Popularity and sophistication don't always overlap. Think of the novels only English teachers love. The music only Mitch Grassi listens to. The paintings you only want to look at after graduating from RISD. The movies they only show at film festivals. Do we have a word or phrase to describe this kind of thing?

  • 2
    Shakespeare's Hamlet used the metaphor "caviar to the general" (at 2.2.377 or thereabouts) to describe "an excellent play" that "pleased not the million." But then, do you really want an expression that is as culturally highbrow and exclusive as the stuff it is an expression for? – Brian Donovan Jan 6 '15 at 17:37

May I offer a phrase, rather than a word? "Caviar to the general" first appeared in Hamlet and has since entered more common currency. (The populace, rather than any military rank, is denoted.)

Or, if it has to be a single word, will the hyphenated "high-brow" do instead?

  • In fact, the hyphen may be unnecessary: just "highbrow". – Irefuteitthus Jan 6 '15 at 17:45

Indeed, popularity and supposed "sophistication" often do not overlap. The distinction between the two types of art that you are asking about is often described in the following terms:

high culture: "a term now used in a number of different ways in academic discourse, whose most common meaning is the set of cultural products, mainly in the arts, held in the highest esteem by a culture. This is also a term used in the pre WW1 era to describe people of European cultures, as every other culture was considered under developed and of low culture." (from Wikipedia)

pop culture: "the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes,1 images, and other phenomena that are within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the late 20th and early 21st century. Heavily influenced by mass media, this collection of ideas permeates the everyday lives of the society. Popular culture is often viewed as being trivial and "dumbed down" in order to find consensual acceptance throughout the mainstream. As a result, it comes under heavy criticism from various non-mainstream sources (most notably religious groups and countercultural groups) which deem it superficial, consumerist, sensationalist, or corrupt.

The former describes specifically what you are asking about.

Now, because your question referenced "English teachers" and RISD, for further description and distinction here's the first part of an article from The Guardian entitled "High culture versus pop culture: which is best for engaging students?"

"A high culture is the self-consciousness of a society", Roger Scruton wrote last year in the Guardian. "It contains the works of art, literature, scholarship and philosophy that establish a shared frame of reference among educated people."

As a teacher, the last part of this statement interested me because one of the aims of schools should be nurturing "educated people". Importantly for Scruton, an absence of "high culture is superseded by a culture of fake". This 'culture of fake' consists of many things, including false ideologies, opinions and expertise, but unfortunately for me, Scruton did not really identify what a 'low culture' could be.

In terms of teaching, learning and the curriculum, my dilemma is relatively simple, but not trivial; should I endeavour to reference high culture in my lessons so that students can appreciate cultural life at its finest, or, in order to engage students and make learning enjoyable, should I litter my lessons with references what might be perceived as low culture, which is probably best defined as 'pop culture' in the context of young people.

Pop culture would include just that; culture which is popular, easy to understand and entertaining to the majority of young people. For example, pop music, romantic Hollywood comedies and soap operas. High culture, on the other hand, may include renaissance art, classical music and opera. The latter is arguably more sophisticated, intellectually challenging and intrinsically rewarding.

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