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On High and Popular Culture

The question of the relationship between high culture and popular culture, which is common in contemporary discussions of the humanities, is sometimes real but as often rhetorical.

What is the relationship between high culture and popular culture? This question, which is common in contemporary discussions of the humanities, is sometimes real but as often rhetorical. Two positions usually follow from the rhetorical question. First, it is said that high culture —“the best that has been thought and written in the world”—is in danger, or is indeed already “lost,” because of widespread popular education, popular communications systems, and what is often called “mass society.” Secondly, that high culture—“the tradition”—is, in the main, the product of past stages of society, that it is ineradicably associated with ruling classes and with elites, and that it is accordingly being replaced in modem democratic conditions by a popular culture. The debate between these two positions has practical results in social policy both in the allocation of resources and in the political shaping of cultural institutions. Yet the two common positions and the debate between them are intolerably confused by failures of definitions, and the social policies that follow from them largely ignore the realities of contemporary society.

In its earliest senses, in several major languages, the term “culture” always referred to the culture of something: originally the culture of natural products and then, by metaphorical extension, the culture of mental or spiritual faculties. In either case it was a process defined by the object of cultivation. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries it was given a very different additional meaning. This begins in the universal histories, which offered a largely secular and developmental account of the growth of human civilization. To avoid identification of this process with any particular modem state (and hence to avoid the crude distinction between civilization and barbarism) but even more to emphasize the self-acting (secular) and growing (developmental) factors of human history, the term “culture,” which already expressed human process, was distinguished from and often preferred to the alternative term “civilization.” In the work of Herder and others a further decisive development occurred. We had to speak. Herder insisted, of “cultures” rather than “culture.” At a certain level the process might be universal, but its reality was in a range and series of specific cultures: the whole ways of life of particular groups. This is the origin of the ordinary modem use of “culture” in anthropology.

But the older sense of culture as a process survived. In the course of the 19th century it acquired a specific association with the practices on which mental and spiritual cultivation were thought to depend: intellectual work and the arts. “Culture” is now often a shorthand not only for these practices but for their products. It implies at once the general process of human development and the specific organizations of such development in different societies. It implies also both the whole way of life of a people and the practices and products of intellectual work and the arts. These two implications become sources of difficulty in our notions of “high culture” and “popular culture.”

What does “high culture” mean? Its most plausible use is to describe the great body of cultural skills and the great works which embody and represent them. There would be argument about which skills to include or exclude, but in common usage the skills of organized thought, writing, music, the visual arts and architecture would certainly be included.

We then also recognize that high culture has no specific social structure. It is, by definition, a body of work from many different societies and many different periods of history. Indeed, only in abstraction can it be seen as a “body” of work at all. No individual and no single society receives or uses this whole body of work. Rather, particular societies, for historical reasons, receive selections of this body of work, which they perceive as their effective cultural traditions. There is great unevenness in this process of selection, as is quickly evident when, for example, Asian and European scholars compared their notions of “tradition,” or of “classics.” Moreover no society makes available to all its members anything like the whole of even its selected area of the tradition. In the processes of international conquest and domination, as most evidently in imperialism and in neo-colonialism, there is not only unevenness of distribution but a deliberate process of imposition of alien forms of selection.

“High culture,” then, has no real social structure, but at best a professional structure or series of professional structures in which people inherit and practice a selection of skills and maintain and disseminate a selection of works. Such professional structures have important common interests, from an international perspective, in such activities as the study of alternative traditions, visiting, exchange-teaching, translation and so on. They also have important common interests, in national perspectives, in maintaining and extending the skills and works that they value.

Nevertheless all these professional structures exist within social structures. As members of particular institutions, and as members of particular societies in definite relationships with other societies, their work cannot be abstracted from their real social existence. “High culture” in any particular society is not only a selection from universal high culture, but a selection that relates, explicitly or implicitly, to wider elements of the society. Thus high culture, the work of more than one’s own class, society, period or even epoch, is commonly incorporated into a particular contemporary social structure—a social class or such institutions as universities or churches—that owes its real contemporary existence to factors other than high culture, and that indeed often confuses its temporary, local or self-interested features with the received and selected high culture that it offers to justify or to ratify them. Similarly, between nations, an invading or dominant society projects—by imposition or by suppression of a native culture—a version of “high culture” that cannot in practice be abstracted from its direct political and economic interests.

Thus whether within or between societies, respect for “high culture” in its purest and most abstract sense must find a critical rather than a justifying form of expression and action. Within societies it is necessary to become conscious of the selective character of the “high culture” or “cultural tradition” that is currently active, and to explore the relations between the selection and contemporary social structures (including such directly relevant social formations as universities). Between societies, when in any good faith the selective character of particular versions of high culture will quickly become obvious, we must explore the connections between these variations and the real historical and contemporary political and economic relationships, and, above all, to avoid the error of supposing that a selective version made by some temporarily dominant society is “universal” whereas the selective version of some temporarily dominated society is merely “local” or “traditional.” The interaction between particular local selections and what can be conceived theoretically as a universal high culture must, for cultural as well as other reasons, take place in conditions of equality and mutual respect. This, of course, does not mean that what is sought is some bland consensus; there is much necessary opposition and conflict between variant cultural traditions, as well as honest recognition of alternatives.

At this point the meaning of “popular culture” becomes critical. First, there can be no simple contrast between “high culture” (universal) and “popular culture” (local). This is because every available version of high culture is always, in the senses described, local and selective, and because, in the process of being made available in a real society, it includes (whether these are noticed or not) elements of the popular culture, in the widest sense, of its own society. Universities, which transmit and sometimes practice selections of universal high culture, are in their internal organization, which has been shaped by the selection and in their relations with the rest of the society, parts of the popular culture of their own time, with discoverable resemblances to the values, criteria and methods of organization of other institutions in the social structure that are not concerned with high culture at all. The culture of a people, in the sense of its whole way of life, inevitably shapes and colors our explicitly “cultural” institutions.

Secondly, there can be no simple contrast between the “high culture” of a social class or occupational group and the “popular culture” of the rest of the people. There are evident and important differences of degree of access and use, but these are contingent social and historical relationships. In certain societies, of the past and still in some cases of the present, there are distinguishable cultural situations: for example, court and peasant cultures, aristocratic and folk cultures, metropolitan-imperial and native-colonial cultures. Often the separated cultures will have evident differences of degree of access to a more universal high culture, but none of them can be identified with high culture as such, and increasingly, as societies develop, there is influential interaction between previously separated spheres. In industrial societies, and especially in societies with developed and developing systems of general education and communications, we are beyond the stage of influential interaction between distinguishable cultures and into a more complex process that needs to be seen from the beginning as a whole.

This brings us to the most crucial distinction between different senses of “popular” culture. There is a kind of culture that has been developed by a people or by the majority of a people to express their own meanings and values, over a range from customs to works. There is also a different kind of culture that has been developed for a people by an internal or external social group, and embedded in them by a range of processes from repressive imposition to commercial saturation. The distinctions between these two kinds are not simple; influential interaction constantly occurs. The choice of process, in the popularization of an alien culture, depends on variable historical and social conditions but usually includes close attention to the culture that is already popular. The sources of cultural activity have nevertheless to be precisely identified, in every case. In some cases this is easy, as in internationally exported religions or political ideologies or television programs. In other cases, when in particular social conditions certain kinds of adaptive, imitative or incorporated activity begin among those who were previously only the objects of external popularization, identification may be very difficult. No simple presumption of values can in any case be made. But unless the process is made conscious, by critical examination and discussion, the state of any particular popular culture will not be understood.

Comparative and historical definitions of high culture lead us toward situations in which, by recognizing the existence of many centers of meaning and value, and by further recognizing the dynamic processes of selection, formation and interaction we can envisage precise kinds of study and work. By contrast abstract and pseudo-universal definitions of high culture and popular culture, restricting meaning and value to a single tradition and contemplating the meanings and values of the majority of people and peoples as intrinsically inferior, lead us to evade true cultural values and contemporary reality.

In the area that we consider as belonging to high culture we can properly think of some universally valuable (although very general) skills and of a considerable number of generally important and interesting works. While we treat these specifically, and follow their action through history and across frontiers, we learn deep and extending respect for their kinds of achievement, but we do not learn, except in the case of some of the most abstract skills, anything like a set of available values.

Thus, to take one major example, the Antigone of Sophocles has been a major work in most periods of European culture. In its dramatization of a conflict between duty to a brother and duty to a state, it raises permanent social and ethical questions. But the play gives no available answer to these. When Antigone, having chosen her duty to her brother, adds that she would not have done this for a husband, she so shocked one Victorian scholar that he “proved” the passage spurious. But the distinction is valid within the relevant kinship system, and this has to be included, with all its other definitions and problems —some of which we must now necessarily reject, or reject other whole areas of our real cultural tradition—before any available value can be abstracted.

Our contacts with some of the greatest philosophical and artistic work will often lead to questioning, rejection or a sense of ineluctable strangeness and otherness, and this is as much part of the time process of high culture as the more commonly cited experience of teaming, enlargement and enrichment. Given the highly variable and extraordinary character of the more enduring elements of high culture, this is not only not surprising; it is a condition of recognizing the true conditions and qualities of this remarkable human enterprise. All traditions can become less selective and culture-bound than they now are, and every genuine effort in this direction is important. But there can be no short-cuts. The meanings and values of all particular peoples and cultures have to be respected, with no prior selection of universal values, if the next necessary stage, of contact, interaction and the dynamic processes of agreement and disagreement, intellectual conflict as well as consensus are to be reasonably conducted under conditions of equality.

Meanwhile within societies and between societies, there is very important work to be done in the recovery, and where possible and relevant the reanimation of suppressed, neglected and disregarded cultures: the meanings and values, in some cases the works, of dominated peoples and classes, and of minorities that have suffered discrimination. This is one crucial kind of popular culture program.

But it is insufficient, and could decline into mere antiquarianism and folklorism if the real present is not connected to the recovered past. To do this we have not only to study contemporary cultural change (in spite of the persistent reflex of humanistic scholars toward the past). We have also to study contemporary cultural media (in spite of the persistent prejudice of humanistic scholars against what are thought of as vulgar subcultural manifestations). We shall not now understand any popular culture unless we study, for example, the press, the cinema, broadcasting and sport. Indeed the movement toward versions of universalism is much more evident in these spheres than in those of traditional philosophy and arts. Yet it is becoming universal only in the sense that it is widely exported from a few powerful centers, within radically unequal terms of exchange. What has been called, for broadcasting, the “global village” will be neither founded nor governed by all its putative inhabitants. Rather in hitherto unimaginable terms, the use of powerful new media will enable a few to speak to and apparently for the many, and, unless powerful safeguards are constructed, to drive out of competition the more varied and authentic voices that are the true discourse of any society and of humanity.

In culture as in other matters, human resilience and creativity are still our major resource. High culture has no social structure, but the professional structures that have direct responsibility for it, in artistic, intellectual and scholarly work, have much to do of a new as well as a traditional kind: the maintenance and extension but also the critical review and intercultural examination of their own received high cultures; the understanding and critical review of received and changing popular cultures; and, in work that now necessarily takes them beyond their own frontiers, whether of country or of discipline, the understanding and critical review, leading to such action as is necessary, of the new forms and new media that reflect now our most active and vital cultural processes.