What Makes Art High Brow?


I was listening to James O’Brien on LBC this morning and, inspired by Dylan’s Nobel Prize win, asked the interesting question of ‘what makes art high brow’?

Tragically, I didn’t have time to ring in, so I thought I’d summarise my thoughts here. I’m woefully ignorant on the matter of art in terms of painting and the visual arts, so I’m going to stick to the written word here.

First of all, a quick word on Dylan’s win. It’s been dismissed by some as an insult to novelists who create whole philosophical worlds, and I get that, I do. It’s much more of an effort to create a layered world with multi-faceted characters and an interesting plot than it is to write a poem. But that does not mean that a poem cannot have the same impact on a person as that novel. For example, the piece of literature that most sticks with me is Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘The Hero’, despite the plethora of fascinating novels I have read.

So a poem can be as socially powerful as a novel, and Dylan is certainly a poet. Poetry evolved from song, not the other way around. The first western poetry was The Iliad and The Odyssey; songs sung at banquets which are now seen as the highest of high brow. This evolved through Europe with wandering troubadours singing lyric poetry through the 13th century before anyone was writing poetry to be read on the page. The very reason poetry has rhyme and rhythm is to  make it easier to remember for the bard when he was performing it to a live audience. So how anyone can argue Dylan is not a poet in the purest form is beyond me.

Anyway, I digress.

Back to the question of what makes literature high brow or low brow. Everyone knows the distinction we’re drawing here; the kind of book you’re proud to be seen reading in public versus the one you consider putting a different dust jacket on for your daily commute. I’m not going to name names, because I personally think all literature has a certain value, but you know the books I’m talking about.

To answer this as concisely as possible, my feeling is that it comes down to what you take away from whatever literature it is you are reading. From ‘high brow’ literature we come away with themes and philosophical questions; ask someone about To Kill A Mockingbird and you’ll invariably get a discussion about racism and its interaction with society, ask them about Don Quixote and it may involve into an analysis on delusions of grandeur and themes of sanity and madness. The point is, the plot is often secondary to the themes that are brought forth.

This isn’t so true of what we call ‘genre fiction’, whose primary focus is normally the plot. In a conversation about a spy thriller or a crime novel, the will to keep reading is driven by the plot and the primary takeaway is what happens, rather than why it happens. It rarely has an effect on you that lasts beyond your interaction with the book. Of course, that’s not to say that a crime novel can’t be literary fiction. John Le Carré is considered a literary novelist, and a crime thriller that deals with the themes of, for example, police brutality, could well be considered high-brow.

It’s not the genre that defines the work then, but the questions that arise out of it that, for me, make something high or low brow.

That’s just my two cents, anyway, and I’d be really happy to discuss it further, given mr O’Brien only had an hour to deal with such a complex subject I think this could run and run. I’m extremely open to having my viewpoint challenged so please do get in touch in the comments and let’s hash it out.


One Wish

One Wish
If you had it,
That one little wish,
what would you ask?
A Manifesto For A Better World,
Or something more…
Or not.
Heartless not to want these, no doubt.
But if I had it,
That one little wish,
I fear that the world
Would continue to wait.
To wait for an unspoken wish.