“High Art” and the Constraints of Artistic Expression

Guest Author: Bentley Brown

To the Frankfurt School cultural theorists of the World War II era, “high art” was (to exaggerate just slightly) a critical, independent form of expression that rebelled against the instrumentalized, commodified pool of fascist filth that is “mass art.” [1]

Writing decades later, Frederick Jameson contends in “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture” that a more reasoned approach might consider high and mass art as interdependent of one another and perhaps overlapping, or sharing qualities, as if on a spectrum [2]. He points out that some of what the Frankfurt School thinkers elevated as “high art” nonetheless appealed to the masses of their time. In the words of Bertolt Brecht, “Don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones.” Jameson’s tone is decidedly Marxist, yet lacks the “all-is-lost” mentality characteristic of many in the Frankfurt School who lamented the future of cultural production.

This past fall, I had the fortune of watching, back-to-back on the same day, local renditions of the 2012 play Marie Antoinette and the 2006 Broadway musical The Wedding Singer.

wedding singer

The Wedding Singer

The Wedding Singer proved itself a suitable specimen of mass art. The play assumes life’s greatest duties are falling in love with a kindhearted person of the opposite sex, while navigating the tension between the pursuit of one’s life passion and the necessity of a decent-paying job. The play did very little to challenge the audience’s imagination of the topics at stake, which I’ll shorthand as sexuality, family, and career.

Marie, meanwhile, was much darker and complex, slapping an American-accented spin on the beheaded Queen of France while ridiculing her aloof style of rule. Rumor has it that Marie once responded to a complaint about her starving population with “Let them eat cake!”


The infamous Antoinette

In its ridicule of the French royalty, Marie declares a not-so-subtle praise for “the democracy of the Americans.” I imagine that Jameson would point out that this play, too, is an example of art that can be identified as exhibiting both “high” and “mass” artistic elements. Its mood is critical and autonomous, yet its content endorses a contemporary government organization, the United States. The play is accessible, I argue, because it fits within a set of constraints governing “acceptable” artistic expression in the United States.

These constraints are set in place by a mixture of societal pressures and repression by the state, a situation Louis Althusser describes in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” The more a piece fits within these constraints, the greater its potential for mass appeal; the more it is at odds with these constraints, the more likely it will be regarded as too much, anti-establishment, or even treasonous. I’ll close with what I think are just a few of these constraints to art in the United States:

Constraint 1: Art must conform to a system of identification, which today is generally dominated by ideological constructs of race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and culture.

Constraint 2: Art cannot be atheist. It must acknowledge a governing force or pattern, even if that force or pattern is “unknown.”

Constraint 3: Art cannot challenge the perpetuity of the nation-state, nor the virtue of such an organization’s military.

Constraint 4: Art must maintain a general commitment to the English language and its logic structures.

To say that everything that fits within these constraints is “mass art” and that everything in tension with these constraints is “high art” would be an oversimplification. But to break these constraints is to narrow one’s audience, while conforming to the constraints is the first step to commodification. And don’t worry: Jameson will see your show either way.


[1]  Think unabashedly patriotic, white, nuclear family- and  moral values-driven Hollywood cinema of the   middle twentieth century.

[2] Jameson, Fredric. “Reification and utopia in mass culture.” Social text (1979): 130-148.

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  • Reader

    An interesting start, though you really could stand to consider the ethics of Jamerson’s/your high-low art binary. And could you reflect because it is of pertinence here, how much you paid to see The Wedding Singer (a friends Netflix’s credentials) vs. Marie at the theater (minus your student discount)? What affordances were in place for you to de-identify from prior ideologies, and purport, even propagate, an outdated binary that you yourself feel is a reduction.

    Simply, one can invites mass-art, and even refute high-art (“that ss*$t is so abstract!) to secure a livelihood within one’s constraints. But also to de-identify from the myth of global citizenship that can be detrimental when applied haphazardly or worse, uniformly.

    Regardless, given the thrust of your graduate education, this article engages with a course of interpretation that deals aftermath of de-identification. http://thenewinquiry.com/features/what-even-is-african-literature-anyway/

    An excerpt:

    “all this to say, I think there’s real potential in the speculative fiction angle [of reading authors from Africa], especially if you can (as I tried to do) actually engage with the worlds in the text and not just frame them as blah blah oral tradition, in the way we see so often, a way that MAKES EVERYTHING NOTHING AGAIN.

    Curiously it’s making these elements “something” (oral tradition) that actually makes them nothing, while embracing them as nothing (fantasy, made-up) might be a way to see them as something…”

    In sum, Let them eat escargot, even if it tastes like boiled booger.