There is significant debate regarding the classification of works of art into two broad categories namely high and low culture. There are those who find it impractical to do so because they believe that diversity is a good thing (Applebombe, p.1). However, there are those who insist on clarifying the demarcation line to promote the creation of highly quality art forms.
The boundary that separates high and low culture may have been weakened in the 21st century especially when one considers the spectacular creations of the Disney brand. Nevertheless, it can be argued that in spite of its success Disney, specifically the products that are sold in Disneyland, this falls under the label of low culture.
Before going any further it is imperative to define high culture versus low culture. According to one commentary, “High culture includes the fine arts, such as classical and contemporary visual arts, opera, classical music, and theater” (Hall, Grindstaff, & Lo, p.368).
Numerous examples come to mind such as the celebrated paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Van Gogh, and Raphael. This also includes sculptors done by Michelangelo and music composed by Mozart. Last but not the least this category covers the high culture films produced in Europe before Hollywood took over.
The author clarified the meaning of high culture by saying that it is: “art forms traditionally associated with the upper social classes … stands in contrast to low or mass culture, which includes the popular arts produced by cultural industries and distributed to large audiences, and the folk arts, produced and consumed by people in local settings” (Hall, Grindstaff, & Lo, p.368). The key term mentioned here pertains to the masses including the working class and the uneducated.
The conventional definition of culture covers the following: information; values; practices; goods; and ideas classified under the arts – including literature, music, architecture, design and products of print and electronic media (Gans, p.5).
However, this definition must also include other products such as furnishings, clothes, appliances, automobiles, and boats (Gans, p.5). It has to be made clear that “Most appliances are today treated as necessities, but their forms, styles, materials, and so on are also a matter of culture” (Gans, p.5). Culture pervades society whether it is high or low culture.
Going back to the definition of high culture one can say that this has something to do with class, income and education. The reason why liberal thinkers are not happy with these labels forced upon different types of art. But the discussion has to be kept alive because high culture is often inaccessible and difficult to both understand and appreciate. At the same time artists such as writers, filmmakers and builders of products are attracted to consumers of low culture because no matter how it is perceived culture is also shaped by economics.
The Disney brand is known all over the world and at its center is Disneyland where the company showcases its various products. Although art critics say that these are all byproducts of low culture, the multi-billion dollar enterprise begs to reconsider the harsh judgments leveled against the company.
Its theme parks are a major hit to children because “unlike the often hard-nosed, joyless reality of schooling, children’s films provide a high tech visual space where adventure and pleasure meet in a fantasy world of possibilities and a commercial sphere of consumerism and commodification” (Grioux, p.101). It is all about access and sharing.
The success of Disneyland prompted many to reconsider if there is a possibility that the Disney brand has created something that is worthy of the high culture label. There are those who may agree to this assertion as seen in the following: “Disney’s first cartoons were imaginative, magical, and open-ended, without obvous points and with no fixed, logical order” (Wasko, p.111). However, this was short lived.
The author added that this tradition ended in 1932 and as a result “there were more closed fantasies with distinct beginnings and usually happy endings … the more structured story lines became moral tales with overt values represented” (Wasko, p.111). Nevertheless, it is important to consider that at some point Disney participated in the creation of something that can be considered as high culture.
If there was indeed a time when Disney produced “high culture” type of products then it must be made clear that this happened before Disney became a global brand. Before the 1930s Disney is credited to developing animation in the same way that silent films paved the way for color and sound in movies. An example would be the black and white cartoons of Mickey and Minnie.
In the Disneyland of the 21st century everything is all about low culture. According to one critic “To many people, Disney is and will always be the quintessence of junk culture, less vulgar than Jerry Springer or the Fox network but still a greedy mass marketer of sanitized, shriveled entertainment” (Applebombe, p.1). Even Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs of 1937 is an example of low culture because it was created to cater to the masses.
In the present time the numerous types of products that are being sold in Disneyland theme parks falls under the category of low culture. The best examples are songs performed by pop icons such as Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato. The music of the movie Lion King may have been created using an orchestra but it cannot compete with the output of a Bach or a Beethoven.
Movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Tron Legacy may have multi-million dollar productions but it is mass marketed in such a way that it is easily accessible to masses and does not produce the same level of impact as the high culture films of an era long gone.
The distinction between high culture and low culture is needed in order to produce works of art that inspires and leads to greater achievements. This is the reason why products sold at Disneyland must be labeled as low culture.
Without a doubt the Disney brand has created billions of dollars in revenue but without a clear distinction as to what constitutes low and high culture the world would be stuck with the creation of products solely for the purpose of profit and nothing more. The byproducts of high culture, such as Mozart’s music and Michelangelo’s sculptures still inspire. But a thousand years from now, Disneyland may be just a landmark.
Applebombe, Peter. “The Medici Behind Disney’s High Art.” The New York Times. Accessed 14 September 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/1998/10/04/arts/the-medici-behind-disney-s-high-art.html
Gans, Herbert. Popular Culture and High Culture: An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
Giroux, Henry. Breaking in to the Movies: Film and the Culture of Politics. MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.
Hall, John, Laura Grindstaff, & Ming-Cheng Lo. Handbook of Cultural Sociology. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Wasko, Janet. Understanding Disney: The Manufacturer of Fantasy. MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.