Neil Hester

All poems © Neil Hester unless otherwritten

Location: North Carolina, United States

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Low and High: What *is* Art, Anyhow?

Sculpture. Painting. Music. Cinema. Poetry. These are forms that all take their place as legitimate and respectable mediums; everyone considers these to be "art".

Tattooing. Game design. Sitcoms. Children's fiction. Comic strips. These are... well, what do you think? Well, these mediums aren't on the same level as the ones you listed at the beginning. That's true. Now, tell me, are they legitimate art forms? Um...

I'll go ahead and answer this one for you; yes, everything listed above is a legitimate art form (I left out some other mediums I consider art, but that's a pretty decent list). Some people are unwilling to accept this. Let me make this clear: These are not on the same tier as any of the major mediums I listed first. However, these "lower" forms of art (and they are lower, but still very worthwhile) meet the criteria for art:


art [ahrt] -noun
1. the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.


Tattooing? Even if you're put off by the idea of body art (which I enjoy observing, even if I don't personally want anything done on me), you can't deny the artistic value of technically sound visual art just because it's done on skin. I actually find that the human body makes a unique canvas in that it possesses many different curves, colors, and densities.

Game design? I'm not going to argue artistic value for early games like Pac-Man, Pong, and Space Invaders. They're fun, but that's the extent of their value. However, there came a point in game design where video games began to contain character development and a detailed plot, just like a play or a novel. There are beautiful scenes, relationships, and narratives to be had in certain genres of video games (and recent graphic and audio capabilities don't hurt); generally, I can't argue artistry for genres such as sports and fighting, but when you get to role-playing and adventure games that contain a worthwhile story... it's art. Architecture and game design are common in that the technical aspects must be solid for functionality; achieving artistry is secondary, but wholly possible.

Children's fiction? Okay, so they're not super-academic and complex like "real" fiction. However, to draw emotion from a child is a totally unique challenge; it's not easy to write so simply and still work the imagination and create beauty. I seriously doubt Verne or Twain could just sit down and write a really good children's book. In contrast, Dr. Seuss is an incredible children's poet/writer. No, he doesn't write like Crane or Rilke! In his own right, though, he is a great artist.

Sitcoms? Just because they're primary purpose is to make you laugh (often in a ridiculous fashion) doesn't mean that aesthetics can't come into play. Sitcoms are capable of going beyond comedy; after all, narrative and character development do still exist in sitcoms, right?

Comic strips? Like sitcoms, the purpose is laughter, daily snickers and chuckles. Like sitcoms (moreso, in my opinion), a comic strip can rise above the ordinary and poignantly express emotion and beauty. Calvin and Hobbes is a personal favorite of mine; it really manages to tug on you in some cases. Also, strips like Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts offer a highly developed child's perspective; when Calvin finds an injured squirrel, worries about it, and finds out it died the next morning, it has a real impact and rises above slapstick comedy and one-liners. Now, let's look at this little exchange:


Calvin: A painting. Moving. Spiritually enriching. Sublime. "High" art!

The comic strip. Vapid. Juvenile. Commercial hack work. "Low" art.

A painting of a comic strip panel. Sophisticated irony. Philosophically challenging. "High" art.

Hobbes: Suppose I draw a cartoon of a painting of a comic strip?

Calvin: Sophomoric, intellectually sterile. "Low" art.


And so, we reach the concept of "low" and "high" art. Oh, and it's funny. However, how do you compare the "low" to the "high"? Let's move on...

Since I just mentioned Calvin and Hobbes, note this statement from its creator, Bill Watterson, which is quoted from "The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book", directly below the strip I referenced above: "I would suggest that it's not the medium, but the quality of perception and expression, that determines the significance of art. But what would a cartoonist know?" This is true. Some interpret this as stating that all mediums are on the same level. I disagree: while the strip would support this argument at first glance, the strip is really just a jab at "high" artists looking down on whom they consider "low" artists (e.g. [bad] painters looking down on [good] photographers). Watterson is simply noting the quality of art takes precedence over what medium is uses. A great poem is more artistically significant than a great comic strip. A great comic strip, however, is far more important than a bad poem. True? Definitely.

But Neil, comic strips aren't "real" art, right?


Take Care,


Blogger cosmoetica said...

Yes, there are comic strips that even rise to high art. From the early 20th C.- Krazy Kat and Little Nemo In Slumberland- also called In The Land Of Wonderful Dreams:

A great rock song is better than a dirge-like Classical symphony and tv shows like The Prisoner, Gilligan's Island, or The Odd Couple, are the equal of Orwell's novels or Beckett's plays.

And, is the poetry of a James Tate or Sapphire really better than a good old 1960s era Godzilla film? Hell no!

12:40 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Just to be the voice of dissent, not that I really disagree, but some of the problem with determining high and low art is when we start saying that low art is just as good as high art, what criteria do we juge it by? The same standards by which we judge hugh art? The same standards by which we judge other media?

Watterson wasn't only taking a jab at high art's pretensions about low art, but also about the blurring distinctions between them, when one tries to judge them by each other's standards. There are pieces of fine art, high art, that would fail utterly by the standards of the great graphic novel: the chief example of which is narrative story-telling. Representation vs. non-representation also comes into play, in these sorts of judgments—which criteria do you judge it by, hmn?

So where do you suppose taste comes in, then, jsut to mess judgments up even more? Hmn?

9:41 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

If we are talking about judgments in the context of serious criticism, then I would say that taste doesn't come into it at all. Taste is entirely subjective, and speaks more about the individual than the artwork.

With any given art work, I would say it is judged, first, by the highest standards of its own discipline. It doesn't make sense to judge a poem as though it were a painting when it isn't.

With the categories of 'high' and 'low', people tend to associate 'low' with a kind of vulgarity, and to dismiss everything on the 'lower end'. They also use those terms to generalize and not look at the specific artwork, which can outclass artworks in a 'higher' art. I agree with Neil--a great comic strip is better than a bad poem.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

Yes, Art, when we use terms like 'low art' for comic strips or Vaudeville vs. painting or drama, we are talking in generalities, which are what define the art forms.

Most paintings try to encapsulate somethinf of essence- most comic strips try to get a laugh. But, the strip can encapsulate something profound; just as a Buster Keaton glare can have pathos as deep as the greatest moment in a Tennessee Williams play.

The low and high definitions are merely guideposts as to what is normally to be expected. I'd argue the best of Krazy Kat is far deeper and more philosophical than all but the top two or three dozen works of philosophy in human history- and offers more humor and insight.

The Prisoner, as well, is a work of philosophy, as well as a fun tv show.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

"By the highest standards of its own discipline."

But you see, that can be problematic too. Because the ultimate critical trope on that front is that you can never judge relative qualities across disciplines, so you end upn ot being able to make those judgments, b ecause the criteria for comic strips and poets are so very different.

7:38 PM  
Blogger LAEvanesce said...

Dan: I've been meaning to check out a Krazy Kat anthology since I've heard so much about it, since I've heard a lot about it.

Anthony: I agree with your view on taste and on judgment within an art form. Also, the association with "low" art and vulgarity, as you said it, is certainly widespread in the art world, and really quite ridiculous.

Art: Personally, I thought mixed standards was so obviously wrong that it wasn't worth mentioning; I guess I didn't realize that was a problem. I'm used to everyone judging a novel as a novel, a painting as a painting, and so forth. As for cross-judgment (e.g. comparing a comic strip to a poem), doing so directly is ridiculous; however, when one is of quality in its own genre while the other is not, then the former is obviously of higher value. That's the basic point. Also, taste comes in when determining whether or not you, as an individual, enjoyed the work- no sooner.

11:44 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Except as you all well know, taste comes in far sooner than it should, most of the time, for most critics.

The very paradigm of dismissing "low art" out of hand is a taste judgment. Based on snobbism, to be sure; but then snobbism IS a matter of taste, no matter the arena. I've met just as many comic book snobs as I have abstract expressionism snobs. (Allan Moore vs. Jackson Pollack: the Deathmatch!)

The main difference between popular art (maybe a better term than low art, but still not without judgments inherent) and philosophy is that philosophy talks about the highfalutin' ideas directly, while popular art cloaks the ideas behind the candy coating of entertainment.

Personally, i think the "disguised philosophy" tactic can be more effective than direct philosophy, IF (and only if) the art in which it's concealed is also good art. The Prisoner worked because it was so well-written and acted; if it had been more obviously didactic, it would have failed. (Just as most political poetry fails because it's didactic rather than involving.) There have been plenty of other attempts at philosophical TV shows; but the with lots of them the art used to present the ideas just wasn't very good. When you can see the scaffolding, it takes away from the argument, and makes it both less convincing, and less good AS ART.

Just being devil's advocate here.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Anthony said...

Art: I think that before you start comparing artworks across disciplines, you must first isolate the best works in a specific one. If you do this, then you are at least dealing with things that share something in common (greatness) even though you can't use critical terminology specific to poetry for everything (ie. you can't analyze a painting in terms of its line breaks).

Without first understanding & identifying what makes something great in one discipline, how can you compare across many? Without that first step, it would just lead to spurious comparisons--which are already rampant in single disciplines (Bloom comparing Plath & Angelou, or one writer saying that Jorie Graham is in league with Whitman etc.)

[remove the space between articles/ and the rest of the link]

11:54 AM  
Blogger cosmoetica said...

I don't think art- low, high, pop, can be compared with philosophy. Philosophy is just the idea- naked. Art take is and does something with it.

If philosophy is a bat, then a great artist hits like A-Rod, and a bad one never makes it to the majors.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

"Her work will last: dissertations are written on her oeuvre; students, generations hence, will study her poems. She is in the pantheon of greats, with Whitman, Pound, Dickinson and Frost."

That is an absolute joke. That article makes me mad. It's prob a pal or student of hers who wrote it. Now with M&C I see how easy that is to do.

But she's crap. Comics are better than Jorie Graham. She's just an example of the typical elitist academic. Play the game long enough and you're bound to win something.

3:04 PM  
Blogger Wanderlust Scarlett said...

Good afternoon Neil,

I stopped by to see your blog as I was intrigued by your comment and avatar (good one!) when you visited our group page.

I am a member of The Shameless Lions Writing Circle.

I like what you've posted, and we have similar tastes in music, movies, and... art, to an extent.

I found this post to be interesting and insightful, but more than these, I found it to be gracious. A fundamental key to an open mind; and a trait I find appealing in people.

Art is much more than what has been debated here. It is that which inspires our hearts and souls... be it nature, architecture, paint, photography, words, food, clothes, cars, planets and stars, music, dance, or even speech.... it encompasses so much more than what lives in Merriam-Websters "Art" box, and ironically, artists live and thrive outside said box.

All the way through your piece and the ensuing comments, I kept thinking of Andy Warhol... what is art, indeed.
Does it inspire you? Does it make your soul take wings and lift you from the confines of your tethered ground? Does it please and delight you?

Then it is art, whatever it may be.
There are no levels, there are only opinions; one mans treasure is another mans trash, and one is no more right than the other, they are just different.

When a person creates something, it is a tangible expression of that which is within them, and that alone gives it value.

Whether it is appreciated by anyone else is irrelevant. It was important enough for the artist to create; that makes it priceless in their eyes, and gives it value.

Value is not determined by another, who cannot see it through the eyes of the one who made it, cannot see the meaning of the maker.

But when we see something of ourselves in the work of others, when that connection is made, then there is value for US, individually, but that does not ever define the value of the subject itself to everyone as a whole.

I enjoyed being here, I will visit again.
Thank you!

Scarlett & Viaggiatore (the lion)

5:46 PM  
Blogger LAEvanesce said...

Thank you very much for stopping by, Scarlett; I agree that there is artistry to be had in everyday occurrences, as well as in performance. I suppose I do give most of my attention on this blog to literary and visual arts~ To take in and realize beauty daily is already something some do better than others, and others yet capture it, which is where the writing, painting, etc. comes in.

Hope to see you here again (and Viaggiatore, of course) ^^

4:45 PM  

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