The Reality of 'High' and 'Low' Art

Ed Ramsey

To risk getting political straight away, although often it would be harder not to do so, many aspects of the modern world are becoming too polarised. Perhaps as a response to post-modernist ideas, or maybe just as a subconscious recognition that whether we like it or not, humans like to return to primal thoughts and emotions when we can; certain things have become disproportionately opposed. The apparently antithetical political parties (Republicans and Democrats) in America would probably be the most obvious example for this readership.

Others might include attitudes towards Global Warming, Religion Vs Science, peace Vs war, opinions about gun control, the list goes on. This marmite-love-it-or-hate-it notion has always been pervading the air. Recently it was thought we were drifting away from that approach to philosophy or even life in general, that is until certain things started happening again. Things such as centrism angering people, lack of change angering people, passionate freedom-fighters angering people, threat of war, threat of terror, globalisation proving to be more complicated than we first thought, and so on. To put it simply: socially and politically, we are nearing a point where polarisation is chipping away at our understanding of what situations really are, and what needs to be done. 

So where's the link here with the theatre? Well, I believe that as theatre creators, we have a responsibility to- when we notice something we want to better in the world- use our medium to influence social change. We can't after all, influence political change directly. Sadly, our political leaders are on the wrong side of the fence when it comes to theatre. But what we can do is influence social attitudes, which in turn can affect the political stance of a potential electorate.

One such influence I think, would be to never stop trying to end polarisation within our own cultural niche. The idea of 'high art' versus 'low art' is an easy example. High art is considered to be aimed at an audience of a higher class and/or 'social status' due to the way in which it has appealed to those kinds of people (not to mention the ticket prices). But here's the thing: there's less 'appeal' than you'd think. It's important to point out that even in the day of Shakespeare- essentially ever since proscenium arch theatres were built with 'boxes'- people of a higher class went to watch the theatre to be seen, not to see the theatre themselves. 'The theatre' in its elitist sense, has always been considered something people of a higher social status wish to be seen at, for whatever cause.

Now, whether this is the main reason things are the way they are, I've not yet done enough research to say. However, one thing that festivals such as the Fringe in Edinburgh quite clearly show, is that there is (at least there shouldn't be) such a thing as 'high' and 'low' art. This concept of 'low art' being for the masses and having less meaning is increasingly ridiculous and represents the exact type of polarisation we need to extinguish. I've seen a Free Fringe show that had more to offer than some expensive high-end shows. It's not about what you pay, it's about what/who you're watching.

The problem arises because of the way it has been facilitated. It's commonly acknowledged that the 'masses' of today wouldn't go to see La Bohème (ironically, said 'masses' of the time would have done), that's why Rent (which by the way is a better medium for the story- but that's just my opinion) exists. It's the same reason West Side Story is popular, it seems to be acknowledged that it's more appealing to the majority than the Shakespearean verse. This is ignoring the huge irony in the fact that in Shakespeare's day, his plays were for the masses. The same could be said for Gilbert and Sullivan, not to mention Brecht and Weill or even Edward Gordon Craig's directorial work. 

The divide exists today for two reasons, which operate in a sort of cyclic nature. 'high art' which might be considered ballet or opera for instance, has been so perpetually aimed at (I don't want to say 'rich Tory culture-elites') 'the upper classes', to the point where that's the only audience they get. And, what a surprise, there aren't as many of them as you'd think, so ticket prices have to go up all the time. And the more that happens, the more it becomes the case that only the upper classes can afford to go. 

So whilst it's all very well that we have shows like Rent and Miss Saigon, which seem to attempt to 'bring' the stories of (in these cases) these operas to a wider audience. It doesn't do very much to de-polarise the system, because the attitude of 'bringing' a usually 'high-end' story to a 'low-end' audience has not been destabilised like it should have been long ago. 

So what solution can I, a lowly theatre performance student, offer? Well, my only offering would be for those working in this great industry to not get complacent and always look for ways to bring high and low art together. We're not talking about two poles, we're looking at a huge spectrum, art is defined by its audience and what that audience takes away. I might argue that I took more from the Free Fringe plays I watched, than any opera or ballet I've seen, which for me would make the Free Fringe plays better art. To state the obvious, it's not as simple as high art versus low art, and we shouldn't define the quality or importance of a piece of theatre by its ticket prices or by the 'classes' who go to see it.