High culture

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High culture is a subculture that emphasizes and encompasses the cultural objects of aesthetic value, which a society collectively esteem as exemplary art, [1] and the intellectual works of philosophy, history, art, and literature that a society consider representative of their culture. [2]


Ming dynasty painting by Chen Hongshou showing a scholar-gentleman (literatus) with a guqin Ch'en Hung-shou 002.jpg
Ming dynasty painting by Chen Hongshou showing a scholar-gentleman (literatus) with a guqin


In popular usage, the term high culture identifies the culture of an upper class (an aristocracy) or of a status class (the intelligentsia); and also identifies a society’s common repository of broad-range knowledge and tradition (e.g. folk culture) that transcends the social-class system of the society. Sociologically, the term high culture is contrasted with the term low culture , the forms of popular culture characteristic of the less-educated social classes, such as the barbarians, the Philistines, and hoi polloi (the masses). [3]


The Acropolis of Athens, Greece The Acropolis of Athens viewed from the Hill of the Muses (14220794964).jpg
The Acropolis of Athens, Greece

In European history, high culture was understood as a cultural concept common to the humanities, until the mid-19th century, when Matthew Arnold introduced the term high culture in the book Culture and Anarchy (1869). The Preface defines culture as "the disinterested endeavour after man’s perfection" pursued, obtained, and achieved by effort to "know the best that has been said and thought in the world". [4] Such a literary definition of high culture also includes philosophy. Moreover, the philosophy of aesthetics proposed in high culture is a force for moral and political good. Critically, the term "high culture" is contrasted with the terms "popular culture" and "mass culture". [5]

In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), T. S. Eliot said that high culture and popular culture are necessary and complementary parts of the culture of a society. In The Uses of Literacy (1957), Richard Hoggart presents the sociologic experience of the working-class man and woman in acquiring the cultural literacy, at university, which facilitates social upward mobility. In the U.S., Harold Bloom and F. R. Leavis pursued the definition of high culture, by way of the Western canon of literature. Media theorist Steven Johnson writes that, unlike popular culture, "the classics—and soon to be classics—are" in their own right descriptions and explanations of the cultural systems that produced them." He says that "a crucial way in which mass culture differs from high art" is that individual works of mass culture are less interesting than the broader cultural trends which produced them. [6]

History in the West

T. S. Eliot TS Eliot.jpg
T. S. Eliot

The high culture of the West originated in the classical-world traditions of intellectual and aesthetic life in Ancient Greece (from c. 8th century BC – AD 147) and Ancient Rome (753 BC – AD 476). In the classical Greco-Roman tradition, the ideal mode of language was published and preserved in works of elevated style (correct grammar, syntax, and diction). Certain forms of language used by authors in valorized epochs were held up in antiquity and the Renaissance as eternal valid models and normative standards of excellence; e.g. the Attic dialect of ancient Greek spoken and written by the playwrights and philosophers of Periclean Athens (fifth century BC); and the form of classical Latin used in the "Golden Age" of Roman culture (c. 70 B.C. – AD 18) represented by such figures as Cicero and Virgil. This form of education was known to the Greeks as παιδεία, which was translated by the Romans into Latin as humanitas [7] since it reflected a form of education aiming at the refinement of human nature, rather than the acquisition of technical or vocational skills. Indeed, the Greco-Roman world tended to see such manual, commercial, and technical labor as subordinate to purely intellectual activities. [8]

From the idea of the "free" man with sufficient leisure to pursue such intellectual and aesthetic refinement, arose the classical distinction between the "liberal" arts which are intellectual and done for their own sake, as against the "servile" or "mechanical" arts which were associated with manual labor and done to earn a living. [9] This implied an association between high culture and the upper classes whose inherited wealth provided such time for intellectual cultivation. The leisured gentleman not weighed down by the necessity of earning a living, was free to devote himself to activities proper to such a "free man" [10] – those deemed to involve true excellence and nobility as opposed to mere utility.

During the Renaissance, the classical intellectual values of the fully rediscovered Græco–Roman culture were the cultural capital of the upper classes (and the aspiring), and aimed at the complete development of human intellectual, aesthetic, and moral faculties. This ideal associated with humanism (a later term derived from the humanities or studia humanitatis), was communicated in Renaissance Italy through institutions such as the Renaissance court schools. Renaissance humanism soon spread through Europe becoming much of the basis of upper class education for centuries. For the socially ambitious man and woman who means to rise in society, The Book of the Courtier (1528), by Baldasare Castiglione, instructs the reader to acquire and possess knowledge of the Græco–Roman Classics, being education integral to the social-persona of the aristocrat. A key contribution of the Renaissance was the elevation of painting and sculpture to a status equal to the liberal arts (hence the visual arts lost for elites any lingering negative association with manual artisanship.) The early Renaissance treatises of Leon Battista Alberti were instrumental in this regard.

The evolution of the concept of high culture initially was defined in educational terms largely as critical study and knowledge of the Græco–Roman arts and humanities which furnished much of the foundation for European cultures and societies. However, aristocratic patronage through most of the modern era was also pivotal to the support and creation of new works of high culture across the range of arts, music, and literature. The subsequent prodigious development of the modern European languages and cultures meant that the modern definition of the term "high culture" embraces not only Greek and Latin texts, but a much broader canon of select literary, philosophical, historical, and scientific books in both ancient and modern languages. Of comparable importance are those works of art and music considered to be of the highest excellence and broadest influence (e.g. the Parthenon, the painting and sculpture of Michelangelo, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, etc). Together these texts and art works constitute the exemplary artifacts representing the high culture of the Western world.

Cultural traditions

In the Western and some East Asian traditions, art that demonstrates the imagination of the artist is accorded the status of high art. In the West this tradition began in Ancient Greece, was reinforced in the Renaissance, and by Romanticism, which eliminated the hierarchy of genres within the fine arts, which was established in the Renaissance. In China there was a distinction between the literati painting by the scholar-officials and the work produced by common artists, working in largely different styles, or the decorative arts such as Chinese porcelain, which were produced by unknown craftsmen working in large factories. In both China and the West the distinction was especially clear in landscape painting, where for centuries imaginary views, produced from the imagination of the artist, were considered superior works.

Cultural capital

Four English lords on ship during their Grand Tour, 1731-32 Gustavus Hamilton, 1710-46, 2nd Viscount Boyne, and Friends in a Ship's Cabin.jpg
Four English lords on ship during their Grand Tour, 1731–32

In socially-stratified Europe and the Americas, a first-hand immersion to the high culture of the West, the Grand Tour of Europe, was a rite of passage that complemented and completed the book education of a gentleman, from the nobility, the aristocracy, and the bourgeoisie, with a worldly perspective of society and civilisation. The post-university tour of the cultural centres of Europe was a social-class benefit of the cultural capital transmitted through the high-status institutions (schools, academies, universities) meant to produce the ideal gentleman of that society.

The European concept of high culture included cultivation of refined etiquette and manners; the education of taste in the fine arts such as sculpture and painting; an appreciation of classical music and opera in its diverse history and myriad forms; knowledge of the humane letters (literae humaniores) represented by the best Greek and Latin authors, and more broadly of the liberal arts traditions (e.g. philosophy, history, drama, rhetoric, and poetry) of Western civilisation, as well as a general acquaintance with important concepts in theology, science, and political thought.

High art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan Metropolitan Museum 1 (4675714481).jpg
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan

Much of high culture consists of the appreciation of what is sometimes called "high art". This term is rather broader than Arnold's definition and besides literature includes music, visual arts (especially painting), and traditional forms of the performing arts (including some cinema). The decorative arts would not generally be considered high art. [11]

The cultural products most often regarded as forming part of high culture are most likely to have been produced during periods of high civilization, for which a large, sophisticated, and wealthy urban-based society provides a coherent and conscious aesthetic framework, and a large-scale milieu of training, and, for the visual arts, sourcing materials and financing work. Such an environment enables artists, as near as possible, to realize their creative potential with as few as possible practical and technical constraints, though many more could be found on the cultural and economic side. Although the Western concept of high culture naturally concentrates on the Greco-Roman tradition, and its resumption from the Renaissance onwards, such conditions existed in other places at other times.

Art music

Art music (or serious music, [12] classical music, cultivated music, canonical music or erudite music) is an umbrella term used to refer to musical traditions implying advanced structural and theoretical considerations and a written musical tradition. [13] The notion of art music is a frequent and well-defined musicological distinction – musicologist Philip Tagg, for example, refers to art music as one of an "axiomatic triangle consisting of 'folk', 'art' and 'popular' musics". He explains that each of these three is distinguishable from the others according to certain criteria, with high cultural music often performed to an audience whilst folk music would traditionally be more participatory, high culture music is small scale and performed at the local level rather than as a mass produced pop music, it is stored in written form rather than non-written, it's often made for a diverse group of people as opposed to a heterogeneous socioculturally audience, non-industrious high art music spreads in many locales rather than pop music which is possible in industrious economies only, it's made not to compete in the free market place of music. [14] In this regard, "art music" frequently occurs as a contrasting term to "popular music" and to "traditional" or "folk music". [13] [15] [16]

Art film

Art film is the result of filmmaking which is typically a serious, independent film aimed at a niche market rather than a mass market audience. [17] Film critics and film studies scholars typically define an "art film" using a "...canon of films and those formal qualities that mark them as different from mainstream Hollywood films", [18] which includes, among other elements: a social realism style; an emphasis on the authorial expressivity of the director or writer; and a focus on the thoughts and dreams of characters, rather than presenting a clear, goal-driven story. According to the film scholar David Bordwell, "art cinema itself is a film genre, with its own distinct conventions." [19]


Dancers from the Ballet Rambert, under the auspices of CEMA, a government programme, perform Peter and The Wolf at an aircraft factory in the English Midlands during World War II. The Ballet Rambert Visiting An Aircraft Factory in Britain TR969.jpg
Dancers from the Ballet Rambert, under the auspices of CEMA, a government programme, perform Peter and The Wolf at an aircraft factory in the English Midlands during World War II.

The term has always been susceptible to attack for elitism, and, in response, many proponents of the concept devoted great efforts to promoting high culture among a wider public than the highly educated bourgeoisie whose natural territory it was supposed to be. There was a drive, beginning in the 19th century, to open museums and concert halls to give the general public access to high culture. Figures such as John Ruskin and Lord Reith of the BBC in Britain, Leon Trotsky and others in Communist Russia, and many others in America and throughout the western world have worked to widen the appeal of elements of high culture such as classical music, art by old masters and the literary classics.

With the widening of access to university education, the effort spread there, and all aspects of high culture became the objects of academic study, which with the exception of the classics had not often been the case until the late 19th century. University liberal arts courses still play an important role in the promotion of the concept of high culture, though often now avoiding the term itself.

Especially in Europe, governments have been prepared to subsidize high culture through the funding of museums, opera and ballet companies, orchestras, cinema, public broadcasting stations such as BBC Radio 3, ARTE, and in other ways. Organizations such as the Arts Council of Great Britain, and in most European countries, whole ministries administer these programs. This includes the subsidy of new works by composers, writers and artists. There are also many private philanthropic sources of funding, which are especially important in the US, where the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting also funds broadcasting. These may be seen as part of the broader concept of official culture, although often a mass audience is not the intended market.


Ernest Renan (Antoine Samuel Adam-Salomon, 1870s) Ernest Renan 1876-84.jpg
Ernest Renan (Antoine Samuel Adam-Salomon, 1870s)

The relations between high culture and mass culture are concerns of cultural studies, media studies, critical theory, sociology, Postmodernism and Marxist philosophy. In the essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936), Walter Benjamin explored the relations of value of the arts (high and mass) when subjected to industrial reproduction. The critical theoreticians Theodor W. Adorno and Antonio Gramsci interpreted the high-art and mass-art cultural relations as an instrument of social control, with which the ruling class maintain their cultural hegemony upon society. [20]

For the Orientalist Ernest Renan and for the rationalist philosopher Ernest Gellner, high culture was conceptually integral to the politics and ideology of nationalism, as a requisite part of a healthy national identity. Gellner expanded the conceptual scope of the phrase in Nations and Nationalism (1983) stating that high art is "a literate, codified culture, which permits context-free communication" among cultures.

In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979), the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu proposed that æsthetic taste (cultural judgement) is in large part derived from social class. Social class establishes the definitions of high art, e.g. in social etiquette, gastronomy, oenology, military service. In such activities of aesthetic judgement, the ruling-class person uses social codes unknown to middle-class and lower-class persons in the pursuit and practice of activities of taste.[ citation needed ]

See also

Related Research Articles

A cultural movement is a change in the way a number of different disciplines approach their work. This embodies all art forms, the sciences, and philosophies. Historically, different nations or regions of the world have gone through their own independent sequence of movements in culture, but as world communications have accelerated this geographical distinction has become less distinct. When cultural movements go through revolutions from one to the next, genres tend to get attacked and mixed up, and often new genres are generated and old ones fade. These changes are often reactions against the prior cultural form, which typically has grown stale and repetitive. An obsession emerges among the mainstream with the new movement, and the old one falls into neglect – sometimes it dies out entirely, but often it chugs along favored in a few disciplines and occasionally making reappearances.

Renaissance European cultural period of the 14th to 17th century

The Renaissance is a period in European history marking the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity and covering the 15th and 16th centuries, characterized by an effort to revive and surpass ideas and achievements of classical antiquity. It occurred after the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages and was associated with great social change. In addition to the standard periodization, proponents of a "long Renaissance" may put its beginning in the 14th century and its end in the 17th century.

Fine art Art developed primarily for aesthetics

In European academic traditions, fine art is developed primarily for aesthetics or creative expression, distinguishing it from decorative art or applied art, which also has to serve some practical function, such as pottery or most metalwork. In the aesthetic theories developed in the Italian Renaissance, the highest art was that which allowed the full expression and display of the artist's imagination, unrestricted by any of the practical considerations involved in, say, making and decorating a teapot. It was also considered important that making the artwork did not involve dividing the work between different individuals with specialized skills, as might be necessary with a piece of furniture, for example. Even within the fine arts, there was a hierarchy of genres based on the amount of creative imagination required, with history painting placed higher than still life.

Decadence Perceived decay in standards, morals, dignity, religious faith, or skill at governing

The word decadence, which at first meant simply "decline" in an abstract sense, is now most often used to refer to a perceived decay in standards, morals, dignity, religious faith, honor, discipline, or skill at governing among the members of the elite of a very large social structure, such as an empire or nation state. By extension, it may refer to a decline in art, literature, science, technology, and work ethics, or to self-indulgent behavior.

Art music Serious music, as opposed to popular or folk music

Art music is music considered to be of high aesthetic value. It typically implies advanced structural and theoretical considerations or a written musical tradition. In this context, the terms "serious" or "cultivated" are frequently used to present a contrast with ordinary, everyday music. Many cultures have art music traditions; in the Western world the term typically refers to Western classical music.

The term culture industry was coined by the critical theorists Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), and was presented as critical vocabulary in the chapter "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception", of the book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), wherein they proposed that popular culture is akin to a factory producing standardized cultural goods—films, radio programmes, magazines, etc.—that are used to manipulate mass society into passivity. Consumption of the easy pleasures of popular culture, made available by the mass communications media, renders people docile and content, no matter how difficult their economic circumstances. The inherent danger of the culture industry is the cultivation of false psychological needs that can only be met and satisfied by the products of capitalism; thus Adorno and Horkheimer especially perceived mass-produced culture as dangerous to the more technically and intellectually difficult high arts. In contrast, true psychological needs are freedom, creativity, and genuine happiness, which refer to an earlier demarcation of human needs, established by Herbert Marcuse.

Black Arts Movement 1960s-70s art movement

The Black Arts Movement (BAM) was an African American-led art movement, active during the 1960s and 1970s. Through activism and art, BAM created new cultural institutions and conveyed a message of black pride.

Popular culture studies is the study of popular culture from a critical theory perspective combining communication studies and cultural studies. The first institution to offer bachelor's and master's degrees in Popular Culture is the Bowling Green State University Department of Popular Culture founded by Ray B. Browne.

Culture of Europe Overview of the culture of Europe

The culture of Europe is rooted in its art, architecture, film, different types of music, economics, literature, and philosophy. European culture is largely rooted in what is often referred to as its "common cultural heritage".

The term middlebrow describes easily accessible art, usually literature, and the people who use the arts to acquire culture and "class". First used in the British satire magazine Punch in 1925, the term middlebrow is the intermediary "brow" descriptor between highbrow and lowbrow, which are terms derived from the pseudoscience of phrenology.

Low culture Term for forms of popular culture with mass appeal

"Low culture" is a derogatory term for forms of popular culture that have mass appeal. Its contrast is "high culture", which can also be derogatory. It has been said by culture theorists that both high culture and low culture are subcultures. Popular culture is mass produced by what has been called by socialist culture analyst Theodor Adorno the "culture industry".

Richard Shusterman is an American pragmatist philosopher. Known for his contributions to philosophical aesthetics and the emerging field of somaesthetics, currently he is the Dorothy F. Schmidt Eminent Scholar in the Humanities and Professor of Philosophy at Florida Atlantic University.

Cultural policy Policy intended to impact the arts, language, heritage, or diversity

Cultural policy is the government actions, laws and programs that regulate, protect, encourage and financially support activities related to the arts and creative sectors, such as painting, sculpture, music, dance, literature, and filmmaking, among others and culture, which may involve activities related to language, heritage and diversity. The idea of cultural policy was developed at UNESCO in the 1960s. Generally, this involves governments setting in place processes, legal classifications, regulations, legislation and institutions which promote and facilitate cultural diversity and creative expressions in a range of art forms and creative activities. Cultural policies vary from one country to another, but generally they aim to improve the accessibility of arts and creative activities to citizens and promote the artistic, musical, ethnic, sociolinguistic, literary and other expressions of all people in a country. In some countries, especially since the 1970s, there is an emphasis on supporting the culture of Indigenous peoples and marginalized communities and ensuring that cultural industries are representative of a country's diverse cultural heritage and ethnic and linguistic demographics.

Popular culture is generally recognized by members of a society as a set of the practices, beliefs, and objects that are dominant or prevalent in a society at a given point in time. Popular culture also encompasses the activities and feelings produced as a result of interaction with these dominant objects. The primary driving force behind popular culture is mass appeal, and it is produced by what cultural analyst Theodor Adorno refers to as the "culture industry".

Culture Social behavior and norms of a society

Culture is an umbrella term which encompasses the social behavior, institutions, and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of the individuals in these groups. Culture is often originated from or attributed to a specific region or location.

Western culture Norms, values and political systems originating in Europe

Western culture, also known as Western civilization, Occidental culture, or Western society, is the heritage of social norms, ethical values, traditional customs, belief systems, political systems, artifacts and technologies of the Western world. Western values become the symbols of dominant mentality for the culture of Western societies that transcended through power and authority. The term also applies beyond Europe to countries and cultures whose histories are strongly connected to Europe by immigration, colonization or influence. For example, Western culture includes countries in the Americas and Oceania. Western culture is most strongly influenced by Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Christian culture.

The medieval renaissances were periods characterised by significant cultural renewal across medieval Western Europe. These are effectively seen as occurring in three phases - the Carolingian Renaissance, Ottonian Renaissance and the Renaissance of the 12th century.

Philosophy of culture is a branch of philosophy that examines the essence and meaning of culture.

A theory of art is intended to contrast with a definition of art. Traditionally, definitions are composed of necessary and sufficient conditions and a single counterexample overthrows such a definition. Theorizing about art, on the other hand, is analogous to a theory of a natural phenomenon like gravity. In fact, the intent behind a theory of art is to treat art as a natural phenomenon that should be investigated like any other. The question of whether one can speak of a theory of art without employing a concept of art is also discussed below.

Ephemeral art Art that is not intended to endure

Ephemeral art is the name given to all artistic expression conceived under a concept of transience in time, of non-permanence as a material and conservable work of art. Because of its perishable and transitory nature, ephemeral art does not leave a lasting work, or if it does – as would be the case with fashion – it is no longer representative of the moment in which it was created. In these expressions, the criterion of social taste is decisive, which is what sets the trends, for which the work of the media is essential, as well as that of art criticism.



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  2. Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1983) Rev. Ed. p. 91–92.
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  4. Arnold, Matthew (1869). Culture and Anarchy . The Cornhill Magazine.
  5. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967) Volume 1. p. 167.
  6. Steven Johnson (6 April 2006). Everything Bad is Good for You: How Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter. Penguin Books Limited. p. 203. ISBN   978-0-14-193312-2.
  7. Gellius · Attic Nights — Book XIII
  8. M. Tullius Cicero, De Officiiss, Book I: Moral Goodness, section 150
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  12. a b "Music" in Encyclopedia Americana, reprint 1993, p. 647
  13. 1 2 Denis Arnold, "Art Music, Art Song", in The New Oxford Companion to Music, Volume 1: A-J, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983): 111. ISBN   0-19-311316-3
  14. Philip Tagg, "Analysing Popular Music: Theory, Method and Practice", Popular Music 2 (1982): 41.
  15. "Music" in Encyclopedia Americana, reprint 1993, p. 647
  16. Philip Tagg, "Analysing Popular Music: Theory, Method and Practice", Popular Music 2 (1982): 37–67, here 41–42.
  17. Art film definition – Dictionary – MSN Encarta. Archived from the original on 2009-08-30.
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  20. McGregor, Craig (1997). Class in Australia (1 ed.). Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books Australia Ltd. p. 301. ISBN   978-0-14-008227-2. Élite culture is often an instrument of social control. . . .