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Ming dynasty painting by Chen Hongshou showing a scholar-gentleman (literati) with a guqin
Ming dynasty painting by Chen Hongshou showing a scholar-gentleman (literati) with a guqin

High culture encompasses the cultural objects of aesthetic value, which a society collectively esteem as exemplary art.[1] It may also include intellectual works considered to be of supreme philosophical, historical, or literary value, as well as the education which cultivates such aesthetic and intellectual pursuits. In popular usage, the term high culture identifies the culture of an upper class (an aristocracy) or of a status class (the intelligentsia); and also identifies a society’s common repository of broad-range knowledge and tradition (e.g. folk culture) that transcends the social-class system of the society. Sociologically, the term high culture is contrasted with the term low culture, the forms of popular culture characteristic of the less-educated social classes, such as the barbarians, the Philistines, and hoi polloi (the masses).[2]

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  • ✪ Cultures, Subcultures, and Countercultures: Crash Course Sociology #11
  • ✪ Literary Festival 2015: High Culture and the Western Canon: has the fightback begun?
  • ✪ High Culture in the Enlightenment
  • ✪ Differences between the high-context culture and low-context culture


How many cultures are there in the world? We’ve talked a lot about the things that make a culture a culture – things like norms and symbols and languages. But we haven’t really discussed how you lump all those little things together and say, yes, these are the things that belong together – these things are culture A, and these other things are culture B. So, what are the rules of culture? Well, culture isn’t just about nationality, or the language you speak. You and another person can live in the same country and speak the same language, and still have totally different cultural backgrounds. Within a single country, even within a single city, you see lots of different cultures, and each person’s cultural background will be a mishmash of many different influences. So, there really isn’t – and never will be – a single, agreed-upon number of cultures that exist in the world. But that doesn’t mean we can’t recognize a culture, and understand cultural patterns and cultural change, and think about how different cultures contribute to the functioning of society. [Theme Music] Are you more likely to spend your free time at a football game, or at a modern art gallery? Do you watch NCIS or True Detective? Do you wear JC Penney or J Crew? These distinctions – and many more like them – are just one way of distinguishing between cultural patterns, in terms of social class. Because, yes, Class affects culture, and vice versa. So one way of looking at culture is by examining distinctions between low culture and high culture. And OK, yeah, those are kinda gross sounding terms. But I want to be clear: High culture does not mean better culture. In fact, so-called low culture is also known as popular culture, which is exactly what it sounds like: Low or popular culture includes the cultural behaviors and ideas that are popular with most people in a society. High culture, meanwhile, refers to cultural patterns that distinguish a society’s elite. You can sort of think of low culture versus high culture as the People’s Choice Awards versus the Oscars. The Hunger Games probably weren’t gonna be winning Best Picture at the Oscars. But they were massive blockbusters, and the original movie was voted the best movie of 2012 by the People’s Choice Awards. By contrast, the winner of Best Picture at the Oscars that same year was The Artist, a black and white silent film produced by a French production company. Very different movies, very different types of culture. Now, you can also look at how different types of cultural patterns work together. The Hunger Games and The Artist may appeal to different segments of society, but ultimately, they both fit into mainstream American media culture. Mainstream culture includes the cultural patterns that are broadly in line with a society’s cultural ideals and values. And within any society, there are also subcultures – cultural patterns that set apart a segment of a society’s population. Take, for example, hipsters! They make up a cultural group that formed around the idea of rejecting what was once considered “cool,” in favor of a different type of cultural expression. Yeah, your beard and your fixed-gear bike, or your bleach blonde hair and your thick-framed glasses – they’re all part of the material culture that signifies membership in your own specific sub-culture. But, who decides what’s mainstream and what’s a sub-culture? I mean, the whole hipster thing has gone pretty mainstream at this point. Typically, cultural groups with the most power and societal influence get labelled the norm, and people with less power get relegated to sub-groups. The US is a great example of this. In large part because of our history as a country of immigrants, the US is often thought of as a “melting pot,” a place where many cultures come together to form a single combined culture. But how accurate is that? After all, each subculture is unique – and they don’t necessarily blend together into one big cohesive culture just because we share a country. And more importantly, some cultures are valued more than others in the US. For example, everyone gets Christmas off from school, because Christian culture holds a privileged role in American society. That might not seem fair, if you’re a member of a sub-culture that isn’t folded into mainstream culture. So, it's not really a melting pot if one flavor is overpowering all the other flavors. And this brings me to another subject: How we judge other cultures, and subcultures. Humans are judgmental. We just are. And we’re extra judgmental when we see someone who acts differently than how we think people should act. Ethnocentrism is the practice of judging one culture by the standards of another. In recent decades, there’s been growing recognition that Eurocentrism – or the preference for European cultural patterns – has influenced how history has been recorded, and how we interpret the lives and ways of people from other cultures. So what if, rather than trying to melt all the cultures into one, we recognize each individual flavor? One way to do this is by focusing research on cultures that have historically gotten less attention. For example, afrocentrism is a school of thought that re-centers historical and sociological study on the contributions of Africans and African-Americans. Another option is expanding and equalizing your focus. Instead of looking at behavior through the lens of your own culture, you can look at it through the lens of multiculturalism – a perspective that, rather than seeing society as a homogenous culture, recognizes cultural diversity while advocating for equal standing for all cultural traditions. In this view, America is less a “melting pot” and more like a multicultural society. Still, the ways in which cultures and subcultures fit together – if at all – can vary, depending on your school of thought as a sociologist. For example, from a structural functionalist perspective, cultures form to provide order and cohesiveness in a society. So in that view, a melting pot of cultures is a good thing. But a conflict theorist might see the interactions of sub-cultures differently. Prioritizing one sub-culture over another can create social inequalities and disenfranchise those who belong to cultures that are at odds with the mainstream. It’s hard to encourage individual cultural identities without promoting divisiveness. In the US at least, it’s a constant struggle. But sometimes, sub-groups can be more than simply different from mainstream culture – they can be in active opposition to it. This is what we call a counter-culture. Counter-cultures push back on mainstream culture in an attempt to change how a society functions. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble to take a trip back to one of the biggest counter-cultural periods of the 20th century: the 1960s. In the United States, the 1960s were rife with countercultures. It was a time of beatniks, and hippies, of protests against the Vietnam war, and of protests for civil rights and women’s liberation. These movements were often led by young people and were seen as a rebellion against the culture and values of older generations. This was the era of free love, where people embraced relationships outside of the traditionally heterosexual and monogamous cultural norms. Drug use – especially the use of psychedelic drugs – was heavily associated with this sub-culture and was celebrated in its popular culture – think Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds or the Beat authors’ books about acid trips. But this counter-culture was also a push back politically against mainstream culture. Many cornerstones of the politics of the American left have their origins in the counter-culture of the 1960s: anti-war, pro-environmentalism, pro-civil rights, feminism, LGBTQ equality. From the Stonewall riots to the Vietnam war protests, ‘60s counter-culture was where many of these issues first reached the public consciousness. Thanks Thought Bubble! So, counter-cultures can often act as catalysts for cultural change, especially if they get big enough to gain mainstream support. But cultures change all the time, with or without the pushback from sub-cultures and counter-cultures. And different parts of cultures change at different speeds. Sometimes we have what’s called a cultural lag, where some cultural elements change more slowly than others. Take how education works, for example. In the US, we get the summer off from school. This is a holdover from when this was a more agricultural country, and children needed to take time off during harvest. Today, there’s no real reason for summer vacation, other than that’s what we’ve always done. So how does cultural change happen? Sometimes, people invent new things that change culture. Cell phones, for example, have revolutionized not just how we make phone calls, but how we socialize and communicate. And inventions don’t just have to be material. Ideas, like about money or voting systems, can also be invented and change a culture. People also discover new things. When European explorers first discovered tomatoes in Central America in the 1500s and brought them back to Europe, they completely changed the culture of food. What would pizza be without tomatoes?! A third cause of cultural change comes from cultural diffusion, which is how cultural traits spread from one culture to another. Just about everything we think of as classic “American” culture is actually borrowed and transformed from another culture. Burgers and fries? German and Belgian, respectively. The American cowboy? An update on the Mexican vaquero. The ideals of liberty and justice for all enshrined in our founding documents? Heavily influenced by French philosophers like Rousseau and Voltaire, and British philosophers like Hobbes and Locke, as well as by the Iroquois Confederacy and its ideas of representative democracy. Whether we’re talking about material culture or symbolic culture, we’re seeing more and more aspects of culture shared across nations and across oceans. As symbolic interactionists see it, all of society is about the shared reality – the shared culture – that we create. As borders get thinner, the group of people who share a culture gets larger. Whether it’s the hot dogs we get from Germany or the jazz and hip hop coming from African traditions, more and more cultures overlap as technology and globalization make our world just a little bit smaller. And as our society becomes more global, the questions raised by two of our camps of sociology, structural functionalism and conflict theory, become even more pressing. Are the structural functionalists right? Does having a shared culture provide points of similarity that encourage cooperation and help societies function? Or does conflict theory have it right? Does culture divide us, and benefit some members of society more than others? In the end, they’re both kind of right. There will always be different ways of thinking and doing and living within a society – but culture is the tie that binds us together. Today, we learned about different types of culture, like low culture and high culture. We looked at different ways of categorizing cultures into sub-cultures. We contrasted two different ways of looking at cultural diversity: ethno-centrism and multi-culturalism. We discussed the role of counter cultures and explored how cultural change happens. And lastly, we looked at a structural functionalist and a conflict theory perspective on what cultures mean for society. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the Dr. Cheryl C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT, and it's made with the help of all these nice people. Our Animation Team is Thought Cafe and Crash Course is made with Adobe Creative Cloud. If you'd like to keep Crash Course free for everyone, forever, you can support the series at Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that allows you to support the content you love. Speaking of Patreon, we'd like to thank all of our patrons in general, and we'd like to specifically thank our Headmaster of Learning David Cichowski. Thank you for your support.



In European history, high culture was understood as a cultural concept common to the humanities, until the mid-19th century, when Matthew Arnold introduced the term high culture in the book Culture and Anarchy (1869). The Preface defines culture as "the disinterested endeavour after man’s perfection" pursued, obtained, and achieved by effort to "know the best that has been said and thought in the world".[3] Such a literary definition of high culture also comprehends philosophy. Moreover, the philosophy of aesthetics proposed in high culture is a force for moral and political good. Critically, the term "high culture" is contrasted with the terms "popular culture" and "mass culture".[4]

In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), T. S. Eliot said that high culture and popular culture are necessary and complementary parts of the culture of a society. In The Uses of Literacy (1957), Richard Hoggart presents the sociologic experience of the working-class man and woman in acquiring the cultural literacy, at university, which facilitates social upward mobility. In the U.S., Harold Bloom and F. R. Leavis pursued the definition of high culture, by way of the Western canon of literature.

T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot

Media theorist Steven Johnson writes that, unlike popular culture, "the classics—and soon to be classics—are" in their own right descriptions and explanations of the cultural systems that produced them." He says that "a crucial way in which mass culture differs from high art" is that individual works of mass culture are less interesting than the broader cultural trends which produced them.[5]

History of high culture in the West

The high culture of the West originated in the classical-world traditions of intellectual and aesthetic life in Ancient Greece (from c. 8th century BC – AD 147) and Ancient Rome (753 BC – AD 476). In the classical Greco-Roman tradition, the ideal mode of language was published and preserved in works of elevated style (correct grammar, syntax, and diction). Certain forms of language used by authors in valorized epochs were held up in antiquity and the Renaissance as eternal valid models and normative standards of excellence; e.g. the Attic dialect of ancient Greek spoken and written by the playwrights and philosophers of Periclean Athens (fifth century BC); and the form of classical Latin used in the "Golden Age" of Roman culture (c. 70 B.C. - AD 18) represented by such figures as Cicero and Virgil.This form of education was known to the Greeks as παιδεία, which was translated by the Romans into Latin as humanitas [6] since it reflected a form of education aiming at the refinement of human nature, rather than the acquisition of technical or vocational skills. Indeed, the Greco-Roman world tended to see such manual, commercial, and technical labor as subordinate to purely intellectual activities.[7]

From the idea of the "free" man with sufficient leisure to pursue such intellectual and aesthetic refinement, arose the classical distinction between the "liberal" arts which are intellectual and done for their own sake, as against the "servile"or "mechanical" arts which were associated with manual labor and done to earn a living.[8] This implied an association between high culture and the upper classes whose inherited wealth provided such time for intellectual cultivation. The leisured gentleman not weighed down by the necessity of earning a living, was free to devote himself to activities proper to such a "free man"[9] – those deemed to involve true excellence and nobility as opposed to mere utility.

During the Renaissance, the classical intellectual values of the fully rediscovered Græco–Roman culture were the cultural capital of the upper classes(and the aspiring), and aimed at the complete development of human intellectual, aesthetic, and moral faculties. This ideal associated with humanism (a later term derived from the humanities or studia humanitatis), was communicated in Renaissance Italy through institutions such as the Renaissance court schools. Renaissance humanism soon spread through Europe becoming much of the basis of upper class education for centuries. For the socially ambitious man and woman who means to rise in society, The Book of the Courtier (1528), by Baldasare Castiglione, instructs the reader to acquire and possess knowledge of the Græco–Roman Classics, being education integral to the social-persona of the aristocrat. A key contribution of the Renaissance was the elevation of painting and sculpture to a status equal to the liberal arts (hence the visual arts lost for elites any lingering negative association with manual artisanship.) The early Renaissance treatises of Leon Battista Alberti were instrumental in this regard.

The evolution of the concept of high culture initially was defined in educational terms largely as critical study and knowledge of the Græco–Roman arts and humanities which furnished much of the foundation for European cultures and societies. However, aristocratic patronage through most of the modern era was also pivotal to the support and creation of new works of high culture across the range of arts, music, and literature. The subsequent prodigious development of the modern European languages and cultures meant that the modern definition of the term "high culture" embraces not only Greek and Latin texts, but a much broader canon of select literary, philosophical, historical, and scientific books in both ancient and modern languages. Of comparable importance are those works of art and music considered to be of the highest excellence and broadest influence (e.g. the Parthenon, the painting and sculpture of Michelangelo, the music of J. S. Bach, etc). Together these texts and art works constitute the exemplary artifacts representing the high culture of the Western world.

Cultural traditions

In the Western and some East Asian traditions, art that demonstrates the imagination of the artist is accorded the status of high art. In the West this tradition began in Ancient Greece, was reinforced in the Renaissance, and by Romanticism, which eliminated the hierarchy of genres within the fine arts, which was established in the Renaissance. In China there was a distinction between the literati painting by the scholar-officials and the work produced by common artists, working in largely different styles, or the decorative arts such as Chinese porcelain which were produced by unknown craftsmen working in large factories. In both China and the West the distinction was especially clear in landscape painting, where for centuries imaginary views, produced from the imagination of the artist, were considered superior works.

Cultural capital

In socially-stratified Europe and the Americas, a first-hand immersion to the high culture of the West, the Grand Tour of Europe, was a rite of passage that complemented and completed the book education of a gentleman, from the nobility, the aristocracy, and the bourgeoisie, with a worldly perspective of society and civilisation. The post-university tour of the cultural centres of Europe was a social-class benefit of the cultural capital transmitted through the high-status institutions (schools, academies, universities) meant to produce the ideal gentleman of that society.

The European concept of high culture included cultivation of refined etiquette and manners; the education of taste in the fine arts such as sculpture and painting; an appreciation of classical music and opera in its diverse history and myriad forms; knowledge of the humane letters (literae humaniores) represented by the best Greek and Latin authors, and more broadly of the liberal arts traditions (e.g. philosophy, history, drama, rhetoric, and poetry) of Western civilisation, as well as a general acquaintance with important concepts in theology, science, and political thought.

High art

Much of high culture consists of the appreciation of what is sometimes called "high art". This term is rather broader than Arnold's definition and besides literature includes music, visual arts (especially painting), and traditional forms of the performing arts (including some cinema). The decorative arts would not generally be considered high art.[10]

The cultural products most often regarded as forming part of high culture are most likely to have been produced during periods of high civilization, for which a large, sophisticated, and wealthy urban-based society provides a coherent and conscious aesthetic framework, and a large-scale milieu of training, and, for the visual arts, sourcing materials and financing work. Such an environment enables artists, as near as possible, to realize their creative potential with as few as possible practical and technical constraints. Although the Western concept of high culture naturally concentrates on the Greco-Roman tradition, and its resumption from the Renaissance onwards, such conditions existed in other places at other times.

Art music

Art music (or serious music[11] or erudite music) is an umbrella term used to refer to musical traditions implying advanced structural and theoretical considerations and a written musical tradition.[12] The notion of art music is a frequent and well-defined musicological distinction – musicologist Philip Tagg, for example, refers to art music as one of an "axiomatic triangle consisting of 'folk', 'art' and 'popular' musics". He explains that each of these three is distinguishable from the others according to certain criteria, with high cultural music often performed to an audience whilst folk music would traditionally be more participatory.[13] In this regard, "art music" frequently occurs as a contrasting term to "popular music" and to "traditional" or "folk music".[12][14][15]

Art film

Art film is the result of filmmaking which is typically a serious, independent film aimed at a niche market rather than a mass market audience.[16] Film critics and film studies scholars typically define an "art film" using a " of films and those formal qualities that mark them as different from mainstream Hollywood films",[17] which includes, among other elements: a social realism style; an emphasis on the authorial expressivity of the director or writer; and a focus on the thoughts and dreams of characters, rather than presenting a clear, goal-driven story. According to the film scholar David Bordwell, "art cinema itself is a film genre, with its own distinct conventions."[18]

Promotion of high culture

Dancers from the Ballet Rambert, under the auspices of CEMA, a government programme, perform Peter and The Wolf at an aircraft factory in the English Midlands during World War II.
Dancers from the Ballet Rambert, under the auspices of CEMA, a government programme, perform Peter and The Wolf at an aircraft factory in the English Midlands during World War II.

The term has always been susceptible to attack for elitism, and, in response, many proponents of the concept devoted great efforts to promoting high culture among a wider public than the highly educated bourgeoisie whose natural territory it was supposed to be. There was a drive, beginning in the 19th century, to open museums and concert halls to give the general public access to high culture. Figures such as John Ruskin and Lord Reith of the BBC in Britain, Leon Trotsky and others in Communist Russia, and many others in America and throughout the western world have worked to widen the appeal of elements of high culture such as classical music, art by old masters and the literary classics.

With the widening of access to university education, the effort spread there, and all aspects of high culture became the objects of academic study, which with the exception of the classics had not often been the case until the late 19th century. University liberal arts courses still play an important role in the promotion of the concept of high culture, though often now avoiding the term itself.

Especially in Europe, governments have been prepared to subsidize high culture through the funding of museums, opera and ballet companies, orchestras, cinema, public broadcasting stations such as BBC Radio 3, ARTE, and in other ways. Organizations such as the Arts Council of Great Britain, and in most European countries, whole ministries administer these programs. This includes the subsidy of new works by composers, writers and artists. There are also many private philanthropic sources of funding, which are especially important in the US, where the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting also funds broadcasting. These may be seen as part of the broader concept of official culture, although often a mass audience is not the intended market.

Theories of high culture

The relations between high culture and mass culture are concerns of cultural studies, media studies, and critical theory, sociology, Postmodernism and Marxist philosophy. In the essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936), Walter Benjamin explored the relations of value of the arts (high and mass) when subjected to industrial reproduction. The critical theoreticians Theodor W. Adorno and Antonio Gramsci interpreted the high-art and mass-art cultural relations as an instrument of social control, with which the ruling class maintain their cultural hegemony upon society.[19]

For the Orientalist Ernest Renan and for the rationalist philosopher Ernest Gellner, high culture was conceptually integral to the politics and ideology of nationalism, as a requisite part of a healthy national identity. Gellner expanded the conceptual scope of the phrase in Nations and Nationalism (1983) stating that high art is "a literate, codified culture, which permits context-free communication" among cultures.

In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979), the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu proposed that æsthetic taste (cultural judgement), derived from social class, in establishing definitions of high art by the practice of human activities such as social etiquette, gastronomy, oenology, military service. That in such activities of aesthetic judgement, the ruling-class person uses social codes unknown to middle- and the lower-class persons in the pursuit and practice activities of taste.

See also


  1. ^ Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1983) Rev. Ed. p. 92.
  2. ^ Gaye Tuchman, Nina E. Fortin (1989). "ch. 4 The High-Culture Novel". Edging Women Out: Victorian Novelists, Publishers and Social Change. ISBN 978-0-415-03767-9
  3. ^
  4. ^ The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967) Volume 1. p. 167.
  5. ^ Steven Johnson (6 April 2006). Everything Bad is Good for You: How Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter. Penguin Books Limited. p. 203. ISBN 978-0-14-193312-2.
  6. ^ Aulus Gellius. Attic Nights 13:17*.html
  7. ^ Cicero. De Officiis. 150 –
  8. ^ "Jacques Maritain Center: Art and Scholasticism 4".
  9. ^ Seneca. "Moral letters to Lucilius" – via Wikisource.
  10. ^ Dormer, Peter (ed.), The Culture of Craft, 1997, Manchester University Press, ISBN 0719046181, 9780719046186, google books
  11. ^ a b "Music" in Encyclopedia Americana, reprint 1993, p. 647
  12. ^ a b Denis Arnold, "Art Music, Art Song", in The New Oxford Companion to Music, Volume 1: A-J, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983): 111. ISBN 0-19-311316-3
  13. ^ Philip Tagg, "Analysing Popular Music: Theory, Method and Practice", Popular Music 2 (1982): 41.
  14. ^ "Music" in Encyclopedia Americana, reprint 1993, p. 647
  15. ^ Philip Tagg, "Analysing Popular Music: Theory, Method and Practice", Popular Music 2 (1982): 37–67, here 41–42.
  16. ^ Art film definition – Dictionary – MSN Encarta. Archived from the original on 2009-10-31.
  17. ^ Barbara Wilinsky. Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema at Google Books. University of Minnesota, 2001 (Commerce and Mass Culture Series). See also review in 32&pg=PA171&dq=%22canon+of+films+and+those+formal+qualities+that+mark+them+as+different+from+mainstream+Hollywood+films%22 High culture, p. 171, at Google Books, Journal of Popular Film & Television, 2004. Retrieved 2012-01-09.
  18. ^ Keith, Barry. Film Genres: From Iconography to Ideology. Wallflower Press: 2007. (page 1)
  19. ^ McGregor, Craig (1997). Class in Australia (1 ed.). Ringwood, Victoria: Penguin Books Australia Ltd. p. 301. ISBN 978-0-14-008227-2. Élite culture is often an instrument of social control. . . .


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