John Derbyshire laments the decline of high art in America:
Well, pop culture has always been there; and while it's now pretty much all filth, there are still a few diamonds in amongst the dung — a movie, a song, a sitcom that is fun, even instructive, even moving. It sure has swamped high culture, though, with a mighty assist from the "Higher Superstition" of those college flim-flam courses in literary deconstruction, post-colonial studies, and the like. High culture just ran out of gas some time in the early 20th century. It is now a museum culture: pictures painted 400 years ago, symphonies written 200 years ago, operas, poems, and novels written 100 years ago.
Somewhere in Goebbels' diaries there is a passage that haunts me. He's going down into the bunker for one of the last times, as the allies close on Berlin, and he expresses his joy at the sight of "bourgeois civilization" disappearing in flames. (How they loved their Wagner!) He was of course right. Now we have Madonna, Damien Hirst, Milton Babbitt, Regietheater, and Maya Angelou.
There ain't no such thing as high art and low art, as I've written before. In terms of the work of art itself, there are no distinguishing criteria between fine and commercial arts (tell me why a Jackson Pollock is aesthetically superior to a Mitch McConnell). What separates highbrow culture and lowbrow culture are context and audience.
Was the work created for its own sake, or to sell something? Was it created for a gallery or a magazine? Was it a solitary work or mass produced? These questions determine the context in which the work of art was created.
The answers point us to the audience of the work: who created it and (more importantly) for whom? Was it created for commoners or the elites? This is the only true distinction; the sole reason that there is a motivation to separate high culture from low culture: classism. It is the fear that the lower classes might prefer arts of their own; that they might make aesthetic decisions on their own; and worst of all, that even if given the choice, they might prefer not to hear the aria in the symphony hall or read the confusion of a Joyce novel.
The lower classes might cease to envy the elites. And that would be intolerable.