What is high art versus low art? What are different levels of artistic importance?

The extremes of high and low art are easy to identify: a Wagner opera is high art, whereas a Disney cartoon is low. However, many artworks contain elements of both, and the difference is a continuum rather than a binary opposition.

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Like many aesthetic judgments, the distinction between high and low art seems reasonably straightforward at first but becomes more complex and difficult the more it is examined. High art is a rarefied experience, located in an ornate opera house or a grand museum. It is the individual creation of a...

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Like many aesthetic judgments, the distinction between high and low art seems reasonably straightforward at first but becomes more complex and difficult the more it is examined. High art is a rarefied experience, located in an ornate opera house or a grand museum. It is the individual creation of a great genius, something which edifies the mind and purifies the soul. The operas of Wagner, the paintings of Poussin, the poems of Milton are all high art.

Low art is often mass-produced for popular consumption. It is primarily for entertainment and requires little or no effort to understand. Game of Thrones, a Disney cartoon, and the Harry Potter books are all low art.

It is clear, however, that not all works fit so neatly into this binary opposition. By any standard, the plays of Shakespeare must be regarded as some of the most important works of art ever created, yet they clearly contain low comedy and would have qualified as popular art in their day. There is also a distinction to be made between art which is popular with the higher social classes and art that is venerated by the academy. The sporting novels of Robert Smith Surtees enjoyed great popularity with fox-hunting Victorian aristocrats, but they are not considered serious literature by professors.

Some artworks are aesthetically superior to and more intellectually challenging than others, but the opposition between high and low art cannot be simple and binary. It is best regarded as a continuum, upon which works are placed by a general agreement which is always subject to reappraisal.

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