What Are Some Examples of High Culture?

JohnPickenPhoto/CC-BY 2.0

High culture is a term frequently used by academics to refer to a set of cultural products most highly regarded by a society. In this sense the term largely invokes the arts, so examples include those classic works of visual art, music and literature that are most frequently celebrated, taught and studied. However, depending on context, the term also refers to mannerisms or conventions frequently exhibited by social elites.

While to some degree no absolute universal definition for high culture really exists, it is mostly taken to indicate art forms that are considered the best a culture has produced and that also take some measure of exposure or training to appreciate fully. According to Princeton University these are the greatest works of artistic merit.

In literature high culture prizes the great classics, what many academics call the Western literary canon. This includes works such as “War and Peace,” “Moby Dick” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”

In music emphasis is placed on the most esteemed pieces of classical composition as opposed to pieces of popular and folk music. Someone interested in high culture therefore listens to Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms before Arlo Guthrie, Dr. Dre or Bruce Springsteen.

In visual arts examples include the works of the masters, old and modern. These include the great Renaissance paintings and statues of da Vinci and Michelangelo and the avant-garde images of Impressionists such as Monet and Degas.

Thus high culture often appears distinct from popular culture, the latter being those art forms and cultural practices that appear in mainstream media and venues and that take no particular skill, exposure or social position to recognize or appreciate. In some cases, deprecatory names such as “Philistine” or “barbarian” are used to refer to a person unversed in works of high culture who lacks comprehension or appreciation.