One-Way Transaction

One-Way Transaction


Class and Artistic Value in MoMA’s 1990 High and Low

Some exhibitions do not attempt to preserve the delusion that the artworks they display are above the real world—a world in which money and class distinctions dominate and seep into every possible sector of society, including the art world. Instead, through the narrative that the curators develop, an exhibition may acknowledge that the selected artworks were made as a result of societal and economic influences, and that they continue to interact with these influences when they enter the exhibition space. Playwright Antoinette Nwandu explained that as an artist, her plays are “not created in a vacuum—[she is] responding to, and being molded by, the time and the place in which [she] create[s].”1 Similarly, curators do not create exhibitions separate from the influence of money and class; they may even intentionally base their curatorial concept on these qualities in an attempt to examine or critique them. Such is the case in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1990 exhibition High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture, which blatantly acknowledges art’s direct ties to the external world. The name itself, separating “high” from “low” art, is the first and most obvious indication of this. In fact, curators Kirk Varnedoe, who at the time was MoMA’s director of painting and sculpture, and Adam Gopnik, who is also a writer for The New Yorker, explicitly state in their verbose catalogue that they “hope to take objects that have too often been isolated as ‘timeless’ or ‘transcendent’ and resituate them within the changing, dynamic contradictions of real life.”2

High and Low places what are considered to be modernist masterpieces, such as Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906), in a traditional museum environment that would usually that reinforce the mythic nature of art or the art-for-art’s-sake ideal—the belief, central to formalism and modernism, that aesthetic value should not be determined by worldly concerns and that art is autonomous even to the themes to which it may deal. This exhibition, though, places masterpieces in this environment for the stated purpose of examining their low culture influences. However, frequently, the high artworks are hung on their own and their low elements or influences are only noted in the catalogue or wall text. Less frequently, high and low works are displayed close to each other to trace the relationship between them. As Gopnik and Varnedoe explain on the front flap of the catalogue, they are attempting to “trace the key exchanges through which artists have expanded the languages of art by taking up styles and forms found outside the usual precincts of the museum,” (emphasis mine) whether the outside artworks be popular culture pieces, like comics, or even occasionally what they call “primitive” works.3 As Jennifer Doyle describes in “The Rhetoric of Prostitution,” there is a pervasive feeling that the transactional nature of art is taboo and uncomfortable, so people don’t discuss this aspect of art in effort to preserve the idea that art transcends it.4 Instead of subscribing to that feeling, High and Low attempts to confront class distinctions—a mundane interest—rather than refuse to acknowledge them.

However, though the exhibition intends to delineate that art is in fact related to the external world, in actuality it reinforces the notion that this transaction between classes is one way: low to high, rather than the other way around. In other words, the exhibition reinforces the “the dominant values given to art . . . [which] serve the interests of the current ruling class” instead of refuting that fact or asserting a mutual, equal relationship between high and low culture as intended.5 In her essay “Distinction Through Visual Art,” Elizabeth Silva explains how class impacts taste or value according to Bourdieu, which applies to High and Low. Bourdieu explains that there are three divisions of taste, including “legitimate, “middlebrow,” and “popular” taste. Legitimate taste comprises of “the most assured aesthetes who engage strongly with those arts that are validated by the institutions of legitimation,” and popular taste is the equivalent to low, favoring popularized works, and middlebrow is a combination of the two. Therefore, Bourdieu determines, the kind of art appreciated by the upper and middle classes is different from from the kind appreciated by the working class. In Silva’s words,

Because the value of art depends on how it is perceived, the cultural objects produced or consumed by the lower classes will be perceived as having relatively low value. The appreciation for tastes of distinction, or high value, depends on a trained capacity acquired in the family and the educational system which is often inaccessible to less powerful sections of the population.6

In High and Low, the curatorial choices are informed by “legitimate” taste rather than the “middlebrow” or “popular” tastes. As a result, this exhibition, in its installation, combination, and location, ends up preserving the high artworks’ status as mythical, or idealized in the sense that they exist outside of their context. It makes the low works seem less valuable, too rooted in popular culture or the lower class to be on the same level. In other words, the way the curators position the low works and the high ones in the museum helps preserve the transcendent, mythical entity of high artworks and thus their status as more valuable (despite their use of or association with low elements). Though High and Low attempts to refute the delusion of art being above mundane interests like class, its formal qualities (which puts low art in a high art setting, next to the more emphasized high art) reinforce the class divisions the curators aimed to dissolve.

As mentioned, High and Low does not bother trying to present its selected works as beyond the influences of the external environment and seeks to examine the real world’s (the real world, in this case, is considered to be the lower class or pop culture) influence on modern art. The designation of the low as “the real” confirms several of Doyle’s claims in “The Rhetoric of Prostitution,” as when she draws on the work of William Dean Howells to explain that since low artworks are mainly made for consumption and for an audience, “the artwork becomes ‘false,’ ‘vulgar,’ and ‘profane.’”7 Its creators, unlike the high artists, are not to be thought of as “reluctant participant[s] in the art market,” since they directly engage with it.8 Here, in the curators’ interpretation, is where the class division begins, positioning low art as the real, and as a result, high art is not necessarily considered a part of the real world even though it touches it and exists within it. The curators attempt to explain their categories in the catalogue, more so by explaining only what low works are: “they have traditionally been considered irrelevant to, or outside, any consideration of achievement in the fine arts of our time.”10 In fact, about a dozen places were set with the 464-page catalogue for attendees to sit and read when first entering the exhibition.11 In the catalogue and the physical exhibition, low art is portrayed as the external influence, the other or product of the real world, despite their elements being appropriated in high artworks. The high artworks don’t become products of the real world, though. The otherness that comes across in the exhibition cements low works to be of lesser value than the high works that were directly influenced by them. The high artworks still transcend the real world, or low culture, because though they associate with aspects of low culture, they transform those elements. The high artworks are understood as more valuable in spite of its low influences, and its low art inspirations become seen as lesser-than, as stepping stones for the high art rather than their own entities.

This comes across through Gopnik and Varnedoe’s installation choices; the exhibition is separated into four sections: on one floor, graffiti, caricature, and comics are clumped together, with a brief, three-work contemporary (post-1970s) section, while advertising is on the upper floor. Made up of 250 plus paintings and sculptures from the Cubist period (who they claim are the first to engage with low elements of pop culture) up to 1970, and consisting of only 50 artists, the included works are limited mainly to those from Paris and New York.12 The formal qualities of each section reinforce the relationship between class and value—that is, that the high art or higher class is more valuable than that of the low—precisely through the way they position them in relation to one another.

In the caricature section, for example, Picasso is the dominant figure, overwhelmingly featured with multiple sculptures and paintings, probably the most noteworthy being The Portrait of Gertrude Stein. In fact, the curators attribute this work to “‘[breaking] down the barrier between caricature [a low category] and high portraiture.’”13 Hung on its own section of the white wall, on a panel that protrudes a few inches, it’s not too difficult to figure out Gopnik and Varnedoe’s perspective on the work as expressed in the catalogue. However, they trace Picasso’s breaking down of the barrier in Portrait of Gertrude Stein through the use of the “exotic,” or low or real, form. “The move from low to high, the victory of the sketchbook over the easel”—referring to Picasso’s early caricaturistic sketches versus his later paintings—“is accomplished through the Trojan horse of primitivism,” Gopnik and Varnedoe claim in the catalogue.14 (This also traces back to the curator’s selection of high artworks as only paintings or sculptures, rather than any other medium.) However, for all their acknowledgment in the text of how artists like Picasso drew on the low “primitive” art in their high works, no such low artworks are found in the exhibition’s caricature section. Quoting former MoMA director William Rubin, the catalogue states that “‘Picasso’s caricature starts fusing with his ‘high art’ at precisely the moment his primitivism begins, with the repainting of Gertrude Stein’s face in the Iberian manner on his return from Gosol [in the fall of 1906].’”15 Where are the Iberian pieces they attribute as the reason Picasso’s caricature became high art? Instead of placing them next to, or at least nearby, where Portrait of Gertrude Stein is displayed in a prominent manner, they are absent. There is no way to make the connection unless the catalogue and texts have been thoroughly examined. The portrait is one example of how the high is asserted as more valuable than the low through its display; there is no attempt to visually connect it to the real, or the low, simply because it is not represented. The traditions of aesthetic judgement, which are dominated by the high class, are upheld and reinforced; for traditional critics, “aesthetic value is derived from the transcendence of processes of objectification,” and Picasso’s high artworks transcend because their low influences are not displayed; if they’re not placed side by side, how can they be compared on equal footing by the viewer, as the curators said was their intention?16

Portrait of Gertrude Stein would be loose its mythic nature if its low culture counterparts were treated on the same level, and the absence or mistreatment of works from low culture can be found in the other sections—graffiti, comics, and advertising—as well. Furthermore, the curators also intended to relate high artworks to low artworks that are considered part of popular culture, rather than just treating the low as “primitive” artworks (though this absence and lack of acknowledgement of the “primitive,” as was the case in the caricature section, does show up in the graffiti section as well. Jean Dubuffet is prominently featured, with two paintings taking up most of a whole wall. The catalogue cites that graffiti was akin to “primitivism,” but Dubuffet’s works remain untouched by their influences, at least in the physical context). However, the exhibition does not touch on high art’s influence on the lower pop culture works, further affirming the value of high art or culture over the low. In other words, there are no pop culture artworks that were inspired by Picasso’s high works like Portrait of Gertrude Stein, despite all their claims of it being so pivotal to caricature. (I suppose the assertion can be made that the portrait was in fact pivotal, but to the high art world rather than the real world.) The circular nature of the exchange between high and low dissolves; the real world is nowhere to be found. The curation pushes this idea that low works aren’t worthy of the same attention or kind of looking that the high artwork generally receives in the museum space; High and Low says that the low is only capable of being understood as a supporting document rather than its own entity, worthy of being placed on the wall next to the high. Dubuffet and Picasso remain above the real, or above the low, because of the curation, despite all the attempts to make it not so in Gopnik and Varnedoe’s texts.

Though there are many more notes to be made of how the formal qualities of the exhibition contribute to preserving the high artworks’ as mythical, and therefore more valuable than the low works they draw from, the previous points are some of the most supportive of this assertion, and these particular cited instances are replicated throughout. Class, or mundane interests in general, is undoubtedly integral to the included works, and were selected for the purpose of examining class distinctions. However, “High and Low” fails to do what it set out to: to show the mutual, circular relationship of art through different classes, and ground the high works that were seen as transcendent. The curatorial choices are emblematic of the traditions of aesthetic judgement, which are dominated by the high class that sees low works as lesser than their high counterparts. Thus, despite acknowledging that the external world is undoubtedly involved in artmaking, the domination of the high class in determining artistic value persists rather than dissolves, and the high artworks transcend the real world nonetheless.

  1. Michael Paulson and Nicole Herrington, “How These Black Playwrights Are Challenging American Theater,” The New York Times, April 25, 2019.
  2. Adam Gopnik and Kirk Varnedoe, High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture (Modern Museum of Art, 1990), 21.
  3. Gopnik and Varnedoe, High and Low, #3.
  4. Jennifer Doyle, “The Rhetoric of Prostitution,” Sublime Economy: on the Intersection of Art and Economics, edited by Jack Amariglio (Routledge, 2009), 277.
  5. Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (Haymarket Books, 2013), 28.
  6. Elizabeth B. Silva, “Distinction through Visual Art,” Cultural Trends vol. 15, no. 2-3 (2006).
  7. Doyle, “Distinction through Visual Art,” 280.
  8. Doyle, “Distinction through Visual Art,” 280.
  9. Gopnik and Varnedoe, High and Low, 16). In short, they are the works deemed absolute products of the gritty world, or not transcendent or valuable enough, to grace museums’ walls. It’s worth mentioning that the catalogue, rather than the physical exhibition itself, clarifies their definitions of what qualifies as low and, to a lesser extent, high. As New York Times critic Roberta Smith explains in her review, the catalogue “is the arena in which the symbiosis of high and low culture is most convincing” in their attempt to place high and low art on equal footing, each as valuable as the other.9Roberta Smith, “High and Low Culture Meet on a One-Way Street,” The New York Times, October 5, 1990.
  10. High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture: MoMA,” The Museum of Modern Art.
  11. Gopnik and Varnedoe, High and Low, 19.
  12. Exhibition text quoted in Smith, “High and Low Culture Meet on a One-Way Street.”
  13. Gopnik and Varnedoe, High and Low, 130.
  14. Rubin quoted in Gopnik and Varnedoe, High and Low, #128.
  15. Doyle, . “The Rhetoric of Prostitution,” 286.
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