Low and High: What *is* Art, Anyhow?

Sculpture. Painting. Music. Cinema. Poetry. These are forms that all take their place as legitimate and respectable mediums; everyone considers these to be “art”.

Tattooing. Game design. Sitcoms. Children’s fiction. Comic strips. These are… well, what do you think? Well, these mediums aren’t on the same level as the ones you listed at the beginning. That’s true. Now, tell me, are they legitimate art forms? Um…

I’ll go ahead and answer this one for you; yes, everything listed above is a legitimate art form (I left out some other mediums I consider art, but that’s a pretty decent list). Some people are unwilling to accept this. Let me make this clear: These are not on the same tier as any of the major mediums I listed first. However, these “lower” forms of art (and they are lower, but still very worthwhile) meet the criteria for art:


art [ahrt] -noun
1. the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.


Tattooing? Even if you’re put off by the idea of body art (which I enjoy observing, even if I don’t personally want anything done on me), you can’t deny the artistic value of technically sound visual art just because it’s done on skin. I actually find that the human body makes a unique canvas in that it possesses many different curves, colors, and densities.

Game design? I’m not going to argue artistic value for early games like Pac-Man, Pong, and Space Invaders. They’re fun, but that’s the extent of their value. However, there came a point in game design where video games began to contain character development and a detailed plot, just like a play or a novel. There are beautiful scenes, relationships, and narratives to be had in certain genres of video games (and recent graphic and audio capabilities don’t hurt); generally, I can’t argue artistry for genres such as sports and fighting, but when you get to role-playing and adventure games that contain a worthwhile story… it’s art. Architecture and game design are common in that the technical aspects must be solid for functionality; achieving artistry is secondary, but wholly possible.

Children’s fiction? Okay, so they’re not super-academic and complex like “real” fiction. However, to draw emotion from a child is a totally unique challenge; it’s not easy to write so simply and still work the imagination and create beauty. I seriously doubt Verne or Twain could just sit down and write a really good children’s book. In contrast, Dr. Seuss is an incredible children’s poet/writer. No, he doesn’t write like Crane or Rilke! In his own right, though, he is a great artist.

Sitcoms? Just because they’re primary purpose is to make you laugh (often in a ridiculous fashion) doesn’t mean that aesthetics can’t come into play. Sitcoms are capable of going beyond comedy; after all, narrative and character development do still exist in sitcoms, right?

Comic strips? Like sitcoms, the purpose is laughter, daily snickers and chuckles. Like sitcoms (moreso, in my opinion), a comic strip can rise above the ordinary and poignantly express emotion and beauty. Calvin and Hobbes is a personal favorite of mine; it really manages to tug on you in some cases. Also, strips like Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts offer a highly developed child’s perspective; when Calvin finds an injured squirrel, worries about it, and finds out it died the next morning, it has a real impact and rises above slapstick comedy and one-liners. Now, let’s look at this little exchange:


Calvin: A painting. Moving. Spiritually enriching. Sublime. “High” art!

The comic strip. Vapid. Juvenile. Commercial hack work. “Low” art.

A painting of a comic strip panel. Sophisticated irony. Philosophically challenging. “High” art.

Hobbes: Suppose I draw a cartoon of a painting of a comic strip?

Calvin: Sophomoric, intellectually sterile. “Low” art.


And so, we reach the concept of “low” and “high” art. Oh, and it’s funny. However, how do you compare the “low” to the “high”? Let’s move on…

Since I just mentioned Calvin and Hobbes, note this statement from its creator, Bill Watterson, which is quoted from “The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book”, directly below the strip I referenced above: “I would suggest that it’s not the medium, but the quality of perception and expression, that determines the significance of art. But what would a cartoonist know?” This is true. Some interpret this as stating that all mediums are on the same level. I disagree: while the strip would support this argument at first glance, the strip is really just a jab at “high” artists looking down on whom they consider “low” artists (e.g. [bad] painters looking down on [good] photographers). Watterson is simply noting the quality of art takes precedence over what medium is uses. A great poem is more artistically significant than a great comic strip. A great comic strip, however, is far more important than a bad poem. True? Definitely.

But Neil, comic strips aren’t “real” art, right?


This essay is reprinted from Poet Neil Hester’s┬áBlog at http://laevanesce.blogspot.com. Click the link to see some of the responses this post has been getting.

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