You Take the High Road

You Take the High Road

Low art is a term I was unfamiliar with until I read a post written by artist Breanna Rhodes via Heijeu Arts Central. She recounts in her article how her art professor told her she made low art. It just about crushed her. Had I been told the same thing as a junior in college studying studio art, that label would have crushed me, too.

Having a B.A. in Art History, it’s embarrassing not knowing high art versus low art. I am familiar with and fluent in most art movements from pre-Columbian to Pop.

As a visual artist, I can only claim a broad category of art called contemporary. (Someone did give me the title of post-modern ecological artist, and I thought, wow, would anyone understand that?) I often wonder what art movements and terms are at work today.

Professor G. James Daichendt defines low art as a concept that typically refers to pop culture and entertainment. Low art is used in a derogatory fashion because of its mass appeal.

High art and low art aren’t the best descriptors. High art generally references painting, sculpture, and music and the study of these disciplines. High art is made to carry a deeper meaning than what appears on the surface. This explains all the esoteric analyzing of artworks written by art critics I read in college and found difficult to understand what “the hey” they were talking about.

Low art, by contrast, was to differentiate between classical methods of making art and textile art. The class of low art came about during the Arts and Crafts movement. We all probably know the movement’s champion as William Morris.

eight stacked and in two columns Brillo box sculpture by pop artist Andy Warhol
painting of an open Campbell’s Soup beef noodle can for 19 cents by Andy Warhol, 1962

Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes (1964) and Campbell’s Soup Can (1962)

Today, high art and low art lines are blurred. Although the masses easily digest low art, the quality and craftsmanship of low art are often superb. I think of stunningly designed quilts and the beautiful little ceramic bowls I collect from artists. Many considered low art pieces, such as Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, are showcased in museums. Jeff Koons’ everyday larger-than-life balloon sculptures, each worth upwards of 58 million dollars, are, by definition, “low art.”

enormous blue reflective blue balloon dog sculpture by artist Jeff Koons on displayed in pop art museum exhibit

Jeff Koon’s colossal Blue Balloon Dog, 1994-2000

Young emerging artists grew up with the Internet, a conduit for the masses. It’s no wonder these artists reflect our times of connection by computer and technology in startling ways as Warhol reflected his times with his Campbell’s Soup cans paintings in the 1960s. We now have an array of digital and meme art taking up space in galleries alongside paintings.

large textile hanging tapestry of a bedroom with someone sitting on the bed with a laptop open showing another person on the screen by artist Erin M. Riley on display at the P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York City

Artist Erin M. Riley at the P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York City, her work illustrates our intimate, everyday relationships with technology.

four paintings of feminist memes of crying little girls with captions by artist Christine Wang

Artist Christine Wang’s Feminist Memes.

While painting is considered high art, I think of oils in particular, followed by acrylic painting, basically anything on canvas owning that description. Watercolors and works on paper have often been seen as artist sketches and studies before creating the real deal on canvas. Doing watercolors was a casual plein-air pastime for the elite and eventually accessible to everyone. Looking at watercolors as art for the masses, I make low art.

Another art form that I have been studying for the past 2+ years is surface pattern design. By definition, this is low art, as its end goal is to decorate everyday objects, from textiles to wallpaper and gift wrap.

Perhaps the better terms might be classical and vernacular art instead of high and low art. Then again, high and low are easier to digest and will remain blurry at best.

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