Thursday, December 02, 2004

High art or low?

There used to be a concept called "High Art", which was the body of always beautiful art created by artists possessing superb technical skill and broad education. These artists were naturally talented, but spent many years serving under a master, often far from home, perfecting their technique. "Low Art" was folk art, lacking in technique in execution and lacking education in content, and often ugly. High Art was the best, and most suitable for imitation. Children were educated in high art, and cultured persons would patronize institutions of high art. Low art, or folk art, or popular art, just wasn't taken very seriously, since the content reflected passing trends and personalities, and was of low technical quality.

The Church, historically, is the greatest patron of high art, with the very best of painting, architecture, sculpture, letters, and music being created for her, and the subject matter is both eternal and universal. Monarchs were also great patrons, but personalities come and go, while the Church remains. In the 19th century, when Enlightenment governments took control, artists in state-sponsored academies changed the subject matter from Catholic to violent or lascivious pagan Roman themes, which they thought more appropriate for Empire, even though it was self-destructive. The high artistic technique remained in the academies, but outsider artists opposed this, leading to the Impressionism movement that substituted novelty for technique and content that was trivial. This was a step away from high art.

Even as late as the 1970s I recall sponsored national classical music programs on radio or television, hosted by an announcer with Mid-Atlantic accent, perfect pronunciation of foreign phrases, and great erudition and education. The music was complex and beautiful, the musicians excellent, and only the conductor was allowed to be egotistical. But sometime during that time period something had, "challenging" music started to be played in the concert halls. This music was dissonant, ugly, repetitive, screeching, and just unlistenable. And you couldn't even hum a few bars. This was considered very progressive, and was shoved into patrons' ears, even though nearly everyone hated it. Critics were called ignorant, and were dismissed as reactionary. The result? Symphonies folded or cut back schedules, attendance dwindled, and taxpayer support was required. With lack of symphonic attendance, classical radio listeners and audio recording sales also tanked. High musical culture is now gone.

Simultaneously, popular music became increasingly important. Folk and Rock in the '60, Hard Rock and Punk in the '70s, New Wave in the '80s, and Alternative in the '90s all became studied and praised by scholars, journalists, theologians, and others of the cultural elite. Even though the artists may have lacked technique, and may have lacked any musical understanding outside of their genre, these were praised as the equal of the old high artists. Some theoreticians, particularly from the field of comparative musicology, even refuse to compare the artistry of a rock musician like Kurt Cobain with a classical composer like Beethoven, declaring them both equally great. So, we are now told, there is no distinction between High and Low music, except that the former High music is no longer readily available.

The same problem occurred in painting and sculpture. Except for the 1930s when Social Realism was fashionable throughout the Western world, Modernism in painting and sculpture became the norm in the 20th century. These art works were increasingly nonrepresentational and trivial in technique, where an artist could be praised for merely pouring a bucket of paint across a canvass. The materials used to make the art sometimes became ephemeral and fragile or vile. Again, these artworks showed little or no technique, and the artists could be uneducated and still get high praise. Low art had become the equal to high art, sharing the same space in our fine art museums. Again, patronage for the arts dwindled, causing art institutions to rely on government and foundations, neither of which purchased art for their own use as did private patrons and the Church. And those new sources of money only supported low art.

Shall I go on? Architecture, the most visible works of public art, followed the same trends. Important institutions started using the same unschooled, untechnical architecture that is suitable only for inexpensive warehouse space, and which used to be considered even too crude for a modest family home. Countless buildings of high architecture had been destroyed in the 1960s and 1970s for the sake of urban renewal or 'open space'.

Philosophically, this trend to destroy high art and proclaim low art to be its equal dates from the 19th century, in the thinking of antireligious socialists. Although the leaders of these movements were themselves elite, educated, and were from wealthy families, they identified with members of the new industrial working class who were living in terrible poverty. The leaders' goal to create a new egalitarian society required the destruction of the old society, and with it the symbols and patrimony of that old society. This included of course the high art of the former society. Perhaps they could have attempted their transformation with a new high art...after all, the Anticlerical European governments promoted high art...but since they identified solely with the common people, their strategy was to replace the High with the Low. And low art is cheap, replaceable art that is thrown out soon after it is made; this way, ideas cannot have staying power, but new ideas can be manipulated quickly and without solid opposition. High art, it is true, is static, but tells eternal truth, and not the fashion of the day. The best of high art will be viewed or listened to for centuries or millennia, and hence is opposed to those who want to change everything.

The trend continues today. High art is rarely seen, promoted, or taught. Our institutions no longer patronize high art. Our governments do not fund it. High art is no longer imitated. Instead, we just get novelty in music, drabness in architecture, and painting and sculpture is merely nonexistent. Our churches have suffered, giving into this trend of low art. The Low church tells us nothing of Catholicism and the eternal truths it promotes; its music is not familiar and so is not singable, reducing public participation in the mass -- or in the worse case, drive away parishioners. We have low art missalettes, printed as cheap paperbacks that symbolize only constant change and a throwaway mentality instead of finely-bound, gold edged missals of high art that document the rite of the Mass.

Some claim that we cannot have high art anymore because we lack the craftsmen to do that work. That is false: I recall having to hire recent college graduates and then teach them computer programming so that we would have enough people to do the work that my company required. If the will exists to reclaim high art, it will be done.

A suggestion: patronize high art. The St. Louis Art Museum has an exhibit on medieval prayer books: go see it and pay the admission and buy the exhibition book at the shop. Attend the symphony orchestra when they are having good and only good music. Listen to and buy good music. Refuse to let anyone tell you that you are reactionary if you don't like modern art. If you are wealthy, buy high art only. If you are an officer of a large corporation or an elected official in local government, don't approve any new building that is junk; refuse to bring in architectural firms that design junk. Take your kids to the museum, study the high art and just run through the modern art sections: tell them the truth about modern art and what it really represents. If you are a bishop, investigate some of the new architectural firms that do classic Catholic buildings; consider bringing in some of the fast-growing religious orders to maintain your underutilized but beautiful urban churches. If you are a priest, how worthy is your church to contain the Body of Christ? If you are a student and are considering a degree in art, attend only those schools that promote technique of the highest order, or if you can't, refuse to make junk, even if the professor doesn't like it. If you are an artist, perfect your technique, and swallow your pride to be too creative, instead make works that are true and beautiful.

High art doesn't have to be expensive, it just has to be good. A simple, but noble design is better than extravagant and tasteless. Gregorian Chant, for example is holy and humble, yet noble. It is high art, but not expensive art. Classic European monasteries are high art but simple, as are many village churches. And if you are going to spend a fortune on a new Cathedral, please make it beautiful and instructive.


  1. interior design pictures seems to have a pretty thorough (sp?) on this

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