More on the high/folk/pop art divide

Shakespeare and Civilizing Process

Some selected quotes:

The distinction of high and low culture can be defined institutionally. Institutions of elite culture include museums, universities, symphony orchestras, the Episcopal church. “Theater” counts as an institution of elite or high culture. How did this happen? Specifically, how did Shakespeare, who is full of “low” humor and crass characters, become part of “high” culture? To offer a very partial answer to this question, I want to examine the changing reception and perception of Shakespeare as exemplifications of what the German sociologist and historian of manners Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process.” My focus will be on the early reception of Shakespeare – that is, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. My goal is not to answer questions about how to evaluate popular culture, but to suggest some of the complexities of identifying what counts as popular culture and what doesn’t.

Sociologist Mike Featherstone notes that in 1500 the upper classes might have despised the common people, but they shared the carnivalesque popular culture of “folksongs, folktales, devotional images, mystery plays, chapbooks, fairs, and festivals.” But “by 1800 their descendants had ceased to join spontaneously in popular culture and were rediscovering it as something exotic and interesting.” Shakespeare’s plays were written during the period prior to the self-exile of high culture from low culture.

Continental evaluations of Shakespeare often followed the same line. French critics such as Voltaire considered Shakespeare uncultivated, and Frederick the Great of Prussian considered Shakespeare suitable only to the tastes of “savages of Canada.”

And this one speaks to my current concerns:

Several conclusions follow from this brief survey. First, the example of Shakespeare shows that “high” and “low” (or, elite and popular) are not stable spheres of culture but shift over time. Thus we have “classic” rock-n-roll, classic TV (Gilligan’s Island!!); thus too we have serious academic studies of blockbuster films and of Madonna (high culture attention to low); thus too we have a Simpson’s Hamlet (low culture homage to high). Second, one dynamic in the formation of “low” culture is the self-conscious disengagement of elites, who form a high culture in opposition to the low.

So then, by what standard to we judge something to be “high” culture versus “low” culture? Or is it simply the ruling of the “elite” versus the “masses”? “High” art is good because the elite say that it is good, whereas “pop” art is bad because the elite say that it is bad. “Folk” art, then, wavers in between the two on a case-by-case basis.

I don’t accept that the standard for judging art is merely what a self-appointed “elite” says is good, and I haven’t seen a description of this division of art that doesn’t boil down to an elitist judgment.


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