Low brow. High brow.

Posted in Uncategorized by sarkology on June 22, 2011

Let us first refrain from saying which is better. What I want to do here is to analyze the abstract structural characteristics of low brow and high brow art. There is also, like in most things, a continuum between low brow and high brow. Let’s first focus on the extremes for the sake of analysis.

Low brow art is characterized by the possibility of an immediate recognition by anyone the quality of a piece. How is this possible? Well, consider what makes for a problem, say a puzzle. A problem is usually something which is hard to solve, but easy to recognize the solution of. Why would the recognition of a solution be easy? Simply because if you are looking to solve a problem you will have in mind what would constitute solving the problem, which is to say that you can tell what would count as a solution. In computational complexity theory we say the problem is in NP (identifying ‘easy’ with ‘polynomial time’). The abstract ‘problem structure’ of art is no different. Most of us don’t know how to produce art of any quality, but we can immediately recognize a good work of art (well… for low brow art in any case).

At first sight, high brow art doesn’t seem to have this feature. Some steepedness or learning (or pretense) is required in order for high brow art to be appreciated. But in fact, the same holds for low brow art as well. There is some culture involved in pop culture, otherwise it wouldn’t be ‘culture’ would it? If there’s culture there must be learning. Different cultures do find the pop art of an alien culture incomprehensible. Not entirely of course, since a large component of our recognition of quality art is not learned but innate. The point here is that there is a machinery to the recognition of quality in art, and this machinery is malleable.

This malleability is most obvious in fashions and fads, but let’s ignore that because it does not evince structure. Art can build on itself. It’s like math, which as Steven Pinker describes, is ‘ruthlessly cumulative’. Art is less ruthless but is qualitatively similar. You have counting, which is built upon by algebra, which is built upon by calculus which is built upon by differential equations and so on. But art is not quite so painful eh? But it is. Speaking and listening was easy, but learning how to read and write didn’t come naturally. And if you’re illiterate you wouldn’t even be able to appreciate Harry Potter.

In the language of ‘problems’ every time a work of art is produced it is ‘solving’ a different problem. Every time you appreciate a piece of art, you are ‘verifying’ the solution to a different problem. But these problems aren’t random. They build upon each other. Like a TV drama with a tight plot, the development of which constitutes a series of ‘problems’ being solved: each episode can be independently good or crappy. But note also how the entire series can be good or crappy, and it’s not merely the sum or average of the goodness or crappiness of episodes either. Rather, when critics talk about an entire TV drama series as a whole, they talk about the plot, the story arc, the character development, etc. Here we have a metaphor for the height of brows: the first pilot episode is ‘low brow’ the final episode is ‘high brow’.

Note that high brow isn’t simply knowing as much as the artist needs to know in order to produce the art. It’s not about substituting the ‘search problem’ for the ‘verification of the solution’. Rather, a different problem is being solved each time. High brow folks know just enough for high brow artists to be able to exhibit their works to them. (At least that’s how it should be ideally). It’s like how when you learn science you don’t have to recapitulate all those false starts and blind alleys the pioneering scientists had to endure in order to gift you the wonder of scientific knowledge. But even so, learning science involves work.

But isn’t work painful? Why work? Simply because you’ll get bored. Even pop culture has not been static. In fact it’s arguably more dynamic than high culture. Today’s pop culture is vastly more sophisticated than the pop culture of yesterday, and largely because it builds upon it. And all this wasn’t from the masses trying to be sophisticated, but simply from them getting bored. High brow is basically meant for those who get bored faster than normal. (Again that’s how I think it should be ideally).

High brow is therefore simply cumulative low brow.


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