Low culture  

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This page Low culture is part of the bread and circuses series. Illustration: Pollice Verso by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872
This page Low culture is part of the bread and circuses series.
Illustration: Pollice Verso by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872

"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.

"What I liked were: absurd paintings, pictures over doorways, stage sets, carnival backdrops, billboards, bright-colored prints, old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books full of misspellings, the kind of novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, little children's books, old operas, silly old songs, the naïve rhythms of country rimes." --"The Alchemy of the Word" (1873), Arthur Rimbaud

"My interest in regional exploitation or pulp culture is what it tells about the region where it is produced. I am searching for national stereotypes by way of their exploitation culture; regional stereotypes deduced from regional fears and desires (horror and eroticism)."--Sholem Stein, 2009

Hollywood is iconic for popular culture
The Smoker (ca. 1654 - 1662) by Joos van Craesbeeck
The Smoker (ca. 1654 - 1662) by Joos van Craesbeeck
Cover of Sweeney Todd, published by Charles Fox in 48 numbers
Cover of Sweeney Todd, published by Charles Fox in 48 numbers
 Body genre: comedy and humour; effect: laughter Illustration: poster for The Raven, a horror-comedy
Body genre: comedy and humour; effect: laughter
Illustration: poster for The Raven, a horror-comedy
La Fable des trois souhaits — Insatiabilité humaine by Antoine Wiertz, see three wishes joke
La Fable des trois souhaits — Insatiabilité humaine by Antoine Wiertz, see three wishes joke

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Low culture is a derogatory term for popular culture and working class culture. The term is often encountered in discourses on the nature of culture. Its opposite is high culture. Strictly speaking, both high culture and low culture are minority cultures. The combined influences of both strains constitute mainstream culture.

Kitsch, slapstick, camp, escapist fiction, popular music, comic books, tattoo art and exploitation films are examples of low culture. It has often been stated that in postmodern times, the boundary between high culture and low culture has blurred. See the 1990s artwork of Jeff Koons for example of appropriation of low art tropes.

Romanticism was one of the first artistic movements to reappraise "low culture", when previously maligned chivalric romances started to influence literature. Susan Sontag was one of the first essayists to write about the intersection of high and low art in her 1964 "nobrow" essay "Notes On "Camp"".



The history of low culture can be traced to panem et circenses (bread and circuses), Roman jokes and profanity in Roman antiquity, jest books of the Middle Ages, picaresque novels, rogue literature and genre painting in the Renaissance, to mass audiences for penny dreadfuls, erotic photography and music halls in the Victorian era, to pulp magazines exploitation films, video nasties and shock sites in the 20th century.


Reality television, escapist fiction, kitsch, slapstick, camp, toilet humor, yellow journalism, pornography, and exploitation films are often cited examples of low culture.

The boundaries of low culture and high culture blur, through convergence. Many people are "omnivores", making cultural choices from different menus. The 1990s artwork of Jeff Koons appropriate low art tropes of kitsch and pornography. Rhys Chatham's musical piece Guitar Trio 1977 is an example of incorporating (low culture) primitive punk rock aesthetics into (high culture) contemporary classical music.

Romanticism was one of the first movements to reappraise "low culture," when previously maligned medieval romances were taken seriously and influenced literature.

Standards and definitions of low culture

In his book Popular Culture and High Culture, Herbert J. Gans gives a definition of how to identify and create low culture:

"Aesthetic standards of low culture stress substance, form and being totally subservient; there is no explicit concern with abstract ideas or even with fictional forms of contemporary social problems and issues. ... Low culture emphasizes morality but limits itself to familial and individual problems and [the] values, which apply to such problems. Low culture is content to depict traditional working class values winning out over the temptation to give into conflicting impulses and behavior patterns."

By medium

In film

B-movies - exploitation films - grindhouse films - paracinema - television - video nasties - violent films

While the term exploitation was initially coined in the 1950s to describe 1930s and 1940s (the classical era of American exploitation film), the practice of exploitative fiction is as old as fiction itself. Areas of interest in this field include grub street hack writing, dime novels and pulp fiction, paperbacks and white slavery films, blaxploitation, Grand Guignol and slasher films.

In print

comics - escapist fiction - dime novels - genre fiction - men's magazines - paraliterature - popular fiction - pulp fiction - yellow journalism

In music

disco - house - music hall - popular music - pop music

In the visual realm

advertising - applied arts - caricature - decorative arts - design - graffiti - kitsch

Low art refers to the lesser or minor arts, including the decorative or applied arts, with the assumption that these are low partly because of the poor quality of materials and manufacturing. They are said to be superficial kitsch, catering to popular taste with a couch potato mentality.

In performing arts

burlesque - circus - peepshow - striptease - vaudeville

By genre

Body genres are the main theatres of low culture: subfields include adventure, carnival, comedy, horror, melodrama, pornography and romance.

By region

In search of national stereotypes by way of their exploitation culture.

American low culture is well-known throughout the world, European low culture less so. Japanese low culture even less.

Other regions with defined low culture consumers are:

Main themes

sex, drugs, violence, true crime

Related connotations include artificial, bad taste, basic instinct, camp, cheap, commercial, conventional, common, derivative, entertaining, ephemera, exploitation, formulaic, gratuitous, low budget, lurid, the masses, ordinary, popular, proletariat, prurient, sensationalism, scatology, shocking, stereotype, trash, under-the-counter, underground and vulgar.

Baser instincts

Low culture is frequently said to address the baser instincts of hedonism and escapism.


blaxploitation, artsploitation, b-movie, cautionary tale, comics, cult films, "dime novels" and "penny dreadfuls", escapist fiction, erotic horror, fantasy, fantastique, giallo, gore, gothic, grindhouse, horror, mondo films, Nazi exploitation, nunsploitation, pornography, prostitution, pulp, sensationalism, sexploitation, shock, slasher, snuff film, trash, video nasty, violence, white slavery, women in prison, working class culture


Sensationalism is a manner of being extremely controversial, loud, attention-grabbing, or otherwise sensationalistic.

The term is commonly used in reference to the media. Critics of media bias of all political stripes often charge the media with engaging in sensationalism in their reporting and conduct. That is to say they charge that the media often chooses to report on shocking or attention-grabbing stories, rather than relevant or important ones.


See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Low 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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