Horizontal, not Vertical

Did you ever hear the adage that most of the lessons you learn in college are learned outside of the classroom?

Well, some lessons that you wouldn’t expect are learned inside the classroom, as well. One of those I learned very vividly during grad school: academics can take a beautiful concept, dress it in academic jargon that isolates it from everyone outside of the discipline, and treat it as something meant only for the intelligentsia. Sometimes, I suspect that academics do this to help themselves have an “ivory-tower,” exaggerated sense of self-importance.  And, when I say that, I readily confess that I’m just as guilty as any of the rest of them, because the jargon becomes embedded in your psyche after a year or so of study. Soon, you have little “common sense” left and a lot of elitist terminology that leaves people outside of your discipline ostracized from conversation that would only help everyone grow.  This happens in every discipline. I guess I just noticed it more doing graduate work in theology, because I secretly suspect that theologians are the worst at this.

But, I digress.

The point of that ramble is to mention a discussion I read over at Transpositions this week on the concept of “high art.” I wonder, sometimes, what determines whether a painting or play or novel is considered “high art.” The post I referenced here (reviewing a book) mentions that art holds a certain subjectivity because it is always seen through a cultural lens. Think about this: what would be considered of a certain quality and declared “high art” in the Western world would possibly not be received as such in Eastern culture, at least not as easily. Think of the differences in European or American music and Chinese or Indian music, for example.

High art is a term derived from the concept of high culture. High culture is defined in opposition to popular culture. Thus, those who gravitate toward high culture in certain art forms tend to eschew popular culture expressions in the same genre. The first time I really experienced this was, after having read exclusively novels that would be considered “literature” for months, I read a mystery novel. Classic literature and modern fiction to genre fiction in one day. I struggled with the change. And I didn’t like myself for struggling.

As much as I can be a total snob about certain pop culture art forms (I’m unapologetically so about “pop music”), I think that we must recognize that popular culture is still culture, and is still just as valid. The same is true of art. What U2 composes is just as valid as any symphony Beethoven ever penned. And it was, as I recall, an Inkling who adored writing detective fiction (what we today consider genre fiction).

I listen to academics and artists lament that there is not literature today like there once was, that our culture is incapable of producing anything of that quality. I don’t think that’s the case; there are many extremely gifted writers producing amazing literature today. There are also many bad writers, and bad musicians, and bad artists. They exist in high and low culture. They exist on a continuum, I think, with “really bad” on one end and “really amazing” on the other.

When (not if, when…I need to tell myself that) I finish the science fiction novel I’m writing, it will be, by definition, genre fiction. I hold no pretense that it will be great literature, and I don’t for a moment believe that it will be considered high culture (most especially because I intend to self-publish). But, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t valid.

I suppose my issue with differentiating high and low art, or high and low culture, is that it gives one group of people an excuse to feel superior to another. Academics do it. Critics do it. Unfortunately, artists do it, as well. As many programs across the nation that work to afford access to art by “the masses” at no cost attest, art is for everyone. It cannot belong to the elite, and its ability to touch lives and inspire critical thinking is not limited to the wealthy.

Some of the best conversations I’ve had about theology has been with people who have no formal education in the discipline at all. I love talking about literature, but I don’t have a formal degree in the area. I’ve worked with amazing actors who have no formal theatre training. And all of those people have come from all different backgrounds. A love for, and subsequent knowledge of, art…any art…can’t be trapped behind a high culture pre-requisite. Doing so is an effort to keep others away from art, which is simply an attempt to own art as a possession.

That’s just not how it was ever meant to be.

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