currently, one of the most daring places in the current cultural climate. Well-written, intelligent dramas and comedies (often written by aspiring playwrights) such as Mad Men, The Good Wife, The Wire, Futurama, The Newsroom, and The West Wing have changed the artistic landscape and raised the bar for scripted drama. Television, once thought of as a poor second-cousin to film, is now considered one of the most creative, artistically ambitious mediums to work in. Talented actors, writers and directors are increasingly flocking to television as it is seen as a more hospitable environment to foster great works of art.
The high-culture, low-culture conversation is one that has been going on for centuries and we will continue to debate this lengthy, complex concept as long as art exists. But the fact remains that art is created for an audience to teach, to illuminate and to inspire. To ascribe prosaic labels such as high, low, elite, base is reductive and far too black and white. In the immortal words of Mr. Sondheim, “If no one gets to see it, it’s as good as dead.”