The Divide Between Popular Culture and High Culture

Since the eighteenth century the word ‘culture’, derived from the Latin word ‘cultura’, has been defined and re-defined successively on par with the modernisation of societies. Consequently, Raymond Williams (1976: P25) describes the term as one of the most complicated words in the English vocabulary, with earlier uses so diverse as to describe the cultivation of land, to worship, and to protect but to name a few. Having tracked the modern development of the term, he then goes on to identify three distinct categories of its use, the third of which is most relevant to describe the mass media’s cultural products, defined as…

the independent and abstract noun which describes the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity. This seems often now the most widespread use: culture is music, literature, painting and sculpture, theatre and film”, (Williams, 1976: P27).

It was not until 1869 that the term culture was expanded upon to include a sense of what was popular. In ‘Culture and Anarchy’, Matthew Arnold (1869: P69) expresses a romantic notion for culture when he describes it as “the pursuit of perfection” and “the pursuit of sweetness and light”. He further states that he who pursues these noble goals “works to make reason and the will of God prevail”. However, Arnold goes on to highlight the misuse of culture as a delivery system for a ruling ideology, and in so doing, calls attention to the hegemonic nature of the ‘popular culture’ of that time.

Plenty of people will try to give the masses, as they call them, an intellectual food prepared and adapted in the way they think proper for the actual condition of the masses. The ordinary popular literature is an example of this way of working on the masses“, (Arnold, 1869: P69).

Further to this, he also highlights how the established leadership in the social hierarchy, in its effort to maintain their interests, will use the media generating organisations to subject the mass population to their ideological belief systems.

Plenty of people will try to indoctrinate the masses with the set of ideas and judgements constituting the creed of their own profession or party. Our religious and political organisations give an example of this way of working on the masses”, (Arnold, 1869: P69).

In his elitist stance, Arnold believed popular culture to be disruptive to class hierarchies, since at that time, much of its production originated from the lower working classes: a viewpoint that was generally upheld until the 1950s. But with this early acknowledgement of the existence of a ‘culture for the masses’ and its intended audience subsequently identified, one can begin to distinguish the products of popular culture and contrast them against those products which oppose and defy appropriation. In economic terms, we could differentiate between those cultural products that pass as nothing more than a commodity, and those which resist commoditisation. What remains as fact is that whatever the thought-process applied, cultural products are categorised more commonly as either being ‘popular culture’ or ‘high culture’. Arnold’s lasting ideas came to influence many noted post-modern thinkers such as Leavis and the critical theorists emanating from the Frankfurt School. They brought the notion of a decline in aesthetic value, moral value, and taste to the equation: a notion that grew proportionally with the widespread commodification of popular culture, mass audiences and the power of their capital, and the industry that built itself on this basis.

The people with power no longer represent intellectual authority and culture”, (Leavis, 1939: P191).

With an industry now, exerting itself commercially within a capitalist economy, and trying to maintain a stranglehold on market competition; the pursuit of perfection, the sweetness and light, the romanticism of the written word that had once been held so dear, had truly been superseded by the commodification of popular culture.

Most noticeable is the extension of business ethics and all that the word ‘business’ implies to fields of activity which had formerly non-commercial values, for since the business man is the average man, the ‘worth while’ measure must be applied all round”, (Leavis, 1939: P192).

Definitions of Popular Culture

The widespread and commoditised popular culture products of the modern mass media exist within a dichotomy, as has been established. They are historically defined and identified as a significant ‘other’ to high culture, as shall be further illustrated. But to observe such a dichotomy inadvertently brings focus to class division though the consumption of both types of product. Pierre Bourdieu argues that the consumption of culture is “predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences“, (Bourdieu, 1984: P7). By this argument, generally, one can derive that popular culture is mostly consumed by the lower and lower middle-class masses, and that high culture is mostly consumed by the higher middle-class, white-collar workers and the elite high-class. Although this focus warrants the attention of a complete study in its own right, it is necessary to be mindful of this theory to fully understand post-modern definitions of popular culture, and how the lines of distinction between popular culture and high culture products are continuously renegotiated, as the lines that demarcate class distinction become blurred.

John Storey’s six definitions of popular culture clearly support Bourdieu’s theories of cultural appropriation and class distinction. In defining the product, they highlight class division, whilst further cementing the dichotomy of popular culture and high culture. Storey suggests that, albeit problematically, post-modern popular culture can be defined as…

  1. culture that is widely favoured or well liked by many people“, (Storey, 1997: P5). By these means of understanding popular culture, one could articulate what classifies as popular culture through sales. Although there are problems with establishing a fixed number at which a product would transcend from one bracket to another, “any definition of popular culture must include a quantitative dimension. The popular of popular culture would seem to demand it”, (Storey, 1997: ibid).
  2. culture that is left over after we decide what is high culture. Popular culture, in this definition is a residual category“, (Storey, 1997: P5). In this sense, popular culture is that which fails to meet a standard or criteria, highlighting the elitist viewpoint of the higher classes that deem high culture as complex, and deserving of a moral and aesthetic response.
  3. mass produced, commercial culture, whereas high culture is the result of an individual act of creation”, (Storey, 1997: P8). This third definition of popular culture as ‘mass culture’ supports the critical theorists from the Frankfurt School who described such products as highly commercialised, formulaic, manipulative, and dumbed down for easy consumption; in other words, Americanised.
  4. culture that originates from ‘the people’”, (Storey, 1997: P9). ‘Working-class culture’ is hence understood as a symbolic protest, a notion that Storey himself deems problematic due to the inherent commercial nature of post-modern mass-media products.
  5. a site of struggle between the ‘resistance’ of subordinate groups and the forces of ‘incorporation’ operating in the interests of the dominant groups”, (Storey, 1997: P10). This emphasis on the hegemonic nature of cultural products and the class struggle that ensues can help make sense of how texts are re-categorised over time.
  6. a culture that no longer recognizes the distinction between high and popular culture. As we shall see, for some this is a reason to celebrate an end to an elitism constructed on arbitrary distinctions of culture; for others it is a reason to despair at the final victory of commerce over culture”, (Storey, 1997: P12). With this definition we return to the concept of the blurring of lines between cultural products and class distinction.

These definitions provide a solid basis and general understanding of what popular culture is. However, they do convey the need to consider Bourdieu’s theories on class distinction, particularly in relation to Storey’s fifth definition. In ‘Notes on Deconstructing the Popular’, Stuart Hall states that he also “settles” for this method of defining popular culture, and explains that…

What matters is not the intrinsic or historical fixed objects of culture, but the state of play in cultural relations: to put it bluntly and in an oversimplified form – what counts is the class struggle in and over culture”, (Hall, 1981: P462).

And so one can arrive at a working definition of popular culture that is as founded historically as it is in post-modern theory. If further emphasis on this point is required, one can turn to Tony Bennett’s Gramscian depiction of popular culture…

the field of popular culture is structured by the attempt of the ruling class to win hegemony and by the forms of opposition to this endeavour”, (Bennett, 1994: P96).

So far we have understood popular culture as a significant ‘other’ in this dichotomy of the popular and the elite. Furthermore, Tim Delaney’s definition of popular culture also reinforces some of the views held by Storey, predominantly “in the historic use of the term, the culture of the people“, (Delaney, 2007). But where he differs from the selected theorists so far, is in that he describes high culture in its own right, rather than as the established standard in this dichotomy.

It belongs to the social elite; the fine arts, opera, theatre, and high intellectualism are associated with the upper socioeconomic classes. Items of high culture often require extensive experience, training or reflection to be appreciated. Such items seldom cross over to the pop culture domain“, (Delaney, 2007).

Armed with a set of definitions and a practical understanding of what popular culture is, its function within a society, and its inherently oppositional nature to what is deemed high culture, one could attempt to illustrate these theories by using examples of popular culture.


In an analysis of works by William Shakespeare, and more specifically that of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, one can find evidence of cultural struggle, or one type of cultural product being appropriated into another class. Furthermore, one could argue that in this particular case at least, it is again re-appropriated back into its original classification. Originally written in the 1590s as a play, it has seen countless adaptations throughout its long history. The work has also acquired historical and cultural value, from its first staged performances that critics widely rubbished, to a modern day perception that ranks it amongst the highest of literary treasures. However, having already seen a transition from popular culture to high culture, the mass media’s portrayal of this romantic tale, it could be argued, would have it re-appropriated back into popular culture. Delaney reminds us that popular culture primarily originates from “the mass-media, especially popular music, film, television, radio, video games, books and the internet”, (2007).

Appendix A illustrates how Hollywood, has at least on three occasions, released a film adaptation of the play. It is well documented that the commercial nature of the film industry has but one ultimate objective: the pursuit of commercial success and extended capital. This becomes quite evident when considering the 1996 modern-day adaptation of the work, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Drawing heavily from cultural trends of that time, this release seems unapologetic in its plight to bring high culture to the masses, and in so doing, commoditise what today one has come to regard as high culture.

However, that is not to say that the adaptation of a cultural product automatically pursues its re-appropriation, in either direction. Appendix B illustrates how ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is still today, enjoyed by the higher classes as a form of high culture, notwithstanding the fact that it has seen further adaptations. The elite can still partake of the exclusivity that such an offering inherently reserves for its patrons in its staging as a ballet and as an opera, as well as in its original theatrical form.


If we consider that music has existed for almost as long as, if not longer than social hierarchies, one should then attribute a significant portion of attention to a popular art form that is highly disregarded and trivialised as unimportant in post-modern cultural studies. ‘Pop music’, just as other art forms classed as popular culture, is widely criticised for being mass produced, monotonous and formulaic at best.

It is a culture that is consumed with brain-numbed and brain-numbing passivity”, (Storey, 1997: P8).

The commercialisation of the music industry, driven by technological determination on the one hand and capitalist forces on the other, has been the catalyst for a demise in artistic integrity, and hence, overall quality of the cultural product. Wave after wave of oppositional subcultures and underground movements are in part attributed to this fact.

They are a means by which youth imagine their own and other social groups, assert their distinctive character, and affirm that they are not just ‘attention spans’ to be bought and sold by advertisers“, (Thornton, 1994: P177).

The capitalist music industry’s defensive reactions have often seen subcultures intentionally re-integrated into the mainstream, and with every occurrence, a further dilution of standards, to the point where anything and everything is acceptable as long as it is commercially viable.

Appendix C shows us different instances of this diluted, commercialised, popular culture. The advent of the ‘Boy’ band phenomenon could be described as this commercial directive at its most refined. One Direction have millions of fans worldwide, mainly teenage girls, most of whom remain oblivious to the fact that they have been targeted by the industry’s extensive marketing machinery. We can also see how technological advances that were originally developed to alleviate the production costs in the music industry, were appropriated by the ‘Techno‘ movement of the eighties. Kraftwerk have shown that they have no qualms about replacing a significant portion of the ‘human touch‘ with synthesisers. They are now more than ever, considered a cult band. Even in the traditional definition of a ‘Rock’ band, there is evidence of technology replacing manpower. The Kaiser Chiefs, as do every other band, rely heavily on huge levels of amplification and electronic synthesis to comprise their musical palette.    

These examples of popular culture can be directly contrasted with their preceding musical roots, which clearly belong in the realm of high culture. Appendix D shows the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir performing during their 75th anniversary celebrations. Although choirs are based on group vocal performance, they are significantly distantiated in cultural terms from boy bands. In the category of keyboards, Kraftwerk’s distinct on-stage presence and technological musical style is again, oppositional to the more traditional organ recital. In this second image we can see organist Francesco Pedrini performing at the Christ Lutheran Church as part of the Staunton Music Festival. The dichotomy between popular and high culture can be further illustrated when comparing commercial Rock bands to orchestral ensembles. In this final image, the London Symphony Orchestra’s performance at the Barbican Hall relies solely on the acoustic projection of their numerous instruments, and the acoustic properties of the hall itself.


The medium of television has also seen significant changes, in part instigated through the liberalisation and subsequent commercial pressure of the open market. Television programming has evolved to that of pure entertainment, and is delivered via a multiplicity of channels. Research suggests that in April 2015, soap operas and reality shows, in particular those that feature audience interaction, consistently account for the highest viewing figures, (BARB, 2015). The example chosen to this effect could be deemed popular in as far as all of Storey’s definitions. ITV’s ‘Britain’s Got Talent 2015‘ (appendix E) amassed an impressive audience of 8.94 million viewers in the week ending 19th April 2015.  This being the ninth series since its conception in 2007 would see it deemed a commercial success. The fact that audiences vote for their preferred acts, some that resemble popular culture originating from the working class, and others that are categorically high culture, also constitutes the programme as a site for class struggle. This undoubtedly, also shows how the lines between popular and high culture can become blurred. However, it is in the composition of the viewer demographics that the programme is appropriated by the lower classes.

This example can be contrasted with a similar programme, also of a competitive nature, that promotes the arts and is delivered via the same medium. BBC’s ‘Young Musician of the Year‘ (appendix F) is however, different to Britain’s Got Talent in that it only caters for the very best, classically trained musicians. Such depiction of high culture would certainly appeal more to the elite, a fact that is reflected in viewing figures for the programme not even registering in the top thirty for that week. It is fully compliant with the BBC’s mission to enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.


To say that popular culture is that which is not deemed high culture is dismissive of other definitions and theories that are widely accepted across numerous studies of the mass media: there are many definitions that are more and less relevant, depending on the approach. The ones discussed in this study overlap and supplement each other, particularly Bourdieu’s theory of class struggle (which is further correlated by Hall and Bennett), and Storey’s fifth definition. But that is not to say that there are no grey areas. This is particularly the case when considering Storey’s sixth definition: perhaps the one that will be most relevant in the near future. Earlier studies of cultural products have shown this to be the case…

The distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture seems less and less meaningful“, (Sontag, 1966: P300).

Susan Sontag’s findings have since been corroborated by theorists such as Storey, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith even before him.

popular cultural forms have moved so far towards centre stage in British cultural life that the separate existence of a distinctive popular culture in an oppositional relation to high culture is now in question“, (Nowell-Smith, 1987: P80).

An analysis of the examples depicted in this study, particularly those for television, might suggest that popular and high culture are at their closest when they share the same medium. Classical music radio channels, Film Noire and eBooks, add weight to this observation when we consider Delaney’s aforementioned sources of popular culture. And with a technological evolution that is constantly re-shaping the way we consume media, evidence would seem to suggest that different art-forms will continue to converge, and in so doing, render cultural distinction and class distinction even closer and less secure than we have seen to date.

If they were secure, difference would not need to be continually drawn, values established, legitimated and institutionalised“, (Skeggs, 2004: P117).

Christian Gadd (3000 words).

Semester 4 (January – May 2015) : Theorising Popular Culture.

Appendix A

William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ acquired historical and cultural value through the years, crossing over from the realm of popular, to that of high culture.

Film and Television

Franco Brusati’s 1968 rendition starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey enjoyed huge success and popularity.


Baz Luhrmann directs Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in this 1996 modern day adaptation.


Carlo Carlei’s 2014 rendition is traditionally set in Verona, starring Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld.


Appendix B

The elitist higher classes would defensively argue that works by William Shakespeare should remain in the domain of high culture.

Santiago Chile Opera

Stage actors and singers perform in an operatic adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in the Municipal Theatre, Santiago 2013.

American Ballet Theatre

This ballet adaptation by Sir Kenneth Macmillan, is performed by dancers of The American Ballet Theatre in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, 2013.

Collorado Shakespeare Festival

Actors play the parts of Romeo and Juliet in this theatrical rendition (as was originally intended) in the 2011 Colorado Shakespeare Festival.


Appendix C

Musical entertainment has existed for as long as civilisation, but has consistently been subject to commercialisation in the post-modern mass media.


One Direction live at the Jingle Bell Ball, held at the O2 Arena in London, 2011.

kraftwer_live_retrospective_moma_electronic-beats_0 2012

Kraftwerk revisit their past musical contributions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 2012.

Keiser Chiefs Emirates stadium 2013

Kaiser Chiefs play at the Emirates Stadium in 2013.


Appendix D

Following on with more musical examples that illustrate the dichotomy of popular culture and high culture, when directly compared to the previous examples.


The Indianapolis Symphonic Choir celebrate their 75th anniversary in 2012, by performing the Berlioz Requiem at the Hilbert Circle Theatre.

organ2013_020 Staunton music festival

Organist Francesco Pedrini performs solo works at the 2013 Staunton Music Festival.

london-symphony-orchestra-2014 barbican hall

The London Symphony Orchestra performs at the Barbican Hall in 2014.


Appendix E

ITV’s ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ is highly representative of current production trends, favouring interactive reality shows that idolise mediocrity and glamourise celebrity.

BGT logo

Britain’s Got Talent 2014 Logo.


Britain’s Got Talent 2014 contestants – Sweetchix.

Lest ye be judged … David Walliams, Alesha Dixon, Amanda Holden, Simon Cowell.

The 2014 judging panel comprised of David Walliams, Alesha Dixon, Amanda Holden and Simon Cowell.


Appendix F

BBC’s ‘Young Musician of the Year’ brings classically trained musicians together to compete for the top-spot. Only the very best go through to the televised final stages.


BBC Young Musician of the Year 2014 Logo.

BBC YM Piano

The winner of the 2014 series was seventeen year old Martin James, from Essex.

BBC YM Violin

The winner of the 2004 series was sixteen year old Nicola Benedetti, from Scotland.



Arnold, Matthew, (1869), “Culture and Anarchy”, ed. Dover Wilson, J., (1932), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

British Audience Research Board (BARB), “Weekly Top 30s: April 2015“, [accessed 27th April 2015].

Baudrillard, Jean, (1983), “Simulations“, trans. Paul Foss et al., Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Bennett, Tony, (2006), “Popular Culture and the ‘Turn to Gramsci’”, in Storey, John, ed., “Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader”, Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Bourdieu, Pierre, (1984), “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste“, tr. Nice, Richard, USA: Routledge.

Delaney, Tim, (2007), “Pop Culture: An Overview“, in Philosophy Now, issue 64, November/December 2007.

Hall, Stuart, (1981), “Notes on Deconstructing ‘The Popular’” in Raphael, Samuel, ed., “People’s History and Socialist Theory”, London: Routledge.

Leavis, Queenie Dorothy, (1939), “Fiction and the Reading Public”, London: Chatto and Windus.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, (1987), “Popular Culture“, in New Formations, issue 2, Summer 1987.

Skeggs, Beverly, (2004), “Class, Self, Culture“, London: Routledge.

Sontag, Susan, (1966), “Against Interpretation and Other Essays“, sixth edition, London: Penguin.

Storey, John, (2012), “Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction“, Sixth Edition, Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Thornton, Sarah, (1994), “Moral Panic, the Media and British Rave Culture“, in Ross, Andrew, and Rose, Tricia, ed., “Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture“, New York: Routledge.

Williams, Raymond, (1976), “Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society”, London: Fontara.


About Christian Gadd

Christian Gadd
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