High Culture, David Bowie and a Low Symphony

Martin Robinson@Trivium21c Apr 2

The Importance of Teaching ‘High Culture’ https://martinrobborobinson.wordpress.com/2016/04/02/the-importance-of-teaching-high-culture/

John finney@Johnfinney8 Apr 8 @Trivium21c I am wondering whether traditional musical cultures are high cultures?

Martin Robinson@Trivium21c Apr 8 @Johnfinney8 I would expect in whatever culture we are talking about it exists as an idea… Even if it is spiritual ratter than ‘art’

John finney@Johnfinney8 Apr 8 @Trivium21c Is Sheffield pub carolling High, Low, Common or Traditional culture

Martin Robinson@Trivium21c  @Johnfinney8 you tell me

Well, my response was ‘common culture’. I had in mind https://jfin107.wordpress.com/2015/12/18/in-praise-of-common-culture-1-2/ [2]

Martin’s ‘High Culture’ serves the distinction between high culture and popular culture. There is high culture and there is the other. Is the other lesser, lower? I am not sure what is intended. What is the ‘high’ in high culture? Is it something to do with elevation, being elevated? Is it that only high culture can transcend earthly existence? Does high culture possess some particular moral authority perhaps?

But what if we started in a different place with the distinction between culture as:

  1. The anthropological – ‘a whole way of life’; the totality of activities and artifacts. (Derived from Tylor 1871)
  2. The product of intellectual and artistic activity – ‘the best that has been thought and said’. (Derived from Arnold 1869)

I think Martin is working from 2.

  1. is a narrowing of meaning and restrictive, sometimes becoming even narrower to include only art works, sometimes narrower still to include only the literary arts. By restricting the idea of culture it can be evaluative. There can be benchmarks of goodness. There can be connoisseurship where inter-subjectivities determine what is true. The emphasis is on products or works removed from the conditions of their practice. The concept of the work is crucial. On the other hand 1. places emphasis on activities inseparable from the material conditions of life, from culture lived and practised. Not works but practices lead the way.


Making music is a form of cultural practice where its goodness resides in the ends to which it is put. See https://jfin107.wordpress.com/scholarly-paper-the-ethical-significance-of-music-making-by-wayne-bowman/

In this view the category of high culture is redundant or at most not very helpful.

Cultural practices may have great provenance and be part of longstanding traditions. They are there to be inherited, worked with and against, invented, revived, transformed, rejected.

The teacher has a responsibility to introduce pupils to a range of cultural practices with good ends in mind.

Here is one I propose.

The cultural practice of critiquing the false dichotomy of high and low culture.

So let’s listen to David Bowie’s ‘Low’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2CVLHMAogY

And now Philip Glass’s Low Symphony https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxhIkc5gthI

Glass in dialogue with Bowie. High culture, low culture, common culture?

Perhaps culture is ordinary.












One thought on “High Culture, David Bowie and a Low Symphony

  1. Thank you for discussing this timeless topic! Perhaps English teachers are ahead of music teachers on this one. In studying poetry, pupils are aware that an informal tone is no less or more effective than is a formal tone – it’s simply part of the poem’s context or DNA. They evaluate effectiveness of the interplay of sounds of language with imagery and structure.The diet is rich, varied and nurtures an appreciation of a wide range of writers – male and female – (perhaps another topic for consideration?) Thank you so much for pinning down this argument with these superb musical examples – will be enjoying Bowie and Glass today. 🙂

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