Well, I thought that I’d talk about “high-brow” creative works today or, more accurately, why people enjoy them. Although I’ll be talking in generalities here, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a “one or the other” thing. It is perfectly possible for a work to contain both “high-brow” and “low-brow” elements. In fact, many of the best creative works will fall somewhere between these two categories.
Still, I thought that I’d look at some of the reasons why “high-brow” creative works can be so enjoyable.
1) Difference and possibility: One of the great things about “high-brow” creative works is that they tend to be a bit more original and unpredictable than you might expect. Not only that, they also show off the possibilities of their chosen medium too.
For example, unlike the numerous CGI-heavy superhero thriller movies in the cinema over the past few years, an art film film like “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2014) is a character-based drama with very little plot, a deliberately slow pace and lots of atmosphere. It feels very different to watch than a blockbuster film – with, for example, the slower pacing actually giving the viewer time to appreciate the visually complex set designs and to drink in the mood of the film. It shows you all of the things that film can do which you might not expect if you’re more used to more mainstream Hollywood movies.
If you read a lot, watch a lot of films or play a lot of games, then you’re probably going to start to get a bit jaded. After all, most things made for a mass audience are aimed at people who only enjoy these things occasionally and are a lot less likely to notice things like familiar tropes, conventions, stylistic similarities etc… So, more “high-brow” works try to do something a bit different that will be refreshing to jaded viewers/readers/gamers who have “seen it all before”.
This, by the way, is why the opinions of critics (who read, watch, play etc.. stuff regularly) can sometimes differ from the opinions of ordinary audience members. If you spend a lot of time around creative works, then things that rely on linguistic creativity, nuanced discussion, aesthetic design (rather than special effects), innovative gameplay mechanics, unusual pacing etc… tend to be really refreshing to look at.
2) Depth and puzzles: A good “high-brow” creative work is like a puzzle. It doesn’t spoon-feed you literally everything, and you actually have to work things out for yourself. This isn’t to say that “high-brow” works are always difficult to understand, but they often credit the audience with enough intelligence to be able to think about things for themselves and this not only gives the audience a feeling of accomplishment when they notice something or work something out, but it also means that these creative works can be returned to again and again because they always have something new to offer.
Not only that, when you notice something clever that a writer, director etc… has done, you then have to work out why they have done it. For example, Hilary Mantel’s 2009 historical novel “Wolf Hall” has a plot that jumps backwards and forwards in time in a way that can be incredibly confusing and frustrating to read at first. Yet, when you eventually work out that Mantel did this to mimic the way that memory itself works, then the non-linear plot suddenly makes a lot more sense. After all, people rarely remember things in exact chronological order.
3) Ambiguity: “High-brow” works are also interesting because they often make heavy use of ambiguity too. They give the audience a puzzle with no clear answer or, more often, many possible answers. Not only is this interesting to think about, but it also mirrors the real world in a much more “accurate” way than the storytelling found in “low-brow” works can often do. After all, there are many questions (eg: the classic one is “What is the meaning of life?”) that don’t really have any definitive right or wrong answers.
There’s something refreshing about creative works that quite literally push you to make up your own mind and think for yourself. “High-Brow” creative works don’t spell things out or lecture at the audience, they just present them with characters, images, places and situations and then let the audience come to their own conclusions. Yes, a “high-brow” work will usually hint at something or make a point in a subtle way, but the whole point of “high brow” works is that the audience actually has to think.
4) Limitations and money: Whilst “high-brow” creative works can certainly be well-known and/or well-funded (just watch “Blade Runner” (1982) for a good example), this is often the exception rather than the rule. Because these creative works often aren’t made to make as much money from as many people as possible (in order to satisfy corporate shareholders), they often don’t have the funding that “low-brow” works have. What this means is that they have to be creative in order to get around their limitations.
What all of this means for the audience is that, unlike slick corporate-made creative works, “high-brow” creative works will often be a little bit rough around the edges in a way that shows that a living, thinking human being has made them. Because these works don’t have to aim for mass appeal, they can actually have a distinctive personality to them. Likewise, because the people making them have to think about clever ways to get around the limitations they face, this often results in a higher level of general creativity that the audience will experience. Plus, because the motivation for making these things isn’t primarily “money, money and more money”, they often have more interesting things to say too.
This, incidentally, is why even the most “low-brow” novel will often feel slightly more “high-brow” than an equivalent film or videogame. Because novels are usually written by just one person and because literally all novels are technically “low budget” (since they only use words), they pretty much automatically have this quality to them.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂