Does the difference with low art still matter, and is high art not merely socially sanctioned by class but superior to low art, to the extent of the latter being an embarrassing mistake?

Feel free to answer for modern or post modern art.

I'm especially interested in arguments that talk about artisans and parody/mockery.

  • 2
    What prompted the question? I can't recall seeing any references to "high art" as an adult. (Maybe my memory is bad though.)
    – Scott Rowe
    Sep 25, 2023 at 23:54
  • 1
    i have seen reference to "middlebrow" recently and understood as much that it is key to post modernism @ScottRowe hth ;)
    – user67675
    Sep 26, 2023 at 0:28
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    In a contemporary context, high art ( or "fine art" ) is distinguished by the intent of the artist. Low art, such as commercial art like the design of a Campbell's soup tin, can be raised to high art by someone like Andy Warhol. The intent is purely aesthetic and intellectual rather than decorative and commercial.
    – nwr
    Sep 26, 2023 at 3:17
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    "High art" is what people call things they like when they want to feel smug.
    – NotThatGuy
    Sep 26, 2023 at 8:17
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    The closing of this question seems surprising. The distinction between pop art and high art/culture is a well-established one. There is certainly much debate about which is the more valuable, but it seems hard to claim that the distinction itself is "opinion-based". Sep 28, 2023 at 11:38

3 Answers 3


The distinction between pop art (it is usually not referred to as "low art") and high art (or high culture) was pursued among others by art critic Hilton Kramer (1928-2012). Kramer started out as an art editor for the New York Times but was led to establish a separate venue called The New Criterion.

Since the OP included "capitalism" among the tags, it is worth mentioning that Kramer saw capitalism and modernism in art as allies, at variance with a view that modernism's goal is to subvert capitalism.

I would add further that such a distinction is different from the artist/artisan distinction. Many greatest creations of the past that would be considered high art by all were in fact made on commission from wealthy patrons (for example, served a rather pragmatic purpose of glorifying this or that noble); similarly, many artists today produce work whose only destination is museums, that would be considered by all as pop art.

  • it wasn't my tag. why are you singling our kramer?
    – user67675
    Sep 26, 2023 at 14:13
  • @prof_post : That's odd. I just checked the history of the question and the capitalism seems to have been there from the beginning. At any rate, Kramer's view of capitalism and modernism (in art) as allies was considered one of the main novelties of his perspective at the time. Sep 26, 2023 at 14:15
  • oh my mistake then.
    – user67675
    Sep 26, 2023 at 14:16
  • thanks for your help with the question, though it looks like it will stay closed. i asked a question about arts and crafts, recently, which did not get much attention, and so my use of 'artisan' is still quite nebulous. in effect, i suppose i mean skilled work that lacks traditional aesthetic qualities like 'beauty' or a tradition
    – user67675
    Oct 13, 2023 at 12:38
  • I think when one speaks about "high-art" in philosophy, the name Bourdieu should be mentioned, tbh.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Oct 13, 2023 at 14:13

Think the old Greek distinction between 'artist' and 'artisan'. An artist produces a purely creative endeavor meant to invoke some ideal of beauty; an artisan produces practical goods that may have elements of beauty, but are ultimately functional in nature.

Somewhere in the 20th century technology started rearing its ugly head, so that production, reproduction, and mass production overwhelmed that purely creative endeavor. This led some aesthetes to try and distinguish 'high' art — offerings based in the kind of intense creative effort that marked painters, sculptors, and musicians of earlier eras — from the commercial art that was flooding the world. It is a (perhaps doomed) effort to maintain that 19th century ideal of art as the highest human endeavor.

  • I don't know how a Campbell soup painting would constitute "practical goods" or be "ultimately functional in nature" any more than would be an item of "high art". Sep 28, 2023 at 13:55
  • @MikhailKatz: You've kind of missed the point. It isn't about the subject matter; there are plenty of famous still lives (i.e., paintings of baskets of fruit) in museums. It's about changes in technology that make creating such mindlessly simple and easy. Sep 28, 2023 at 15:41

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Yes, the distinction between "high" art and "low" art is largely about what is sanctioned by the upper class.

"High" art does often have certain positive qualities:

  • Makes you think
  • Makes you feel
  • Takes a surprising form
  • The message of the art is what the artist wanted to say, rather than what the artist's publisher, producer, or customer wanted him to say
  • But the message still has to be something the art community agrees with. If it is a political statement, it has to be a political statement the art community favors.

There is plenty of "low" art that meets these criteria, though. Some comic strips come to mind. The rest of the difference is in the pomp and circumstance of how the art is presented. Posted on a personal web page? "Low" art. Unveiled in a gallery? "High" art.

  • calvin and hobbes, such a mysterious comic.
    – user67675
    Sep 26, 2023 at 14:55
  • "Unveiled at a gallery? High art": It would depend on which gallery. The Whitney museum sometimes does the opposite: see exhibit of live body builders. Sep 28, 2023 at 14:00