top of page
  • Christopher R. Inwood


Art and Pop Culture

Works of art deemed to be ‘high art’ have been highly perpetuated throughout history,

however over the past generation, ‘high art’ has been seen to dissolve into ‘popular culture’.

According to philosopher David Novitz (1945), this divide has never been present within works of art,

as it was the audiences that determined they were different.1 This collapse of ‘high art’ into popular

culture has occurred because of the effects neo-liberalism has had on the class-liberation of the

contemporary arts audiences. The artwork Puppy (1992) by Jeff Koons will be used to exemplify the

impact that economic neo-liberalism has had on the globe, as well as its impact on the way in which

an artist creates artwork and its interaction with audiences.

Throughout history ‘high art’ has been known as many things, including: ‘highbrow’; ‘insider

art’; ‘art’; and ‘autonomous art’, however ‘high art’ will be used throughout this piece. ‘High art’ was

described by the art historian Julian Stallabrass in 1999 as art done by someone that went to art

school, and it is this reference to schooling and education that provided the artist with the

accreditation to be of the ‘high art’ institution as well as a creator of it.2 ‘Popular culture’ too goes by

many descriptions and definitions, and has been described by the anthropologist and linguistic

professor Marcel Danesi (born 1946) as a lower form of art that provides no profundity on what it is

to exist, and is predominantly reactionary to existence.3 For the general population, the buying

power of ‘popular culture’ has been expanding since the 1920s through a beneficial relation to

technology, media and business.4 This generation has seen the eruption of a debate between the

1 Novitz, David. 1989. Ways of artmaking: The high and the popular in art. British Journal of Aesthetics 29 (3): 213.

2 “By far the most successful definition – though still imperfect – is to say that art is something done by those who went to art school. The closed shop operates with remarkable effectiveness, and you will find very, very few artists endorsed by the gallery system, private or public, who have not been through an accredited course.5” Julian Stallabrass, High ArtLite: British Art in the 1990s, Verso, London, 1999. P 130

3 “Most anthropologists would define culture as a means of organizing and stabilizing communal life through specific beliefs, rituals, rites, performances, art forms, symbols, language, clothing, food, music, dance, and any other mode of human expressive, intellectual, and communicative behaviour that is associated with a group of people at a particular period of time. In Western tradition, it is common to subdivide culture into high and low, according to historically based perceptions associated with aesthetic movements. High culture is considered to be a form of culture that purportedly has a more profound import on human life than does low culture, which is seen as simply recreational and perhaps even base.” Danesi, Marcel, and Ebooks Corporation. 2015. Popular culture: Introductory perspectives. Third ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield. P 2

4 “Pop culture alludes, on the other hand, to a form of culture that makes little, if any, such categorical distinctions. Its emergence in the 1920s was due, in large part, to unexpected affluence, which gave people in the mass, regardless of class or educational background, considerable buying power. Its spread was made possible by an ever-expanding and ever-reinforcing media-technology-business partnership. Since then, it has played a pivotal role in the overall evolution of American society (and virtually every other modernsociety).” Danesi, Marcel, and Ebooks Corporation. 2015. Popular culture: Introductory perspectives. Third ed. Lanham: Rowman &

Littlefield. P 2


classification of high art and low art, art and non-art, lowbrow art and highbrow art, insider art and

outsider art, and autonomous art and art. The aesthetic of the art object has been commonly used

to try distinguishing one art work from another through a changing ‘environment’ of development,

resulting in a classification of either ‘high art’ or of ‘pop culture’. These classifications of art are

somewhat meaningless, as the object exists in neither state outside of all aesthetic, and can only be

classified until a human, of mind, spectates the artwork to then classify it into either category. 5

Philosopher Novitz suggests that audiences are the solely responsible for the classification of art,

and further suggests that these classifications are effectively a way for the ‘ruling’ class to maintain

control of the subjects discussed within the art, as any subject with a ‘pop culture’ title is often

vulgarised and deemed unworthy. 6 7 This separation between ‘high art’ and ‘pop culture’ has now

predominantly homogenised due to a series of contributing factors, however neo-liberal economics

has had a substantial affect upon the contemporary world and is one of the strongest contributors to

the homogenisation of these audiences.

Neo-liberalism has shaped the approach of government policies since the 1970s, and has

spread across the western world, lead by the American super power and big business.8 These

policies are grounded in the assumption that the governments cannot create economic growth or

provide social welfare and in its stead, private companies and philanthropy can provide this growth

and welfare through relaxation of government’s market regulation.9 Neo-liberalist polices were

implemented to re-establish profitability and control in reaction to the worldwide capitalist crisis

and the growing popularity of socialism, which had undercut the capitalists’ profits and its control of

5 “In particular, (Novitz) denies that there are any substantive aesthetic differences between popular artworks and high art.” "High Art vs.Low Art," in Routledge Companion to Aesthetics 2nd ed. B. Gaut & D. Lopes (London: Routledge Press, 2005), pp. 527-540.

6 “It is merely a matter of social convention to differentiate them.”…” Novitz notes that the customary way of ascribing a higher status to high art and a lower status to popular art is to argue that there are systematic diffrences between works in the respective categories. Yet’“there are neither formal nor affective properties which distinguish the high from the popular in art” (1992:24), nor is there an essential difference in the way works are produced, such as the difference between the individualgenius and a production team. "High Art vs. Low Art," in Routledge Companion to Aesthetics 2nd ed. B. Gaut & D. Lopes (London: Routledge Press, 2005), pp. 527-540.

7 “Since there is no substantive aesthetic difference between low and high artwork, Novitz suggest that the distinction is artificial and constructed to serve a political function, namely to make art avoid political, moral and economic issues, in short, high art, the only acceptable art. High art is art that does not threaten the intresets of the dominant Classes.” B. Gaut & D. Lopes . London: Routledge Press, 2005."High Art vs. Low Art," in Routledge Companion to Aesthetics 2nd ed, pp. 527-540.

8 Bockman, Johanna. 2013. Neoliberalism Context. 12.3. p. 14-15

9 Idib p.14


the economy.10 These policies brought together world markets and powerful states, opening the

world to the capitalist nature of business.11 These private companies developed a world through

which they can profit and not be restrained by the powers of government, and this spread has

created a global free market for private companies and corporations to dominate.

Neo-liberalism economics has helped create the economic environment of the ‘free market’,

which has affected the way the art world operates, as it has been steadily re-privatising since 1985,

and examples of this privatisation include the Saatchi Gallery, Francois Pinault collection Venice,

Leeum Samsung Museum of Art Seoul.12 The privatisation of the contemporary art world, collectors

and Museums has mirrored the early founding and patronage of the early renaissance period, which

allowed the institutionalised ‘high art’ of the renaissance to be exposed to a public audience and

reshaped the boundaries of ‘high art’ and ‘pop culture’.13 This dilution of class was furthered

throughout the 1990s, where the ‘high art’ audience’s ability to govern the art object and its ‘value’