Ted Cohen's 1993 article "High and Low Thinking about High and Low Art" is something of a classic, although not widely recognized as such. It appears reprinted in Carolyn Korsmeyer's anthology Aesthetics the Big Questions.
Cohen begins by observing that the distinctions between high and low art and between art and non-art are both indefensible, as least by strict standards, and, at the same time, indispensable, although he wonders why we need both distinctions: "if paintings are high and pots are low, what difference does it make whether both are art?" You can say that Shakespeare is better or deeper than The Simpsons without any need to go on and say that one is art and the other is not. Cohen then draws an analogy to ethics, insisting that it makes sense to say that some moral obligations, for instance, that he ought to have gone to Auschwitz on a certain occasion, are purely personal, and that any appeal to theory would distort his sense of why he ought to have done this thing. In general, he thinks his "moral landscape requires a number of landmarks" i.e. ones that include such personal obligations as well as general ones, and that the same thing is true for his aesthetic landscape. His problem is with categories like "the forbidden" and "the permitted" which he finds no more helpful than aesthetic categories like "art and non-art" or "high and low art." Such categories "blur and blotch" rather than illuminate his aesthetic life. Cohen then gives a long list of things he cares about (things mainly, although not exclusively, in the arts) including a movie by Hitchcock and some music by Mozart, but also The Simpsons and some other items that some would consider to fall in the category of the popular arts. He also includes the Hebrew Bible (which some would consider not art at all) and a couple of his own stories.
He then asks, are they art? and answers, "I suppose so, but I'm not sure that I care, and I will not advance the assertion that they are," although he would be willing to argue about it (for example, presumably, to defend the view that The Simpsons are). This passage is one that many of my students respond to positively. Then he says "I think I feel a need to think of all these things as art because it somehow matters to me how they stand with other people." Does he mean that it matters to him that they stand as art to other people or simply that it matters to him that at least other people also care about these things? And does he care about differences between things he cares about which are not art, for example his own children, and things he cares about which are?
We quickly see that he is talking about Kant's idea that when I see something as beautiful I "demand" that others (all others) agree with me, a view which is always hard to convince people of in the classroom, but which seems strangely right anyway. In this case the term "beautiful" is replaced by the term "art." But, unlike Kant, whom Cohen mentions now, Cohen does not require that everyone agree with him when he finds something to be art or good art. Sometimes he thinks it would be good if a work could reach everyone, but in most cases he would limit his hopes to groups of people (some small, some larger), and he thinks this is not a bad thing. He writes, "it is my membership in these groups [as well as his absence from certain groups, as he mentions later] that locates me aesthetically," i.e. which defines who he is. This point is oddly reminiscent of Bourdieu, but different in the sense that Cohen thinks of these determining group relations not in terms of social classes to which one belongs usually by fiat or chance but in terms of other sorts of groups one chooses, for the most part, and values for the intimacy afforded. You could, for example, join a jazz club or a book group where people have similar tastes. The difference is that Bourdieu is not very interested in intimacy whereas Cohen is. But perhaps Cohen's talk of intimacy is just the subjective side of the same coin that Bourdieu describes in Distinction.
Cohen also lists things he cares about (in the arts) "which I do not, in my caring, suppose link me to others in any way that matters to me." His caring for chocolate ice cream of some brands and for Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldiers" surely links him with some people but not in a way that he cares about.
These examples are hard for me since I care (a bit) for these things too and yet in each case my caring does link me to others, i.e. this brand of chocolate ice cream (Ben and Jerry's) with my wife, in ways I care about.
The weirdest example Cohen uses is that of a photograph he once made of his son, since this photograph clearly links him with his son as well as with other family members in a way that he must care about. However, perhaps he finds the photograph moving and his son does not, and so, even though he feels linked to his son through the photograph, it is not through shared love of the photograph. In any case, he does not think of these things as art because he doesn't suppose them to link him to others who might care for them.
His answer to the question "why I ...would ever seriously care to assert or deny that something is art" is that "I wish to insist on or resist the idea that the thing is to be taken seriously," which is to say that "there is a kind of obligation to recognize the thing as a significant item in my life" and further that "to explain the significance in my life I must suppose that it also has a place, or deserves to have a place, in the lives of others." Cohen considers this an answer to the question "what is art?" and as a "proto-conception of art." He also thinks this helps explain the high art/low art distinction, but it is not clear how.
Perhaps to explain the point he observes that in attending a funeral of a friend he listened to musical works (by Mozart and Haydn) that were favorites of his friend, the music being appropriate because the friend cared for it, being something that partly defined who he was. So at the funeral Cohen bent his imagination "to the task of reaching and comprehending an aspect of" his friend, of imaginatively joining him. Moreover, in doing so, he joined others in the room who were doing something similar.
Cohen then distinguishes between two quite incongruous ways a work of art can have trans-personal significance, one where very popular works, thought to be slight and superficial, are appreciated by many, and the other where works of great depth, like Hamlet, are believed to be capable of reaching all.
The problem with the claim that the highest art is only for the very few implies that the connoisseur (Barbara Rose is referenced) must think that the crude people who do not appreciate what she does should be like her, otherwise the contempt she feels for them does not make sense. So lets say that someone has contempt for Cohen's loving television: that person must supply a reason why it would be better for him to join them, and there is no such reason, especially in the case where the movie lover has contempt for TV lovers including someone like Cohen who is an equally good connoisseur in both.
In the end, Cohen leaves us with the idea of "an affective community, a group whose intimacy is underwritten in their conviction that they feel the same about something, and that that thing - the art - is their bond." Art is communitarian in this way: some works connect with many people and some with only a few, and the first connection can be either of great depth or something superficial. Or it can be something different: in the case of the Hebrew Bible, people relate to it in a great variety of ways. In the end, "width is neither better or worse than narrowness" which is to say, I suppose that popularity is neither bad nor good. Cohen asserts that he needs both width and narrowness. He even needs to be virtually alone in appreciating some things: "I need to be like you and I need to be unlike you" since the things he is alone in liking, helps him to be himself.
After discussing this with my students the big questions that emerge are what after all is Cohen's definition of art and what is his distinction between high and low art? Cohen seems to be very reluctant to really give a definition of art or explain the high/low distinction. He does say that high art may be shared by a small community and low by many, but this is hardly an original insight. About defining art, one could hypothesize that he believes that art is whatever artifact moves him and does so in the context of a community of shared appreciators of art of that type. If so, this would make him strangely like Tolstoy who holds that art is whatever infects others with the artist's own sincerely felt emotions and also manifests or expresses, in our own time anyway, the brotherhood of man. There remains the problem of the extremely private art that Cohen also finds himself attracted to, art that he thinks he enjoys alone, for example the photograph of his son, and the movie, Ishtar, and which I think he thinks is not art at all. It seems to me that this class of things must be vanishingly small, as I have suggested above. When we display photographs of family in our homes we do not expect all to find them aesthetically valuable but we are presenting them to the public and at least expect positive or caring interest from people close to us. But I suppose the point of the Auschwitz example is that just as there are some moral obligations that just go for oneself at a certain place and a certain time there are some art experiences that are totally one's own: they are part of the much larger field.
My student Amanda has a nice comment: "He gives a playful twist to deciding what high vs. low art is because he doesn't really think classifying them as either/or is all that important."