Friday, July 10, 2009

Highs and Lows of Art

You’re cruising through a gallery or someone’s house, and a work of art just makes you stop dead in your tracks. You’re mesmerized. Your heart beats faster. You don’t want to leave the space in the painting because it has moved you and changed you in a moment. Wow – that’s some good art.

Not all works of art have that power, though. Some people have chosen to describe the difference by labeling the powerful kind as “high art,” which makes the pieces that don’t have much lasting impact “low art.” Robert Henri in The Art Spirit defined high and low art this way: “Low art is just telling things, as 'There is the night.' High art gives the feel of the night.”

Now, I recognize that “high art” is a good term to use. It says that the work is superior in its ability to capture the viewer’s attention and to bring them to a new place emotionally, intellectually, or perhaps even spiritually. But somehow—in my mind at least--high art has become synonymous with good art, and low art is synonymous with bad art. The use of these terms has instilled a kind of snobbery in me over the years.

Lately, however, I’ve been questioning this viewpoint, and I’ve decided I want to get away from that kind of judgmental thinking. I want to replace the label “low art” with “decorative art,” and I want to use that term with respect, not disdain. Naturally, I still want to create works that move people, that somehow express what inspired me to paint and in turn inspires viewers. But if I create something that is simply an expression of my own interests or a representation of a favorite subject or an exploration of a great design or a fun and innovative use of a medium, that’s okay, too. It’s wonderful and even preferred to aspire to create high art, but I think there’s plenty of room in the world for decorative art as well. Yes, I know my decorative art won’t be hanging in any museums in a hundred years, and frankly, I’m okay with that.

Your thoughts?


  1. Our lives have so much in them that is not beautiful that decorative art surely has an important place. We need beauty. All cultures are drawn to it no matter how primitive. It shows up in their clothing and articles of daily use.

    Many paintings that are considered high art don't give some people the same feeling that it will give to an accomplished artist, collector or someone who is knowledgeable in art. Those people need beauty in their lives too and decorative pieces might just give them an emotional or spiritual charge as they connect with the subject matter or maybe even just the color.

    A life of observing and making art has brought joy and spiritual growth to me as an artist and the resulting paintings bring pleasure to the people who buy them and that's a wonderful thing worth pursuing.

  2. Decorative art sure has its place, Jennifer. And the term "decorative" is less pejorative than "low." Thanks for bringing this up!

  3. I'd bet that even the most highly respected artists only make a few pieces of "high art" in their career -- work that really exists on a higher level. The rest of the time, they are down here in the trenches with the rest of us.

  4. Trenches, maybe? Assumes attacks or charging. Prefer to look at beginning as an artist as "footers" to more structure in ourselves and more inspiration for others. Never know where it will go!

  5. Thanks Jennifer,

    All art has the ability to speak to someone. Whether high or low (or decorative) there is someone out there who will be moved by any sincere piece of artwork. Even the pieces which are considered historic masterpieces leave some people questioning thier importance. Everypiece will touch someone just as no piece will touch everyone. By painting what you are inspired to paint, you enrich the world.

  6. Very interesting post, thank you Jennifer.

    Not being an artist myself, but being married to an (incredible) artist, I can see his work touch many that pass by and stop in their tracks.

    I agree with Keith and Cindy too.. not everyone is touched by the same work at the same time, and yes even decorative work can have the most profound effect on people, even to the point that it gets passed down from generation to generation.

  7. Amen! I don't aspire to museums, I aspire to capture the feeling of the landscape that moved me & perhaps will move you. Otherwise I also aspire to smoosh the paint around and have fun! I own so many tubes of paint I should live forever...

  8. I'm so glad to see someone discussing this openly.

    I'm not sure all of us know exactly which category our own work fits into... hoping for one, being content with the other, possibly.

    Thanks so much for the look into this subject, I enjoyed your insight.

  9. There is a lot of art that is insincere and phony. When you come across genuine art it's so exciting no matter if it's High or Low , when it's coming from the heart of where the artist is it's wonderful.
    Jenny I love your work it's captivating.
    regards Maureen Tomaino, I'm joining the fine art studio online community , i'm puting my website together right now. Wonderfulwatercolor.