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My thoughts on high art vs low art and design

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High: J.M.W Turner, “Moonlight, a Study at Millbank,” 1797 (found here)

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Low: Thomas Kinkade, “Blessings of Christmas” (found here)

(if you want to read a really funny article on Kinkade, look at what the LA Times wrote)

Both high and low art provide the artist and viewer with a means of expressing oneself and making statements as well as being able to better understand the world. However, high art is deemed high because it elevates the viewer and artist to a level beyond seeing the mundane and kitsch and challenges us on an intellectual level. Its primary objective is elevation through education. Low art is unable to do this as effectively. While it provides some form of aesthetic relief and expression, it is often meant to appeal to the broadest spectrum of people. This is why it is popular and can be found in nearly any setting. Thus, an object of beauty becomes less meaningful because it is not distinctive in the way high art is.

We would never compare the paintings of Turner to Thomas Kinkade. While both pieces require artistry and it is impossible to ignore the craftsmanship evident in both, Thomas Kinkaide’s paintings will always be commercial kitsch. They lack substance or any artistic merit. They do not provoke thought. People choose to display his work because “they like the way it looks”. This is an effront to the entire objective of art and an insult to real artists, who commit their life to following the virtues of beauty and truth. Turner’s work will always be highly regarded by the art community, even though at times the work is tumultuous, it is beautiful because of the meaning inherent in itself. Taste is the distinction between Turner and Kinkaide. And although some would argue that it does not matter, that taste is subjective, and that it is commendable that either artist is being considered, that is not enough for those who love art and hope for more.

Oscar Wilde famously said, “What’s popular is wrong,” and this statement is very applicable here. Just because Elvis can be rendered in oil onto a velvet canvas, it is not art. Or, it is, but it is only low art and is not meaningful or worthwhile art. Low art often has personal appeal or makes mediocre statements. In the instance of lowrider cars, although there is craftsmanship and creativity at work, it will never be distinguished or viewed as really good art due to context and content. The lowriders are not created to really educate or elevate, but as a means of self-expression. This is an extension of the ego, and high art transcends the ego for the purpose of enlightenment.

Graffiti, too, will always be considered low art for this reason. This is explored in “Exit through the Gift Shop”. It is completely egotistical to defile a public area in order to prove you were there. In fact, it is almost a primal urge, very selfish. It should not be taken seriously or deemed high art, and there is a reason it is disregarded. Most tragic, though, is that many of these artists are very talented and make astute observations about the world. In a legal setting, their work could in some instances be viewed as high art. But they compromise this potential to educate and enlighten through ego and disrespect for their environment.

Similarly, there are distinctions between high and low design: compare Eames to Ikea, for example. However, the difference between the high verses low design compared to art is that design is always functional, regardless of whether it is high or low, and design can be good, high or low, provided it serves this function. Art cannot: it is either good or bad, and it can be high or low. But with today’s lax rules about what constitutes art, anything counts as art. People put up with much more because of fear of looking uncultured if they don’t comprehend something, but the trouble is that most of the time the art is not actually worth comprehending. Design is different because people will not tolerate inefficient design, regardless of whether it is high or low. In fact, some of the best design is low because it works for everyone first and foremost: look at good maps and instructions, where it is essential to have good design. Although its subject matter is not glamorous, it serves a higher function as low design because it addresses the challenges of communication and does it in such a way that all can appreciate it.