Fine Art vs. Popular Art

3Way back when, I think in early August, we had a meeting during which we talked about “High” vs. “Low” or “Fine” vs. “Popular” art. I have wanted to blog about it ever since, because I think it was an important conversation.

First, we started out talking about terminology, and decided that (as far as possible), non-pejorative terms are better: “high” vs “low” is insulting to the “low,” obviously. We talked about other terms that get thrown around, such as calling popular art “formulaic garbage,” and whether it’s possible to be formulaic without being garbage, and the phrases “secret pleasure” and “guilty pleasure.” We also wondered whether our enjoyment of a work is the same as our evaluation of it — I, for one, do not find this to be the case. I greatly enjoy many works that I think are not of high quality, and I greatly appreciate the high quality of many works that I am not able to enjoy.

Next, I asked participants to make two columns on a sheet of paper. They labeled one “Fine Art” and the other “Popular Art.” They were NOT to write definitions at this time, but instead to put down examples of works of art they believed fit the categories — preferably in matched pairs, like two pieces of music, two murder mysteries, two romances, etc. Before you read further, why don’t you try this exercise yourself, then compare results?


Fine Art

Beethoven’s 7th Symphony
Titian’s Pieta

Michelangelo’s David
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Sleep no More
(high-art haunted house)
Babylon 5
Moonlight sonata
Lord of the Rings
Pride & Prejudice
Watership Down

Michelangelo’s Pieta
Mona Lisa
The Village
David Copperfield
Romeo & Juliet

John Williams
‘s The Philosopher
”Hush” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Popular Art

Illustrations to Mouse Guard
Hunger Games

Plastic action figures
Lord of the Rings
Star Trek TNG
Seasons 1-3
P & P and Zombies
Wild Hearts

Barbie figurines
Instagram photo
The Way, Way Back
Dream Evil
The Black Arrow

Hannah Montana
Gangham style
Spike: into the Light
Jim Lee Justice League #1
“The Freshman” from Buffy

What do YOU think? Do you agree?

Then I had them continue writing in their two columns, but this time the assignment was to write characteristics or definitions of the two kinds of art. So you try that, first, before reading on.


Fine Art:

High degree of technical skill
Long heritage
Well-established tradition
Great variety of virtuosic mechanisms employed
Lasts forever in human culture
Very well known, stay popular
Loved and celebrated by intellectuals
Create your feelings
Create/convert a fan base
Made for artistic reasons (not $)
Narrow appeal
Full of deeper meaning and subject
Challenges beliefs
Technically difficult
Has a message to communicate
More complicated form
Enduring messages
Transportive themes woven throughout
Well-crafted execution

Popular Art:

Intuitive rather than highly trained
Small variety of technical mechanisms employed
Has short life in human culture
Temporarily popular
Not loved and celebrated by intellectuals
Manipulate your feelings
Appeal to a fan base
Made for money
Have a broad appeal
Easily understood
Very little to no subtext
Poor quality in some area of technique
Adds nothing new or engaging in terms of content
Technically simpler
Less depth/more superficial
Focused on the consumer
messages Important at the moment
crafted to please an audience

FINALLY we debated about these, interrogating many of them. Lots of “fine” art was made for money (Shakespeare is the classic example). Lots of popular art communicates a message, while there are plenty of fine artists who think that communicating a message makes the work into propaganda, and so on. What do YOU think? 

I had planned to go on and talk about our relative assessments of these kinds of art, whether the two categories are even useful, and what kinds we “ought” to be making–but we didn’t get to. Maybe another time!