In my last post I talked a great deal about the art of "high culture" and "folk culture" in regards to their relation to the classical and vernacular in architecture. The distinction that I was drawing was not to show that high and low culture are in opposition to each other, but rather are a matter of variation of degree. Both high and low culture, classical and vernacular art, all deal with the same subject, namely cultural memory or the maintenance of shared ideas of self-identification. From very simple traditions of a household, the baking of traditional meals for birthdays and holidays, to the triumphant hymn of a national anthem, the art and architecture of a capitol, every one of these things seeks to express though through varied degrees, "this is who we are."
The nature of a folk culture is of course defined by its having risen from the people itself, the folk, where local traditions, and family traditions lead to an art which is particular to a certain people, place or a even family. High culture, which arises from the folk culture, is culture which has been subjected to intellectual and philosophical examination. Rather than traditions of culture and art being simply passed on to the next generation, high culture places itself under to study and criticism in order to make it better, finer and more sophisticated. Moreover, this sophistication allows it to be appreciated outside of a particular cultural context, it begins to be appreciated by everyone.
Thus art that is produced by high culture is transformed from a simple local art, into a universal art that begins to transcend the particularities of place and people, and is thus the only sort of art that can become a "national" art. The universality of the art is what allows people from all over the world to enjoy the works of Mozart and Bach, even without having been a part of that particular central European Germanic culture from which the art arose. Certainly though, had one come from that particular culture from which this high culture arose from, the art would be even more meaningful.
High culture produces an art that tends toward universality, but yet maintains that same goal of culture, to say "this is who we are," and consequently its art strives too for that universality. Folk culture and its art says "this is what it means to be a Dutchman" or "this is what it means to be a member of such and such family." High culture strives to say "this is what it means to be man" (in other words in an unqualified sense). This difference between universality and particularity is what I spoke of in earlier posts in dealing with art and politics. Art geared towards politics is necessarily geared towards the particular, but it loses its meaning in the universal flow of history. Great art, though even if it is political, is geared towards the great universals and it thus has constant appeal.
This is not to say however that Folk art loses its appeal through time, far from it. The art of a folk culture is expressive of a particular culture's understanding of the same universal longing to understand "what we are." This, coupled with transcendent notions of beauty which all true art strives for, for instance the same tonal system of music is found both in the folk song Greensleeves, as it is in Mozart's Requiem, gives all true art a. The level complexity and the precision of the music is the only difference between them, telling us they are in essence the same thing. So too in poetry, as the works of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare represent the best of a high culture, the simplicity of the poetry of those same folk tunes can tell us just as much about what it means to be a human being.
But yet this universal nature of art and high culture only goes so far, we need only look to where cultures across the globe have interacted to see the limits of cultural universalism. So too in architecture, where attempts to introduce classical Roman
styles of architecture in foreign lands with highly developed native cultures, seem severely out of place. One need only listen in the West to traditional Japanese or Chinese music to see where the limits lie. Certainly one can come to know and understand and even love Chinese pentatonic music (it uses only five notes instead of the Western eight) but if we were to try to introduce it into a cultural setting in America, we would only see it as a charming "theme."
The "theme" would of course be a farce, as there would be nothing that connects Chinese traditional music as "belonging"for instance to a traditional Christmas party. The idea of cultural "themes" can best be seen in context of amusement parks, or "theme parks" which accumulate architecture of different places all into one park. A park such as this seems cheesy and "kitschy" because the cultural artifacts that it reproduces are all out of place. Its like a man walking into a bar in New York in a cowboy hat, chaps and spurs, where he would be entirely silly, while doing the same in Texas might be an everyday appearance. The idea of things being "out of place" is the essence of kitsch, which I intend to explore in the next post. In particular, I am interested in how kitsch relates to the ideas of the avante-garde in modernist art.