Not long ago, I received a feedback message from Scott Woodham asking me why I continued to insist on the distinction between high and popular art, particularly now that by my own admission “high” art is no longer a living phenomenon. Reflecting on this distinction and attempting to clarify its purpose led me to review some fundamental esthetic concepts of Generative Anthropology.


What is it in us that reacts to art? It is sobering to think that such a fundamental question has never been answered satisfactorily. We are not even sure what to call the faculty involved in this reaction. It was already clear to the author of the Poetics that, as with resentment (discussed in Chronicles 221 and 222), the core of esthetic experience is a set of internal representations that arouse our emotions. It is no small challenge to our anthropological model to take advantage of the social and cultural experience of the past 2400 years and improve on Aristotle’s formulations.

The originary source of esthetic pleasure, as of all cultural values, is the energy released by the deferral of violence through representation. The reproduction of this experience of deferral is the object of ritual. But ritual does not provide individual pleasure; it is a collective experience of solidarity. Art, in contrast, operates in the individual imagination, which has internalized the public scene of representation. We reenact within ourselves the passage from anxiety to peace that provides satisfaction to human desire, as opposed to the satiation of animal appetite. The originary interpersonal or ethical configuration comprises, minimally, the renunciation of immediate appetitive satisfaction to the benefit of the central being on whom the desires of the group are projected. The human equality of the scene, the origin of morality (the “moral model”) and of the distributional practices of hunter-gatherer societies, is necessarily mediated by the central figure. It is easy to lose sight of this mediation, absent from Rousseau’s reflections on the subject, in our admiration for primitive equality.

In the originary scene and the cultural scenes derived from it, there is renunciation of the central whole followed by recuperation of a part: each individual’s portion of the sacred. Renunciation of the whole is a human necessity–indeed, it can be said to define the human. In the strict hierarchies of the archaic empires, dominated by a ritual redistribution system, this necessity is assented to by the general population only through the ritual system. The beginning of high esthetic culture corresponds to the decline of these empires and the rise of exchange-oriented Greek city-states. In these societies, the individual bears a complex relationship to the social hierarchy that Rawls’s “original position” is a latter-day attempt to theorize. On the one hand, he inevitably resents his position in the system as inferior to others (the general case) and/or potentially challenged by them. (The latter case is exemplified by Laius’ preemptive strike in exposing the infant Oedipus, designated by the oracle as usurper of his throne.) But, on the other hand, he is an active rather than passive participant in economic exchange and, in Athens, in the deliberations of the assembly as well. In such a social order the necessity of renouncing the sacred center must be experienced by the individual citizen independently of the coercion of collective ritual. The esthetic educates desire to defer its demand for satisfaction. This voluntary deferral, like the internal restraint that Foucault condemns in Madness and Civilization, is not unsurprisingly analogous to that required by the secular exchange-system, most rigorously by the modern market-system.

The Greek ideal of Paideia was an esthetic-centered educational philosophy. High culture implies a particular relation between esthetics and ethics, one that justifies the metaphor of “culture” itself. The cultured person is one who has learned his ethics from esthetic experience as opposed to the merely learned person who knows artworks as worldly realities. High art educates or “cultures” us to renounce the whole of our desire for the benefit of participating in human society; whence our identification with the tragic hero, our surrogate in the forbidden desire for the center. This lesson is not imposed by coercive ritual authority but learned from within by the experience of the artwork, which inspires in us the intuition that the very representations in which it is conveyed reveal this necessity. This is the fundamental irony of all art, as discussed in the “Irony” chapter of Signs of Paradox.

Popular art shares with high art the mechanism of deferred satisfaction, but outside or even at the expense of the social order. For popular art, the use of representation does not imply the necessity of distinguishing between the renounced whole and the achieved part. The spirit of the popular esthetic is nicely captured in the song that Alceste, Molière’s misanthrope, recites as a counter to Oronte’s precious sonnet:

Si le roi m’avait donné
Paris, sa grand’ville
Je dirais au roi Henri
Reprenez votre Paris!
J’aime mieux ma mie, O gué!
J’aime mieux ma mie!

[If the king had given me
Paris, his big city
I would tell King Henry
Take back your Paris!
I prefer my gal, ohé!
I prefer my gal!]

This little song makes explicit the resentful comparison implicit in the popular esthetic. Its declaration of love’s superiority over the highest worldly values is sour grapes with a vengeance.


Aristotle had a more directly ethical reading of the high-low dichotomy. Tragedy is high and comedy is low; in tragedy, our superiors are humbled, in comedy, people like us are made happy; as in Isaiah, the valleys are raised and the mountains laid low. Both comedy and tragedy depict essentially the same event: a Girardian “emissary murder” or sacrifice. Tragedy sees it from the standpoint of the victim, central and unique; comedy, from that of the crowd who rejoices in the victim’s peace-bringing downfall. In tragedy, the originary configuration is disguised by the hero’s assumption of responsibility for his own defeat, transforming the crowd into passive witnesses, a role actualized in the chorus. In comedy, it is the violence done to the victim that is disguised–minimized, but never eliminated. Comic violence reaches a near-tragic intensity in Molière’s dark comedies, Le misanthrope, where the humiliated hero leaves the stage followed by the group of potential consolers, and Dom Juan, where the protagonist is punished by the familiar, not quite believable, descent to Hell. But even in the “festive” comedies of Aristophanes, there is always a trace of sacrifice; what else is a feast if not a sacrifice?

In tragedy, in order to succeed on the formal level in expelling/sacralizing the victim, we consent to fail on the level of content by identifying with the victim’s desires, implicitly admitting that the tragic victim is our victim whose suffering we require for our catharsis. The popular work never acknowledges this necessity; the protagonist’s sufferings are the fault of the “bad guys” who will get their comeuppance in the last reel. Like the high esthetic, the popular esthetic too is based on deferral. The Odyssey, as I pointed out in The End of Culture, offers a model for this kind of deferral: Odysseus, sitting disguised as a beggar in front of his own house, taking the suitors’ abuse, and preparing his revenge, far more brutal than any of the war-scenes of the Iliad. This contrasts to the ultimate expulsion of the tragic hero, but also to the transcendence of revenge that we find in the earlier epic, which ends with Achilles containing his rage and allowing Priam to visit the Achaean camp and reclaim Hector’s body.

Tragedy makes us identify with the formal, not the worldly sources of the hero’s suffering. We are not ennobled but debased when we affect to cleanse ourselves by applauding as art the resentments of the “oppressed.” Indulging in guilt is no more a part of high culture than indulging in self-righteousness. The esthetic acceptance of formal necessity is not the equivalent of blaming ourselves for a crime that we could just as well not have committed. If our guilt is indeed justified, its cause should be corrected in the real world, not in an artwork.

High art depends on our conviction that our essential limitations are those of human society, that the sufferings we require in the esthetic realm are compensations for our essential incapacity to satisfy our (mimetic) desire. The sacred thrill of great art is its enforcement of an anthropological sense of the inevitable. High art in this absolute sense is born in the West with Homer and includes the classical “canon” in all the arts. But in its binary opposition to popular art, the term “high” is anachronistic. High art stricto sensu is a creation of the nineteenth century, the age when industrialization and the growth of the middle classes made possible its unholy double, mass popular art. The historical configuration of the high-popular opposition makes explicit the relationship that had always existed between the individual’s role in the exchange-system and his ethical and esthetic sensibility. In the world of universal suffrage, the popular esthetic’s characteristic irresponsibility for the whole, which had been taken for granted in more hierarchical times, posed an ethical problem to the increasingly democratic social order. To enjoy the represented satisfaction of resentment was understandable in the powerless, less so among participants in the political process. The very possibility of the high-popular dichotomy suggests both the imperfection of society and the temporary impossibility of remedying this imperfection directly.


It seems to me that in the domain of cultural analysis, our choice is between working with today’s doxa of throw-away hypotheses about art, religion, and other cultural forms and adopting a working hypothesis that can give form to historical research. The originary hypothesis explains the power of the work of art through the dependency of our cultural systems of representation on the center-periphery structure of the originary scene. This explanation, in turn, becomes a spur to the concrete historical analysis that fleshes out this abstract model.

Natural-scientific research, for example, into the operations of the brain, will no doubt continue to reduce the space within which the originary hypothesis operates, but I cannot conceive that it will ever eliminate this space entirely. More than two centuries ago, “enlightened” thinkers declared the death of religion; a century ago, we heard of the “death of God.” Yet there are still quite a few churches around, and new ones being built. It is the height of arrogance to presume that the spiritual needs they minister to have no counterpart in the cognitive sphere.