High culture  

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 This page High culture is part of the culture series.   Photo: western face of the Parthenon
This page High culture is part of the culture series.
Photo: western face of the Parthenon

"One ought to learn anew about cruelty," said Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil, 229), "and open one's eyes. Almost everything that we call 'higher culture' is based upon the spiritualizing and intensifying of cruelty...." more ...

"[Culture is] the best that has been said and thought in the world" --Culture and Anarchy (1869) by Matthew Arnold

"One important consequence of the new sensibility [is] that the distinction between "high" and "low" culture seems less and less meaningful." --"One Culture and the New Sensibility", Susan Sontag, 1965.

"Both high and low culture have produced masterpieces and works of mediocrity. It is our task to find beauty in unexpected places." --Sholem Stein

Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda. (La Joconde), is a 16th century oil painting by Leonardo da Vinci, and is one of the most famous paintings in the world.
Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda. (La Joconde), is a 16th century oil painting by Leonardo da Vinci, and is one of the most famous paintings in the world.

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High culture is a term, now used in a number of different ways in academic discourse, whose most common meaning is the set of cultural products, mainly in the arts, held in the highest esteem by a culture. In more popular terms, it is the culture of an elite such as the aristocracy or intelligentsia. It is contrasted with the low culture or popular culture of, variously, the less well-educated, barbarians, Philistines, or the masses.

When used without a qualifying adjective, the term culture usually refers to high culture.

Opera, for example, is considered high culture.



Although it has a longer history in Continental Europe, the term was introduced into English largely with the publication in 1869 of Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold, although he most often uses just "culture". Arnold defined culture as "the disinterested endeavour after man's perfection" (Preface) and most famously wrote that having culture meant to "know the best that has been said and thought in the world"—a specifically literary definition, also embracing Philosophy, which is now rather less likely to be considered an essential component of High Culture, at least in the English-speaking cultures. Arnold saw high culture as a force for moral and political good, and in various forms this view remains widespread, though far from uncontested. The term is contrasted with popular culture or mass culture and also with folk culture, but by no means implies hostility to these.

T. S. Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) was an influential work which saw high culture and popular culture as necessary parts of a complete culture. The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart (1957) was an influential work along somewhat the same lines, concerned with the cultural experience of those, like himself, who had come from a working-class background before university. In America, Harold Bloom has taken a more exclusive line in a number of works, as did F. R. Leavis earlier—both, like Arnold, being mainly concerned with literature, and unafraid to champion vociferously the literature of the Western canon.

In both the Western and some East Asian traditions, art that demonstrates the imagination of the artist has been accorded the highest status. In the West this tradition goes back to the Ancient Greeks, and was reinforced in the Renaissance and by Romanticism, although the latter also did away with the hierarchy of genres within the fine arts established in the Renaissance. In China there was a distinction between the amateur literati painting of the scholar-officials, which had a higher status than the work produced by professional 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 to works reproducing an actual view.

High Culture in Western Civilization

In the Western tradition high culture has historical origins in the intellectual and aesthetic ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. Within this classical ideal certain authors and their modes of language were held up as models of an elevated style and good form as for instance the Attic dialect of ancient Greek associated with the great philosophers and dramatists of Periclean Athens, or Ciceronian Latin. Later especially during the Renaissance these values were deeply imbibed by cultural elites, and as evinced in works like The Courtier by Baldasare Castiglione, knowledge of the classics became part of the aristocratic ideal. Over time the refined classicism of the Renaissance was expanded to embrace a broader canon of authors in the modern languages that included figures such as Shakespeare, Goethe, and Cervantes.

For centuries an immersion in high culture was deemed an essential part of the proper education of "the gentleman" and this ideal was transmitted through elite schools and institutions throughout Europe and the United States. As it has evolved Western notions of high culture have been associated at various times with: The study of "humane letters" especially the Greek and Latin classics and more broadly all works considered to be part of "the canon"; the cultivation of refined etiquette and manners; an appreciation of the fine arts - especially sculpture and painting; a knowledge of such literature, drama, and poetry considered to be of high caliber; enjoyment of European classical music and opera; religion and theology often with a special focus on Europe's predominantly Christian tradition; rhetoric and politics; the study of philosophy and history; a taste for gourmet cuisine and wine; being well traveled and especially "The Grand Tour of Europe"; certain sports associated with elites such as polo, horsemanship, fencing, and yachting.

A concept in flux

Although theater is today a highbrow form, this was not so until the nineteenth century. Historian Lawrence Levine articulated Shakespeare's popularity shift this way:

“By the turn of the [nineteenth] century, Shakespeare had been converted from a popular playwright whose dramas were the property of all those who flocked to see them, into a sacred author who had to be protected from ignorant audiences and overbearing actors threatening the integrity of his creations."

The economics of high and low culture

As Tyler Cowen points out in In Praise of Commercial Culture, "economic incentives support the split between high and low culture. Capitalism supports product diversity and gives many artists the means to work outside of the popular mainstream. The resulting split between high culture and low culture indicates the sophistication of modernity, not its corruption or disintegration. A world where high and low culture were strongly integrated would be a world that devoted little effort to satisfying minority tastes. Genres that rely heavily on equipment and materials, which I describe as capital-intensive, tend to produce popular art. Genres with low capital costs, which I describe as labor-intensive, tend to produce high art. The movie spectacular with expensive special effects is likely to have a happy ending. The low-budget art film, directed and financed by an iconoclastic auteur, may leave the viewer searching."

By medium

High art

fine art

Much of high culture consists of the appreciation of what is called "high art" or "fine 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 art cinema). The decorative arts would not generally be considered high art.

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. Although the Western concept of high culture naturally concentrates on the Graeco-Roman tradition, and its resumption from the Renaissance onwards, such conditions existed in other places at other times. A tentative list of high cultures, or cultures producing High Art, might therefore include:

Art music

Art music (or serious 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. The notion of art music is a frequent and well defined musicological distinction, e.g., referred to by musicologist Philip Tagg 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. In this regard, it is frequently used as a contrasting term to popular music and traditional or folk music.

In literature: literary fiction

See literary fiction vs. genre fiction

Literary fiction is a term that has come into common usage since around 1970, principally to distinguish 'serious' fiction (that is, work with claims to literary merit) from the many types of genre fiction and popular fiction. In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the 'pageturner') focuses more on narrative and plot.

In film: art film

See art film vs. blockbuster

The term "art film" is used in its loosest sense when the location of exhibition, the repertory theater or "arthouse cinema," is used to define which films are "art films." With this approach, a broad range of films, such as a 1960s Hitchcock movie, a 1970s experimental underground film, a 1980s European auteur film, and a 1990s US "Independent" film all fall under the rubric of "art film." In 2000, film theorist Robert Stam argued that “art film” was a film genre based on artistic status, in the same way that film genres can be based on aspects of films such as their budgets (blockbuster movies or B-movies) or their star performers (Fred Astaire movies)

Promotion of high culture

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. Organisations such as the Arts Council in Britain, and in most European countries, whole ministries administer these programmes. 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.


High culture and its relation to mass culture, have been, in different ways, a central concern of much theoretical work in cultural studies, critical theory, media studies and sociology, as well as postmodernism and many strands of Marxist thought. It was especially central to the concerns of Walter Benjamin, whose 1935-6 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction has been highly influential, as has the work of Theodor Adorno.

High culture has also been an important concept in political theory on Nationalism for writers such as Ernest Renan and Ernest Gellner, who saw it as a necessary component of a healthy national identity. Gellner's concept of a high culture was much broader than just the arts; he defined it in Nations and Nationalism (1983) as: "...a literate codified culture which permits context-free communication". This is a distinction between different cultures, rather than within a culture, contrasting high with simpler, agrarian low cultures.

Pierre Bourdieu's book: La Distinction (English translation: Distinction - A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste) (1979) is a study influential in Sociology of another much broader, class based, definition of high culture, or "taste", which includes etiquette, appreciation of fine food and wine, and even military service. This partly reflects a French, or Mediterranean, conception of the term which is different from the more serious-minded Anglo-German concept of Arnold, Benjamin, Leavis or Bloom.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "High culture" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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