Engaging With Our Divided Culture

by David Porter

This is one of the Mentoring Articles which can be found in the ACG Mentoring Handbook or in the Members’ area.


You’ll often find the distinction made between ‘low’ (or ‘popular’) culture and ‘high’ culture. In popular culture, the audience is a mass audience and its knowledge is largely informal: in high culture it’s small and usually has some expertise in whatever the culture is dealing with.

So football is ‘low’ culture, because even though you can become a rules buff you don’t have to know much about football to enjoy it; and opera is ‘high’ culture, because to enjoy opera you have to know arcane facts such as that a heroine dying of consumption can usually manage a ten-minute aria before she expires. Harry Potter is ‘low culture’, Dennis Potter ‘high culture’; BBC1 ‘low’, BBC 4 ‘high’ and so it goes on.

The division is not a mathematical one, and the two sometimes overlap. Shakespeare, despite the New Globe and noble work by schools and the media, remains resolutely high culture; yet in Shakespeare’s time the Globe audience was full of ordinary men women and children willing to stand in ordinary clothes in an unroofed space at the mercy of the weather. Today’s Proms audiences, with their unconventional assumptions about appropriate contexts for classical music, likewise challenge the formally-dressed, reverential environment of the conventional concert-hall auditorium.

The distinction is also a relatively modern one. In the Middle Ages the church’s Mystery Plays were community events, not reverent pieces of high art, and happening not in special ‘artistic’ places but in cathedral closes and market squares. The audience roared at the slapstick treatment of Noah’s wife, dragged protesting into the ark (any character not specifically named in the Bible was usually considered fair game). You didn’t have to learn artspeak to enjoy the Mystery Plays, and you didn’t have to wear smart clothes and sit in silent appreciative rows to attend them. Yet they were the cradle of all later English theatre.

The emergence of high culture cut loose from all that. By the nineteenth century, the gap was wide. People worried that the new National Gallery would be visited by people who lacked the sensibility and refinement to appreciate high culture and high art. Books were published for cultured visitors to the Lake District, showing them the particular ‘spots’ where a person of sensibility could stand and properly appreciate the beauty and sublimity of the view; Wordsworth opposed the coming of the Kendal and Windemere Railway (he wrote an impassioned sonnet about it) because it would bring people to the Lakes who didn’t have a refined sensibility and sense of the beautiful and sublime. Gerard Manley Hopkins deplored the coming of industry to Oxford because it would bring people into the ancient city who could never hope to do justice to a university education. ‘Is not a public library’, lamented the Victorian writer Monckton Milnes, ‘a place which is set about at its opening with busts of Tennyson and Dickens; and then the public rush in, seeking Maria Marten, or Why Did He Kill Her?’

Increasingly, art became something that lived in galleries, concert halls, opera houses, libraries and fine publishing houses - when not much earlier, such things had been accessible to everybody. But for most people, creative life did not die when high culture decamped. The long tradition of popular music, folk drama, popular literature, cheap broadsheets (the forerunners of our modern tabloids) and the rest, all flourished.

At the same time, high culture developed an elitist view of popular culture as inferior, and probably morally inferior too. An odd claim, when you consider the tales of blasphemy, murder and cannibalism told by that much-respected playwright William Shakespeare, and the promiscuity evident in so many Old Masters’ paintings! Odder still that the church, which originally owned popular culture, was sometimes the most disapproving.

A Double Calling

Our calling as Christians is not only to point to Christ, but to also redeem our culture. And that means we must look with particular interest at the division that has grown up in the arts and indeed in our whole society.

We must challenge the implication that to validate ourselves as moral and creative beings we have to aspire to ‘high art’. We must reject Wordsworth’s implied division of humanity into two categories those who deserve to look at mountains because of the quality of their understanding, and those who really ought to be prevented from looking at mountains at all. You won’t find that kind of spiritual eugenics in the Bible. We are called to engage with our culture: and specifically, to engage with its false dichotomies.

We are called to no less a task than the reunification of our culture.

Christians have attempted this in various ways. John Wesley, the leader of the Evangelical Revival whose influence on English education and literacy was considerable, edited and published a ‘Christian Library’ consisting of selected authors whom he considered should be made available for Christians to read. It was a laborious and impressive task. But it carried an assumption that cultural fulfilment meant that you had to be helped to progress from the popular culture of everyday society and aspire to what was essentially the territory of high culture. Wesley was therefore implicitly applying the distrust of popular culture that lurks, for example, in his sermon ‘A More Excellent Way’, where he is scathing about most popular entertainment. For Wesley, popular culture seems to be something that Christians should leave behind on their way to something more edifying.

I would suggest that this is not reunifying culture, but throwing part of it - the largest part - away. Reunification cannot be achieved by educating people into a right appreciation of some idealised ‘high art’, thus assenting to high art’s common claim to hold the high moral ground when only some of it does; but by rejecting the tradition that speaking about high things demands a ‘high’ artistic language.

Consider Rembrandt. He portrayed ‘high things’, and could say ‘high things’ about people; but in the same breath he could describe the pots and pans, the dog defecating behind a bush, the domestic interiors, the crumpled clothes, the infinitely wrinkled hands of a saintly woman and the infinitely baggy eyes of his own self-portraits. They all belong to the same created world; the rulers and potentates are in there with them; and Rembrandt doesn’t have to change his artistic language as he paints his world.

In an engraving of 1652, ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds. a Night Piece’, Rembrandt portrays the scene in the stable as illuminated by a single lantern. The faces of those gathered round the holy family are seen only in the light it casts. By it everything else is seen. In its light, somebody is reading a book: we cannot see which book, but we can guess. The simple compositional device of locating the lantern at the centre creates a powerful metaphor for a spiritual reality: that what is happening is that the true light that gives light to every man and woman is coming into the world. And for the focus of this immensely profound exposition, Rembrandt uses not a richly ornate lantern, a lantern of a dignity and beauty worthy of a lantern playing such a role, but an everyday domestic lantern of the time, the kind of lantern he would have had lying around his own home.

Artists like Rembrandt unite popular and high culture in the same body of work. They acknowledge that the everyday world belongs in art (and vice-versa), because it possesses the greatest possible significance. It is in the everyday world that God has placed us.

A Unique Perception

Engaging with our culture means respecting popular culture. Not belittling it, and trying to move people on to something ‘better’, but bringing it within the same biblical criteria and ambit under which all of life is to be viewed. It means refusing to venerate high culture to such a degree that we discard popular culture. It means seeking to bring the two together.

We do not stop being ordinary people when we work as artists. We do not speak to people through our art in the same way that we talk to our neighbours in the street or over the garden fence. Holding the two in balance is a challenge, but a liberating one. Achieving that balance will mean scrutinising the rhetoric of our particular artistic discipline in order to craft a language in which to do art - and it will mean scrutinising our everyday language, and reflecting on what it is in us as made people in a made world, that speaks most truly of the one whose image we bear.

The artist’s calling and the artist’s task is to struggle for an effective marriage of high and low, so that we bring together the best in the traditions that we inherit, but also bring that unique perception that we have, as created individuals, of the world in which we live, and the worlds of imagination we also inhabit.


Copyright © 2003 Arts Centre Group Ltd.

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