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“High” and “Low” Culture in Design Essay


The question of whether there are clear distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture has been a matter of dispute for a long time.1 Many scholars tried to show that ‘high’ culture is superior to other manifestations of culture and bemoaned the way they had impinged on the elevated world of classical art. They believed that classic works of culture were the reflection of the highest human achievements and therefore, could be considered intrinsically transcendent.2

Others claimed that even though there were differences in certain features of those two realms of art, they were, nonetheless, similar in terms of their influence on the social and cultural domains of people’s lives. They argued that the terms ‘high’ culture and ‘low’ culture are just labels used by social elites to delineate them in a certain way so they can be used as a “con trick”3 This paper will examine the arguments over how to define the two realms of culture in the framework of design. It will defend the view according to which the distinctions between popular culture and ‘low’ culture are no longer relevant since the emergence of ‘middle culture’.

‘High’ Culture

‘High’ culture can be defined from the perspective of those who claim that there is a palpable gap between the elevated world of art on the one hand and ‘low’ culture on the other hand.4 According to the nineteenth-century writer Matthew Arnold, ‘high’ culture is associated with intellectual insight, “sweetness and light”. 5 He characterizes it by the quality of the interminable pursuit of perfection and claims that it involves the best of what there is in the world. In his view, ‘high’ culture encompasses “the best” music, novels, paintings and other works of art.6

In the framework of Arnold’s idea of culture, symphonies composed by Ludwig van Beethoven are intrinsically superior to songs written by one of today’s bands. Such works lack sophistication and musical complexity; therefore, they can be regarded as intrinsically worse than other similar manifestations of culture. Another feature of Arnold’s view of culture is concerned with the social aspect of the art, particularly with the effect of its regular exposure to people. Arnolds believes that any cultural experience is a spiritual matter; therefore, ‘high’ culture is not simply an amalgamation of objects, but rather a process of changing human spirit for the better.7

Popular Culture

David Inglis recognizes the perpetual transformation of meanings and terms related to cultural phenomena and argues that the proponents of the division between the two genres miss their change over time.8 He claims that considering, the uncertainty of cultural standing, it is better to define ‘popular culture’ in the social context in which it is being produced and consumed. For example, opera can be treated as both a popular form of entertainment and a ‘high’ form of art. 9

The critics of this view of popular culture claim that it reinforces the assumption that people who enjoy this form of cultural expression are “unthinking passive dupes of the Culture Industry”10 According to Richard Hoggart, the use of the term ‘low’ culture leads to the idea that its consumers must have “low levels of taste”.11 He believes that it creates a false link between the “quality of living’ of those who appreciate some particular forms of cultural products and their state of mind. According to a defender of ‘high’ culture Raymond Williams, there is no such social layer as “telly-glued masses”, and that it is just a product of the low-quality social analysis.12

Mikita Brottman defines popular culture in terms of the wide levels of its distribution and fits it in the framework of commonly shared manners and tastes.13 He finds the connection between its prevalence and the mediums in which it is circulated, primarily emphasizing the phenomenon of mass media. He claims that popular culture is commonly associated with commercial bias and can be treated as a commodity. Brottman recognizes the fact that ‘high’ culture can also be financially successful and be consumed by large audiences. However, the author fails to explain whether such widely popular producers of ‘high’ culture as Luciano Pavarotti and Enrico Caruso are being influenced by commercial bias.14

Cultural Division

The field of cultural studies has been interested in a long time in the division between ‘low’ culture or popular culture and ‘high’ culture. 15 The analysis of this division is marked by general academic uncertainty over the proper processing methods and theories that can be applied to different cultural traditions. Many scholars believe that due to the lack of the universally agreed framework and the disappearance of numerous genre barriers, it is useless to continue the high-low cultural debate.

French scholars Macherey and Balibar go as far as to claim that the majority of popular culture forms of expression are not significant enough to be scrutinized under the same intellectual light that is regularly applied to ‘high’ culture.16 For example, they believe that many literary texts are too banal and trivial to justify a serious investigation.

The concept of ‘popular culture’ requires a fixed point of differentiation so it can exist due to the fact that it is often being defined solely in terms of what it is not. Classical literature, music, theatre and so on serve as a scale of separation between the two realms of art. However, it is widely recognized that writers such as Charles Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper, despite being widely popular at their time and using melodrama, burlesque, scandal and other tools of cultural expression, were nonetheless accorded the status of ‘classic’17 Many cultural critics defend classical ranking of those authors through the use of structure, tragic consciousness, irony and other tools of literary criticism.

Basically, they define literature status of the mentioned writers in terms of their relatedness to other literary figures and artifacts. Therefore, it can be argued that culture can undergo class transformation through the act of appropriation. The fact that some of the forms of ‘low’ culture of one era can acquire the ‘classic’ status of the next raises the need for a proper definition of popular culture.

East vs. West

Significant differences between East and West in the dimension of popular culture can be explained by the striking variation in religious expressions and geopolitical origins of the two cultural traditions.18 The different approaches to the political life as well as the dichotomy between individualism and collectivism can account for the meta-narrative status that has shaped cultural experiences of East and West.

Eastern popular art is permeated with religious mysticism that is expressed through the sense of place. The unity of all existence, which is so uncommon for the Western artistic expression that has been significantly influenced by naturalistic thinking, plays an important role in the Eastern cultural tradition. The holistic attitude toward landscape painting can be illustrated by the classic work of Kuo Hsi titled Early Spring that was created in the late eleventh century.19

It is a beautiful amalgam of poetry and painting that embodies the cherished idea of Eastern artists that space can become a metaphor. It also shows the notion common to the Eastern cultural tradition that nature is a source of ecstatic experience and transcendence. However, it should be noted that there are many points of intersection between the two artistic models. They can be explained by the crosscurrents between Aristotelianism and Confucianism. The similarities in subject matter, artistic process and genres, among other dimensions of popular culture can confirm an underlying assumption that a state of mind influences art more than a cultural context does.

The series of posters created by Yang Liu creates a striking juxtaposition of Eastern and Western popular cultures and help to better conceptualize differences in their discursive conditions. The illustration project titled East Meets West consists of 47 images beautifully portraying the broad spectrum of cultural differences.20

Culture of Design

It can be argued that the culture of design is inextricably related to the culture of consumption. According to Bourdieu, it is more important to explore the distinction between the way people define the goods they acquire than concentrate on what they buy.21 Therefore, the process of identifying differences between the ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures by consumers is important to contemporary design practice.

He argues that people attach “cultural capital” to the different types of goods. He claims that there is a link between individual action and an exercise of taste. Moreover, the high-low cultural divide serves as a way to act out some social relations. Bourdieu uses the Kantian notion of aesthetic to point to the distinction between ‘high’ culture and Veblen’s view of ‘low’ culture. According to his study of people’s consuming habits, the existence of the gap between the two realms of material culture leads to the manifestation of the dominance of power class.22 However, he recognizes that anti-Kantian aesthetic is associated with the desire to have immediate gratification and more sensual pleasure.

There are several weak points of Bourdieu’s study. Taking into consideration that his survey was quantitative, he missed out on the qualitative data and, therefore, was not able to analyze emotional experiences related to consumption. The second problem with his methodology lies in the fact that he decided to draw his data from very limited social groupings. Therefore, variations in gender were neither considered nor discussed. Those who criticize Bourdieu’s methodology argue that he made wrong conclusions about the consumption behaviours of social groups based on his assumptions about the “choice of the necessary” made by the working class. 23

It can be argued that Miller’s approach to the relationship between the consumption habits and social stratification has more importance for contemporary design practice than that of Bourdieu. He claims that since various social groups tend to gravitate towards different manifestations of their tastes, particular “object domains” can be identified.24 Miller was adamant that the examination of products could produce sufficient evidence on the difference in stylistic tastes between social strata.

The modern design practice blurs the line between different views of culture as well as the Kantian and anti-Kantian aesthetics. For example, a classical architectural form can be combined with kitschy elements of decoration. The fabric of contemporary design can incorporate both the serious and the trivial and might range from popular culture in spectacular buildings to elite culture in poster boardings.25

The two sides of the cultural expression can appeal to the sheer sensual experience of a spectator or to the knowledge of classical architecture. According to Julier, the neither utilitarian performance of the object nor its aesthetic appeal cannot serve as sufficient grounds for the cultural division. He argues that contradictory meanings of different objects preclude their categorization.26 Nonetheless, he recognizes that the readings of changing and sometimes contradictory value implications of an object are derived from the limited personal significances and that they are only self-referential in their nature.

Historic Perspective

The emergence of the Modern Italian design that followed the Second World War can serve as a perfect illustration of the significant shift in view of the cultural division.27 The change of the furniture design dictated by the new social demands brought the creation of the new material culture in Italy. The designers of that time were driven by the ever-increasing gap between the notion of “Idealized Italian home” and utilitarian needs of mass housing.28

They wanted to create affordable design products for the post-war period market that could also be consumed by the growing middle class. Moreover, they were caught in the framework of “a predetermined culture of the home” that was mainly concerned with the creation of “elitist artifacts”.29 Due to the tension between the two views of culture and design, a new breed of avant-garde designers emerged. The rise of the new movement was also partially powered by the wave of social protests in the 1960s.30

Such designers as Ettore Sottsass and David Kelley wanted to destabilize the formulaic approach to high design. They were concerned with the creation of microenvironments instead of perpetuating the canon of object fetishism.31 Therefore, the most radical of new creators managed to deconstruct the mass culture design in such a way that it would fit into the concept of meta-design. For example, Sottsass produced the ‘Mickey Mouse’ table that featured the image of the cartoon character and had its shape. Therefore, the object itself contained the message about its association with the culture of mass consumption and thus became a “design about design”.32

It was a deconstruction of the meaning of ‘low’ culture that had political underpinnings. It can be argued that the radical postmodern movement in the 1970s as well as the desire to democratize a design-led to the gradual collapse of the distinctions between the two opposite views of culture.33

The eradication of the line between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture was predicted by an American art critic Clement Greenberg long before the start of the postmodern movement. 34 Moreover, he argued that ‘high’ art would disappear whatsoever within his generation. Greendberg’s grim view of the future was shared by many of his contemporaries. For example, they regarded emerging avant-garde as ‘anti-art’ or even a threat to the existing ‘high’ art. Needless to say that this view of the avant-garde significantly differs from the contemporary perspective on this form of cultural expression.

‘Middle Culture’ and Design

There was a time when products of ‘low’ and ‘high’ culture never competed with one another in the same market.35 This fact can account for the free experimentation with different forms of expression employed by modernists and avant-gardists of that era. However, the articulation of ‘high’ culture and popular culture quickly changed with the shifting social stratification of the modern society.36

The disappearance of the ‘high class’ and the ‘low class’ has translated into the modification of the structure of cultural spectrum. Summarizing the assessment of numerous cultural historians and sociologists of the view of the dialectic between social class and culture, it can be said that the times when ‘low’ culture was consumed only by the people with low socioeconomic status has long gone.

According to Graeme Brooker and Lois Weinthal, the economic changes of the late twenty-first century and the following transformation of the cultural consumption behaviors has led to the creation of ‘middle culture’.37 In their view, it can be defined in terms of acquisitive connection to ‘high’ culture transformed by the necessity to be designed and produced for a middle class. The theory of ‘middle culture’ explains why the specific markers of ‘low’ culture can become a part of the mainstream and vise versa.

Moreover, the design of different cultural products takes into consideration both economics and markets, and it is often impossible to make a precise evaluation of their status. Furthermore, the disappearance of conventional social structure made it possible to commodify almost every cultural product rendering the cultural class irrelevant for the designers.38


The contemporary design practice blurs the line between different views of culture as well as the Kantian and anti-Kantian aesthetics. This shift in the cultural perspective was brought about by the emergence of ‘middle culture’. It is supported by the fact that the readings of changing and sometimes contradictory value implications of an object are derived from the limited personal significances, and that they are only self-referential in their nature. Therefore, the distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture are not relevant to the modern design practice.


Brooker, Graeme and Lois Weinthal. The handbook of interior architecture and design. London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2013.

Brottman, Mikita. High theory/low culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Heller, Steven. Pop: How Graphic Design Shapes Popular Culture. New York: Allworth Press, 2010.

Inglis, David. Culture and everyday life. Abingdon: Routledge, 2005.

Julier, Guy.The culture of design. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2008.

Sascha, Bru, Laurence Nuijs, Benedikt Hjartarson, Peter Nicholls, Tania Ørum, Hubert Berg and Walter de Gruyter. Regarding the popular: Modernism, the Avant-Garde and High and Low Culture. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012.

Leuthold, Steven. Cross-Cultural Issues in Art. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2011.

Merelli, Annalisa. “The Cultural Differences Between East and West According to One Artist.” Web.


  1. David Inglis, Culture and everyday life (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005), 53-59.
  2. Ibid., 53.
  3. Ibid., 55.
  4. Ibid., 59.
  5. Ibid., 59.
  6. Inglis, Culture and everyday life, 53-55.
  7. Ibid., 55.
  8. Ibid., 55.
  9. Ibid., 55
  10. Inglis, Culture and everyday life, 53-55.
  11. Steven Heller, Pop: How Graphic Design Shapes Popular Culture (New York: Allworth Press, 2010), 74.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Mikita Brottman, High theory/low culture (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 11-
  14. Ibid.
  15. Brottman, High theory/low culture, 11-13.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Steven Leuthold, Cross-Cultural Issues in Art (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2011), 165-168.
  19. Ibid., 167.
  20. Annalisa Merelli, “The Cultural Differences Between East and West According to One Artist,”. Web.
  21. Guy Julier, The culture of design (Los Angeles: SAGE, 2008), 116-124.
  22. Julier, The culture of design, 116-124.
  23. Ibid., 116.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Julier, The culture of design, 116-124.
  26. Ibid., 119.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Julier, The culture of design, 116-124.
  30. Ibid., 123.
  31. Ibid., 124.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Bru Sascha et al., Regarding the popular: Modernism, the Avant-Garde and High and Low Culture (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 94-99.
  35. Graeme Brooker and Lois Weinthal, The handbook of interior architecture and design (London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, 2013), 216.
  36. Ibid., 216.
  37. Brooker and Weinthal, The handbook of interior architecture and design, 216.
  38. Ibid.
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IvyPanda. (2020) '"High" and "Low" Culture in Design'. 14 October.

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