The mere mention of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art can make us feel uneasy. Such distinctions are often branded as pretentious and as the work of the elitist in their desperate attempts to preserve tradition and exclude diversity within the literary canon. Yet, categorization is essential in life; to distinguish is to unite and to set apart.
In literature it is no different. On a hazy summer day, lounging languidly in the garden, we seek the escapism which ‘low’ art offers; deriving a comforting familiarity from the stock characters and clichéd predictability of the plot. Yet, on another day, perhaps in autumn, when the paths of rain are imprinted on the window, we turn to ‘high’ art. Imagine, low art is like going back to a long frequented place, that panders to our expectations yet offers nothing new. In contrast, the process of reading high art is akin to travelling out of one’s comfort zone, to a destination previously unknown. It is literature that we can come back to again and again, and every time a new avenue of allusions will reveal itself.
The severing of literature into mass ‘low art’ and infrequent ‘high’ art is not a facet of elitism but a reminder that books serve different purposes and target different audiences. Let’s now consider poetry – the alleged highest form of literature with its chiseled language and sensitivity to experience. Yet, calling yourself a ‘poet’ does not immediately render your work as ‘high art’. As Matthew Arnold argued, the pursuit of ‘high art’ involves the “study of perfection”. This title is earned by the poets whose great writing present an aesthetic challenge, where that beautiful moment of comprehension opens rather than constricts meaning. Take, ‘Milk and Honey’, Rupi Kaur’s global bestseller that has gleaned over 1.5 million sales. This is, I would argue, an obvious example of ‘low art’. The accessible and simplistic language. The overly familiar tone that shoves aphorisms down the reader’s throat. There is a superficiality about it all; this insta-poetry appeals to our disposable culture. Starved of time, we are constantly seeking instant gratification.
Yet, while Kaur’s poetry has mass appeal, resonating with the tides of feminism, this does not make it ‘great’ writing. This is not to say that simplicity can never be found in ‘high art’. Consider William Carlos William’s poem ‘Between Walls’ that structurally mirrors Kaur’s poetry. Yet, this is where the similarity ends. Kaur’s poetry plays on expectation, in her abstinence from metaphor, there exists nothing behind the words. In contrast, ‘Between Walls’ forces multiple readings; we are perplexed by this waste space “where nothing/ will grow” and the mysterious remnants of the ‘green bottle’. Here, there is an inherent sense of duality, a brokenness that extends from the fragmented verse to the post-industrial space. The poem is spun upon layers, the “back wings/ of the hospital” conveys the interaction between death and healing. We are left with this poignant hope of renewal. Kaur’s simplicity limits interpretation, while William’s forces the reader to pause and think. It is this pause that constitutes ‘high art’, this glint of understanding that makes the process of reading rewarding.
Thus, let us hope that Kaur’s poetry like the ‘low art’ that has preceded it, is only an ephemeral phase that will be trashed by the heavy steps of time. To destroy distinctions is to undermine the value of great poetry. In our hectic lives, let’s not be distracted by the simplistic appeal of low art, but instead take the time to read great poetry. For it is only by undertaking this challenging journey from bewilderment to comprehension, that the poem will echo long after the book has been closed.