More from C. S. Lewis on lowbrow and highbrow art

I know I shouldn’t keep just retyping passages from Chesterton and Lewis and calling them blog entries, but really — Lewis is just too clear-sighted not to use.

Another common way of using the distinction tends to fix on ‘popular’ as the best adjective for class A [i.e. lowbrow books].  “Popular’ art is supposed to aim at mere entertainment, while ‘real’ or ‘serious’ art aims at some more specific ‘artistic’ or ‘aesthetic’ or even ‘spiritual’ satisfaction.  This is an attractive view because it would give those who hold it a ground for maintaining that popular literature has its own good or bad, according to its own rules, distinct from those of Literature proper.  [...] And since I observe that many my highest-browed acquaintances spend much of their time in talking of the vulgarity of popular art, and therefore must know it well, and could not have acquired that knowledge unless they enjoyed it, I must assume that they would welcome a theory which justified them in drinking freely of that fountain without forfeiting their superiority

– C. S. Lewis, High and Low Brows.

And a little later in the same essay:

What survives from most ages is chiefly either the work that had some religious or national appeal, or else the popular, commercial work produced for entertainment.  I say ‘chiefly’ because the work of the ‘pure’ artists is not always ephemeral; a little, a very little, of it survives.  But the great mass of literature which now fills class B [i.e. works now considered highbrow] is the work of men who wrote either piously, to edify their follows, or commercially, to earn their living by ‘giving the public what it wanted’.

– C. S. Lewis, High and Low Brows.

It’s striking that that last quote is so near to be being exactly what Ian Harac wrote in his comment on the Chesterton post.

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12 responses to “More from C. S. Lewis on lowbrow and highbrow art

  1. Which means, In The Future, things like the Harry Potter series will be considered a great work of literature…

  2. For the ultimate example, see Shakespeare…

    I think there’s a distinction between craft and content here. Something can be “lowbrow” in content (e.g. “just a love story”) and be highbrow in execution (“beautifully written”). I think those are the ones that survive (for “lowbrow in content” read “universal themes”).

    I mean the Odyssey was just one of those blood-and-guts monster thrillers, right? “Yeah, honey, I know you want to listen to an Athenian eunuch on the harp, but check out that part where that cyclops… whoa! ok, I know, guilty pleasure.”

  3. I think I agree with Lewis.

    I always remember a scene from the movie (of the book) Little Women where random-guy-character finds out that the Winona Ryder character has been “wasting” her writing talents on stories involving vampires and were-wolves. I always remember thinking, “who is he to judge her so?”

    Yeah, lowbrow is largely a term used to put the masses in their place or something.

    On a side note: Lewis seems to really like to use the word “mere”. A lot.


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  4. Aric Caley concludes: “Which means, In The Future, things like the Harry Potter series will be considered a great work of literature…”

    That’s certainly what Lewis thought (though admittedly he doesn’t mention Harry Potter, or indeed Buffy, by name):

    This leads to the very interesting conclusion that the B’s of one age [i.e. highbrow books] have most often been the A’s [i.e. lowbrow] of another. We are sometimes warned by the supporters of difficult new movements in literature not to imitate our fathers in stoning the prophets; those who dislike Pound or Joyce are told ‘so you would have disliked Wordsworth and Shelley if you had lived then’. The warning may be useful, but clearly it should be supplemented by another—’Beware how you scorn the best sellers of to-day; they may be classics for the intelligentsia of the Twenty-Third Century.’

    (From the same essay.)

  5. Aric Caley concludes: “Which means, In The Future, things like the Harry Potter series will be considered a great work of literature…”

    Or, more likely, that posterity will come to the conclusion that Tolkien truly was the greatest English author of the 20th century.

  6. Pingback: C. S. Lewis on the lowbrow/highbrow distinction | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  7. Thinking on this a bit, it’s pretty self-evident (and, like all self-evident things, not at all self-evident until someone points it out): To be truly popular, and I mean, “cultural touchstone” popular, not just “this week’s top movie, forgotten by next week” popular, a work of art has to speak to the broadest possible audience, and that means touching on the most essential aspects of humanity and/or culture. It has to have some truth, some resonance, that applies across most of the boundaries of class, ethnicity, faith, and so on. By definition, “highbrow” art isn’t this; it is designed to appeal to a narrow class, and to understand or appreciate it, you have to have a certain type of education and share a specific value system. A highbrow work may contain all of the universal themes of a lowbrow work, but what *makes* it highbrow also means that the unwashed masses will not appreciate those themes as the work presents them. Further, “highbrow” art often explicitly comments on, embraces, or critiques issues of the day as specific issues, not as the current incarnation of problems and conflicts that have been part of humanity since, or possibly even before, we became human. In other words, a lowbrow piece of art will use a “ripped from the headlines!” tragedy or gory crime, slightly fictionalized, to tell a Thrilling Detective Story, and you could rewrite the thing to use similar events from across time and barely need to change a thing. A highbrow piece of art will be much more concerned with the specifics of the thing, treating it more uniquely and not as a generic plot device. You couldn’t retheme highbrow art as space opera or swords and sorcery without losing the essence of it, stripping out all the parts that make it highbrow in the first place. (This is a broad and generic statement, which means there’s plenty of assumed caveats and exemptions.) (As my mind keeps wandering, an odd thought strikes me… what will Watchmen be thought of as, in a hundred years? So much of what makes it a great comic book is tied to how it comments on and criticizes the superhero genre and comic book tropes and conventions. If there were no superhero comics, would it be a good story on its own? Could someone with no knowledge of what it’s commenting on get most or all of the meaning? While my college Shakespeare courses were so long ago that I was buying Watchmen month-to-month, I remember that various lines, events, or the like were called out as commenting on issues of the day or current concerns, but not knowing this didn’t remove any real meaning from the play (though knowing it added more understanding, of course).

    (I really need to stop using other people’s blogs to ramble randomly on… )

  8. A couple of disconnected thoughts:

    1) The various mentions of Shakespeare remind me of line that I saw somewhere about Casablanca that it is one of the few movies which rival a typical Shakespeare play for the number of phrases which have entered the popular culture. Casablanca is a nice example of something which was obviously created as lowbrow entertainment which has become revered.

    2) I am, however, suspicious of the distinction that Lewis references, between works created to entertain, vs works created for some other reason, can support too much weight. First because it’s unwise, in general, to put too much weight on authorial intent, which is notoriously slippery. Secondly I feel like there are any number of artists who say, “I’m just creating the only way that I know how. I’m trying to produce entertainment, and this is how it turns out.” Finally, it’s important to recognize that there’s going to be quite a large grey area. Did Shel Silverstein “aim at mere entertainment”? Did e.e. cummings? Did Frank Zappa?

    3) I’m reminded of a bit in the (very good) book by Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste:

    … by 2007, writers at prestige publications like The New York Times and the haughty old New Yorker could be found praising one-hit R&B wonders and “mall punk” teen bands as much as Bruce Springsteen or U2.
    This was the outcome of many cycles of revisionism: one way a critic often can get noticed is by arguing that some music everyone has trashed is in fact genious, and over the years that process has “reclaimed” genres from metal to disco to lounge exotica and prog rock, and artists from ABBA to Motorheard.

    I think pop music criticism has more recognition of the slipperiness of the standards that separate “classic” from “disposable” than people writing about literature, because it’s harder to pretend that there could be a standard for good and bad.

  9. It’s true about Casablanca — a real one-off that has had extraordinary influence over the language.

    I think my extracts from Lewis’s essay may have given you a misleading impression on his understanding of what “writing to entertain” means. It’s certainly true that there is a continuum, but in the end the big distinction between someone who’s writing to give people what they want now, and someone who’s trying to be deep and significant for the sake of significance, perhaps with a deliberate eye on posterity. Lewis’s deepest misgivings are reserved for those who are so far towards the latter inclination that they ignore popular audiences completely, or even hold them in scorn. His observation is that that attitude vanishingly infrequently produces art that anyone cares about fifty or a hundred years later, even the highbrow critics of that generation.

    Finally, the Carl Wilson quote is interesting. What leaps out at me is that by any objective standard, ABBA and Motorhead were both outstanding within their genre — ABBA were just plain better than, say, Brotherhood of Man. It’s not a surprise that ABBA’s music has enjoyed a renaissance that Save all your kisses for me never did.

  10. I understand that the excepts don’t present a complete set of thoughts.

    Perhaps it’s simpler for me to just say that I think, for any theory, there’s going to be a huge grey area. For example, for the purpose of this discussion we’ve all be treating Buffy as unequivocally lowbrow, but I’m not sure that’s true. It clearly started out lowbrow, but it rapidly expanded it’s ambitions — in fact part of the real charm of Buffy as a complete artistic project, seasons 1-7, is the way in which the creative goals grew and changed.

    I have a friend who says, of the The Who that they had one of the fastest learning curves of any band. When they first started recording many of them barely knew how to play their instruments and, five years later, they were the greatest rock band in the world.

    Something similar happens in Buffy. I didn’t read the recent thread but I would have a hard time calling The Body or Once More With Feeling lowbrow entertainment. They’re not only ambitious in terms of plot and characters, they want to change the standard of what’s possible to do in a serial television drama.

    So, as I say, I think there’s a lot of grey area.

    As for ABBA and Motorhead, I think it’s part of the point that they were outstanding within their genre. I was recently reading a cranky essay that was criticizing the new Penguin Anthology of Modern American Poetry which made the familiar criticisms made by anybody who wants to defend the superiority of a familiar canon — that the new anthology left out essential poems by major poets, that it simplified and dumbed-down the stylistic innovations and influences of those same major poets and gave more space to people who may be interesting for reasons of history or biography but don’t have the same stature in the world of poetry.

    Reading it I thought about how hard it would be to make that same argument in pop music (though many people try). There have been so many changes within “the canon” and so many different ways and genres in which bands can be outstanding, that it’s really hard to argue that any one definition of what makes pop music good or bad could cover that.

    Beyond that I think pop music is a field in which there’s a lot of value to practicing a certain critical suspension of disbelief. It’s occasionally interesting to listen to something that you don’t like very much and try to imagine, “somebody thinks that this is absolutely the coolest, most exciting music that they’ve ever heard. Can I hear what they hear?” (asking that question is, by the way, one of the projects of the Carl Wilson book). That can get you to hear the virtues in something, like ABBA, which you might have dismissed because of obvious reasons.

    So I would also say that, while I appreciate the references to highbrow / lowbrow as an implicit rebuke to those people overly invested in defending a certain vision of the canon I would also say it’s important to not take it to far and use it to promote a different brand of snobbery. Though I’m not accusing you of doing that.

    Immediately following the previously quoted passage Carl Wilson writes:

    Once pop criticism had a track record lengthy enough to be full of wrong turns, neither popular nor critical consensus seemed like a reliable guide. Why not just follow your own enjoyment? Unless you have a thing for white-power anthems, the claim now goes, there is no reason ever to feel guilty or ashamed about what you like. And I agree, though it’s curious how often critics’ “own enjoyment” still takes us all down similar paths at once.

    You might say that It is interesting how each generation of critics tends to find the previous generation of critics to have been overly ideological and to champion a more “democratic” view of art and yet, in hindsight, that generation too seems to create its own cathedrals of taste or criticism.

  11. I think Tolkien will be read for a long time. Maybe as long as people read our English, and maybe longer. But let’s be honest- Tolkien’s prose was terrible. I’ve tried to explain why Tolkien is important to people who thought him dreadful, and I have come to understand why they think him dreadful.

    But I cannot unremember my first view of the Misty Mountains. I cannot unremember Bilbo, and Mordor, and Frodo. I cannot unremember the world that Tolkien invented. Sure, he couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag, but, luckily, he never had to.

  12. Ah, the perennial question is Tolkien actually any good?. Discussed with admirable wit and concision by Andrew Rilstone in the linked essay, which I have read and re-read many times and which is possibly the best bit of Tolkien criticism I have ever read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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