Medium Brow: The Case Against Cultural Elitism

6 minute read

There’s a particular street in New York City that just so happens to provide a perfect metaphor for the art world: Park Avenue. This one street runs through both the ultra-rich Upper East Side of Manhattan and the U.S.’s poorest Congressional district, the South Bronx. But there’s more than just a difference of wealth between these two worlds—a deep cultural divide separates them, too. While they may live on the same avenue, these people are truly worlds apart.

Art is no different.

Indeed, a standoff between “highbrow” and “lowbrow” art has raged for centuries. Highbrow art—or fine art, as it’s usually called—was created for educated oligarchs. Meanwhile, lowbrow art, or art with mass appeal, was made for the working classes.

But over the last one hundred years or so, this division has begun to disappear—thanks to the democratizing effects of technology, as well as the efforts of a handful of crossover artists. It’s entirely possible that, in a few decades, we’ll look back at the high/low art divide and wonder how it ever existed in the first place.

Of course, we're not quite there yet. Let’s take a look at the evolution of cultural elitism—and how it might, someday, be wiped out for good.

Fine Art vs. Pop Art

When someone mentions “highbrow art,” we tend to think of paintings and sculptures on display in museums and private collections. We imagine the works that sell for millions at Sotheby’s and attract throngs of visitors to institutions like the MET or the Louvre.

“Lowbrow art,” on the other hand, enjoys a less prestigious reputation. These works are the ones that completely surround us in our everyday life, from the comic strips we see in newspapers to the graffiti we see spray-painted around our cities.

Marcel Duchamp was one of the first artists to challenge this segregation of “high and low”, with his groundbreaking “readymade” series (1913-1923). By simply signing his name to a prefabricated urinal or metal bottle rack and displaying it in a gallery, Duchamp called into question the very idea of what constitutes a work of art. His belief that art could be conceptual, and not just something pleasant to look at, set the stage for the Pop Artists who came around a few decades later—and promptly changed everything.

The Pop Art movement itself came about during a time of growing commercialism in post-World War II America. Instead of looking to the old masters of art history, artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein took cues from mass-produced household products, advertisements, and comic books. They made no effort to hide their influences, often simply copying the packaging of a brand-named product (as in the case of Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans). The movement challenged the fine art establishment by purposefully highlighting “lowbrow” culture, (and simultaneously commenting on the rising tide of commercialism in mid-20th century America).

An exhibition at the MoMA in the early 1990s, called High and Low, put a spotlight on this cultural divide. Gallery visitors could see works by Lichtenstein or Philip Guston hanging beside widely syndicated comic strips, like the early 20th century audience favorite, Krazy Kat. The side-by-side comparison showed that Lichtenstein didn’t just admire comic strips—he blatantly copied their style.

Ohh...Alright  (1964) by Roy Lichtenstein.  Photo by daryl_mitchell  /  CC BY 2.0 .

Ohh...Alright (1964) by Roy Lichtenstein. Photo by daryl_mitchell / CC BY 2.0.

Andy Warhol took things even further by showing he didn’t need to change a single thing about the design of a box of Brillo pads to make them highbrow—he just needed to put them in a gallery.

But these days, the need for those gallery walls is arguably vanishing. Last year, Gotham Magazine reported that more than 80% of art buyers from Generation Y purchased their art online. A majority of those online shoppers found their art on the popular social platform, Instagram, where it’s possible to interact directly with artists, and skip the gallerists and museum curators entirely.

Opera vs. Broadway

Of course, elitism isn’t limited to the world of visual art—a deep cultural divide has also split the world of musical dramas. In the highbrow corner sits opera, with all of its pomp and grandeur, and, in the lowbrow corner, we find Broadway-style musical theatre.

At first glance, it might be hard to see the similarities between the glitz and glam of 42nd Street and a dark Germanic opera sung by a horned helmet-clad diva. But, in essence, they are the same thing: stories told on stage through music where the cast sings most, if not all, of the time.

Opera and musical theater do come from fairly different traditions, which can help explain why they sound so distinct. Musically, opera is rooted in the classical styles of old German and Italian composers like Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi. Musical theater, however, is influenced more by the more populist style of German Singspiel and American jazz.

And though it’s true that Wagner’s Ring Cycle doesn’t sound much like 42nd Street, these works aren’t totally representative of their genres. Indeed, composers have been experimenting with the spaces between these two sounds for decades.

As far back as 1935, George Gershwin was challenging the genre divisions between opera and Broadway. His jazz and African-American folklore inspired “folk operaPorgy and Bess actually sounds a lot more like Rodgers and Hammerstein than Wagner.

On the other end of the spectrum, Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was originally written and produced for the Broadway stage. But, with its quasi-symphonic score, the thrilling tale of a vengeful barber sounds intentionally operatic. In other words, musically, Sweeney Todd has much more in common with classical music than the jazz of more traditional Broadway musicals.

But these works aren’t just genre-bending in terms of sound. Sweeney Todd and Porgy and Bess have both had successful runs on Broadway (Sweeney Todd in 2005 and Porgy and Bess in 2012) in addition to their frequent productions by major opera companies and symphony orchestras (San Francisco Opera’s Sweeney Todd and the Berlin Philharmonic’s Porgy and Bess). In fact, the Houston Grand Opera’s 1976 production of Porgy and Bess won awards in both the opera and Broadway worlds: a Tony for Most Innovative Production of a Revival and a Grammy for Best Opera Recording.

The cross-pollination doesn’t end there. Just as Warhol and Lichtenstein placed pop culture relics in galleries to elevate them to the sphere of fine art, so, too, are opera houses beginning to mount their own productions of hit Broadway musicals. The Spring 2018 season alone will see the Houston Grand Opera perform West Side Story, as well as the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

So far, such crossovers are very much the exception, with most companies sticking to the standard operatic fare of Wagner and Verdi. But audiences can expect to see more and more musicals pop up on opera calendars in the future as the line separating high and low art continues to blur—provided these shows turn a profit, of course.

Thankfully, performers have also stepped in to narrow the divide between opera and Broadway. In recent years, we’ve seen a growing number of crossover artists who agree that audiences are sophisticated enough to appreciate different styles of music. Take the mezzo-soprano, Katherine Jenkins. The British singer’s most recent album refuses to favor any style or genre of music over another; Jenkins knows her fans simply want good music, whether it’s Edward Elgar or David Bowie.

The track list for Jenkins' 2016 album,  Celebration , which includes a rendition of David Bowie's Heroes, the popular show tune "You'll Never Walk Alone," and several classical selections.

The track list for Jenkins' 2016 album, Celebration, which includes a rendition of David Bowie's Heroes, the popular show tune "You'll Never Walk Alone," and several classical selections.

But, these days, we don’t even need artists to do the cross-pollinating for us. In 2016, Nielsen calculated digital streaming as the source of more than half of all music industry revenue. With the majority of people accessing music through streaming platforms, eager listeners can go from genre to genre, track by track.

The Future

As genre boundaries continue to dissipate, it’s likely that soon,  we’ll  no longer have a use for labels like “fine art” or “pop culture.” Artists will be free to work in any style they feel best communicates their ideas, while audiences will decide what they like based on the art’s content, and not its categorization.

Hopefully, the time is approaching when we’ll realize how limited we’ve been by this whole “high vs. low” debate, and we’ll finally be able to put the boundaries we’ve inherited behind us.