As our nation progresses more and more toward becoming a media-centric society, classical or canonical art is gradually becoming less and less reserved as the most scholastic or reputable literature or art. The lines between high and low culture are becoming increasingly blurred. However, though this seems like it would be beneficial in uniting an incredibly polarized culture, there has often been backlash when a work of art crosses from low to high.
This past week, Kendrick Lamar’s most recent album, DAMN, won the Pulitzer Prize for music. This win was unprecedented because before now, winners of the award have only ever been either jazz or classical compositions. With this win, the Pulitzer committee has shown that they are not only in touch with popular opinion, but value it something other prestigious selection committees like The Academy do not seem to care about.
This issue also gained national attention when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2016, becoming the first songwriter to do so. He was awarded the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” according to the committee. But many rejected the selection as they have done with Lamar, arguing that the rules were being bent in order to cater to popular opinion or to stir up shock value.
While it’s easy for critics of wins such as Dylan’s and Lamar’s to claim their works to be undeserving of awards reserved for more classical, “high culture” pieces, they fail to realize what mass media has done to create a level playing field for artists. Before the creation of the internet and subsequent social media, it was very clear to see the distinction between high and low culture.
Aesthetes would not even come into contact with literature like dime novels or artists producing cheap records. But now it is easy for the average consumer to track down what films are doing well at Sundance or SXSW that are getting Oscar buzz, and consumers that consider themselves to have higher taste still take their children to see films like John Cena’s “Ferdinand.” There is no high and low culture for social media. Anyone can see what is trending on Twitter. Anyone can follow artists, writers and actors on Instagram.
Furthermore, consumers are not identifying themselves by the music or art that they consume because of these lines becoming blurred. People are becoming less and less defined by a distinct music type or movie genre they enjoy. Instead, consumers pick and choose what they enjoy. They can do this because of the wide breadth of genres that internet users are naturally exposed to, simply by browsing news sites or social media.
For example, pop (“popular”) music used to be distinguishable by the sound of the music. Though this is still somewhat the case, it has become increasingly clear that any genre can be popular. For example, rap/hip-hop music recently passed rock music as the most widely listened-to genre in America.
The playing field is being leveled for both what is considered popular and what is considered excellent. And, as we have seen with Lamar’s DAMN, a piece of art can be considered both.