A Critique of Aesthetic Hierarchism and its Consequences for the Theory of Art,* Art Criticism and Aesthetic Axiology

Pavel Zahrádka, Palacký University Olomouc

1. Introduction

In this essay I will first address the issue of the conceptual distinction be- tween high and popular art from a philosophical point of view. This means that I will address the question of its legitimacy. This distinction started to be used by cultural critics and theorists in connection with the develop- ment of mass production, distribution and reception of cultural objects in the second half of the 19th century. The basis of this distinction was the belief that there are two distinct types of works of art, or cultural objects, which differ essentially not only in their constitutive properties but also in terms of their value: “There are theoretical reasons why Mass Culture is not and can never be any good” (MacDonald 1957, 69). Thus, while works of popular art were attributed low or no aesthetic value, works of high art represented “the best that is known and thought in the world” (Arnold 1993, 85). For completeness, we should add that this distinction divides general categories of cultural production, i.e. artistic types, genres and styles. At the same time, the value difference between high and popular art was – whether explicitly or implicitly – interpreted as a difference in aes- thetic value in the texts of cultural critics and theorists. Richard Shuster- man (1991) convincingly demonstrated that a critique of popular art which is based on its negative social consequences is also logically based on criti- cism of its aesthetic value. For example, the fact that works of popular art lead the audience, according to Adorno and Horkheimer (1988), to politi- cal and civic passivity is logically based on the belief that works of popular art dampen the mental abilities of their recipients through their aesthetic shortcomings (dullness, easy predictability and simplifying schematism). The basic issue of the first part is therefore the question whether the dis- tinction between high and popular art can be convincingly defended, or rather, whether the basis for this distinction lies in the works themselves, or whether it is an artificial social construction that has no basis in real- ity. The first part of the article will summarize the main reasons why I consider the distinction unsustainable from the aesthetic point of view.

However, if the difference between high and popular art cannot be jus- tified on the basis of aesthetic criteria, there must be another explanation for why we use this distinction. According to sociologists, it is necessary to look for the answer to this question in the domain of the relational properties attached to works of art on the basis of their relationship to the social context in which they are located. In the second part, there- fore, I shall briefly address the interpretation offered by cultural historian Lawrence Levine and sociologist of culture Pierre Bourdieu about the rea- sons for the creation and social function of the distinction between high and popular art in the USA and Europe at the turn of the 19th and 20th century.

In the last part of the text, I will discuss the implications and chal- lenges that arise from the discussion about the legitimacy of the above- mentioned hierarchical distinction for art theory, art criticism and aes- thetic axiology. Firstly, I will discuss the question whether the concept of popular art can be removed from its hierarchical dichotomy and rehabili- tated for the purpose of empirical examination of works of art. I will try to answer this question using the example of a recent attempt by Noël Carroll to redefine the concept of popular, or rather mass, art independently of the hierarchical distinction between high and popular art. Secondly, I will try to justify the basic rules which emerge from the discussion about the legitimacy of the difference between high and popular art for the practice of art criticism. Thirdly, I will try to outline the basic challenges faced by aesthetic axiology as a consequence of the debate about the legitimacy of the distinction under examination.