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High art vs low art: Still a relevant debate?

They used to be ideologically worlds apart, but it might be time to put this argument to rest

If you're well versed with the art world, chances are you've come across numerous debates about high art and low art, and whether these two practices are meant to coexist. Historically, high art has generally been geared toward the elite, and particularly to people with the most cultivated tastes. Low art, on the other hand, is associated with the masses and is deemed decorative with low aesthetic value.

These two ideologies have been stuck in a standoff forever. However, it looks like new collecting patterns have found a way to reconcile them.

Assuming that high and low art have always been produced, let’s take a look at what might have been a disruptive factor, and has most recently helped blur the line. For convenience sake, consider Andy Warhol's body of work. The artist has historically produced pieces on canvas for his dealers, meant to be sold to their top-tier collectors.

But Warhol’s fame and demand for his work far exceeded his output of unique pieces, leaving collectors frustrated. With this in mind, Warhol started producing versions of his iconic canvases in prints, for the most part produced in editions of 250, with some additional APs (artist’s proofs). As anticipated, the prints found buyers without too much trouble, and Warhol, recognising this, started producing prints before the actual unique works in 1972 (specifically the Mao Tse Tung series).

In a sense, Warhol’s awareness of the high demand for his art could have introduced the era of consciously producing something of a lesser value, even maybe low art. So where does that leave us today?

Art has changed, as have artists and mediums, but one thing that has remained constant is the exponential appetite for art. Disruptive forces such as the internet and access to materials have equally produced more artists, more collectors and even more demand. Artists have since taken to uncommon mediums to showcase their art, turning everything from skateboards to toys into canvases. For some, it was the only way they could afford to make their art accessible. Others, meanwhile, embraced this idea because they wanted to cater to a much younger collector base, one that couldn't afford original work or eschewed the implied exclusivity thereof.

In the late '90s, the American artist known as Kaws channelled his figurative characters and motifs into plastic toys. Designer brand Supreme has encouraged established artists like Damien Hirst and George Condo to produce skateboard decks, while also supporting niche artists like Mike Kelley or Dash Snow. Countless companies have collectively contributed to producing art for young artists. And we can't really discuss this topic without mentioning Jean-Michel Basquiat, the man who took graffiti from the street to the gallery.

So you might wonder how the gap was bridged? Well, it's quite simple, really: Try to acquire any of the aforementioned items and they'll cost you a pretty penny. Think upwards of $10,000 for the skateboards, and well above $100,000 for a coveted set of prints in mint condition.

Artists are now commonly producing high and low art at the same time because they understand that both are in demand — and together they amount to more than the sum of their parts. And, trust me, everybody’s onboard — look at what the MoMa has for sale in its store (which happens to be one of my favourite places to shop in New York).

So, maybe for the first time we might consider putting this argument to rest. At the end of the day, there might be a collector reading this, smiling in his living room adorned by both a $1 million Yayoi Kusama painting and a $280 Kusama pumpkin, both coexisting in perfect harmony.

The writer is the director of Opera Gallery Dubai

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