Sticking with the Classics: Popular Perceptions of Art

Trekking back from my mentor session one night, I walked past two students, and naturally eavesdropped on a snippet of their conversation. One of them remarked on a common inclination in society to regard the appreciation of arts towards popular forms within music, film, art, and dance rather than their respective classical and traditional forms.

I started to ponder this idea. Obviously, there are exceptions, but I too generally find that there is a greater appreciation for what we deem ‘mainstream’ in the arts.

Most of us appreciate art forms in their most mainstream form. At the same time, though, we tend to tacitly look down or neglect those that are less popular or widespread: classical, traditional, or obscure. If we look at music, for example, attention is currently focused on rap, rock, pop, and R&B with artists like Drake, Adele, and Panic at the Disco stealing the spotlight.

In film, the public gravitates towards Mission Impossible or The Internship, while within the realm of dance, breakdancing and modern contemporary is favored. While we continue to appreciate these more popular forms, operas, oratorios, silent film, and traditional dances are left on the backburner waiting for their turn.

Visual art, though, is an unusual aspect of this phenomenon. For some reason, it has been theoretically chunked in, regarding its appreciation, with classical forms, perhaps for its aura of obscurity. Compared to the other art forms like music, film and dance, you hear significantly less talk of visual arts in arbitrary, daily conversations. Daphnide McDermet PO ’20 agreed with this notion but also offered that, “there’s definitely popular art such as Graffiti.”

She referred to someone she knew as having a very different idea of ‘art’ than her, this friend’s “idea was very much street art compared to me … I do more classical art.” In this regard, McDermet suggested that culture and socioeconomic status can play a part in one’s perception of an art, that “it depends on the culture you grow up in … a lot of people don’t grow up in a culture of art.”

When one hears the term ‘art,’ they almost always think in the most technical, classical sense rather than its popular form, in contrast to music, film or dance. Perhaps this is because many of us have viewed art as obscure and difficult to decipher, so now that is what is implied in the word.

So, why do we prefer popular forms rather than more traditional ones? To an extent, it’s about relatability and the ease of understanding, thus allowing the formation of any connection. In popular music, the lyrics are easily decipherable and the accompanying melodies and harmonies are accessible. 

McDermet found that this “popular music has become the norm,” adding that its ubiquity has to to do with “songs have lyrics that are relatable.” She, too, compared the varying allure between music and art, claiming that there may be more overt philosophy when engaging with art. “There’s also philosophy in popular music, but it’s not necessary to indulge in the art.”

A lot of the humor, action, and/or drama movies are also easily attainable. It usually doesn’t require too much effort on our part to find something to identify with. In fact, Adam Rosenberg PO ’20 noted that millions of dollars are spent on film, asserting why one should watch the newest blockbuster, butnobody advertises old film.” Meanwhile, visual art, for the most part, is obscure. Even the most blatant images tend to have a hidden theme.

Rosenberg also found that “a lot of modern film is ‘better’ as it has been honed as an art form … what people watch now is [to an extent] an amalgamation of the past.” He claimed that all film now isn’t indubitably better, though: “there are many classics out there [and for a reason], but there’s a lot of appreciation for things that feel almost academic in these classic films.” Rosenberg alluded to this as a possible turn-off for most people, as “there’s a certain level of involvement one needs to get into these older art forms.” 

But this isn’t necessarily applicable to dance; the movements, however exaggerated they may be, require a higher level of interpretation that would cause one to rethink its accessibility. Yet popular forms of dance encapsulate the factor of energizing entertainment. It is often the tempo of the art form that influences how we perceive it; a lot of the more popular forms are fast-paced or more enlivening compared to their classical counterpoints, which is in our nature to seek out.

Perhaps we tend to look for those that fill our existing voids, feeding us the pieces that we ourselves lack. It is often the combination of accessibility, relatability and the vast definition of excitement that has the ability to fulfill our lack that drives us towards the less obscure.

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