A Bee Contemplates Buzzing
The Definition of High Art
Sunday, January 8, 2006 8:46 pm
Despite having been a writer for decades now and having had the unsurprising and frequent inclination, as a producer of art, to contemplate the nature of art, it was many years until I realized something that I think is very true.
Let me begin by stating the obvious: All works are not substantially equal. However much the academics might want to de-privilege the canon, there remains a qualitative difference between high art and low art. This, to be sure, is not news. If you think I am merely about to scoff at academics who overpraise hip-hop or graffiti, you would be wrong. Such academics, however much they perdure, have been adequately ridiculed already. My question is only this: Given the obvious fact that some art is high and some low, what is it, in the end, that distinguishes high from low? And my answer is this: Depth of information.
This is not entirely my idea. I heard a man use "information content" to explain, in passing, why concert music is higher than popular music. But I believe "information content" — or, as I prefer to put it, "depth of information" — applies to all art and is, indeed, sufficient to distinguish high from low. Notice I am not saying "distinguish good from bad." "Good" is an aesthetic judgment, valid enough but not enough to make a work high. And "bad" does not mean a work is not high. "Information" applies, obviously, to content, but perhaps not as obviously to form. That is, a work of high art is presented in a form that itself invites contemplation and rational elucidation. A work of high art is elaborate in content and form. Its information is deep.
That may seem to be a truism, but what I am trying to get across is that "deeply informed" is the complete definition of high art. Yes, of course, we would argue about what constitutes "deep." But by defining high art as "deeply informed" we don't become sunk in questions of aesthetics or culture — or origins. Thus even masters can produce low art — art that is well-made, enjoyable, memorable; yet for all that, lacking depth and therefore not high. Just because it's Mozart doesn't mean it's higher than Metallica.
And, as an added bonus, my succinct definition finally makes it clear to me why so much art that is supposedly high has always struck me as anything but. With my definition in hand, one can finally banish the freeloaders from the house of high art. For example, like him or not, value him or not, Pollock is not high art, because there is nothing elaborate or deeply informed about his work. Nothing intrinsic, that is. You can read all you want into Pollock's paint spills; they're still just spills. Deep information cannot be imputed to the work but must subsist in the work for the work to be truly high.