As the arts and culture writer for The Post and Courier, I am sometimes privy to disgruntled readers' complaints about what is sometimes disparagingly referred to as "high art." It's snobbish, inaccessible, overly conceptual, irrelevant to the real life, they say.
Adam Parker studied music, then spent a decade in the business world before earning a degree in journalism from Columbia University. He has taught journalism as an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston and worked in various capacities at The Post and Courier since 2004. For six years, he was lead writer for the award-winning Faith & Values section. Today, he is arts and culture reporter, book page editor and coordinator of the newspaper's extensive festival coverage.
What is high art? Classical ballet, certainly, the works of great choreographers and dancers who give us stylized versions of timeless tales, but also the contemporary innovators who depend on performers technically proficient in the way only those trained in ballet can be.
Classical music surely is high art, all those symphonies and chamber works and operas presented by musicians who've studied and practiced since early childhood in order to master their instruments.
And let's not forget great theater - Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Beckett, Sophocles - and those actors skilled at plumbing the depths of the soul, embodying a character and expressing certain universal truths, those directors capable of encapsulating a whole world in a contained space.
What all high art has in common is the utter dedication of its practitioners and the lifetime of schooling required to present it. This is something we ought to celebrate and admire. It doesn't mean you should love all of it, or spend your hard-earned dollars on it. That's your choice. But without talented people ever striving to reach the pinnacle of artistic expression, we would have no pinnacle. There would be no set bar, no standard, no measure.
We would all wallow in some ill-defined artistic stew, unable to distinguish between good and great, between common and distinguished.
Spoleto Festival USA and Piccolo Spoleto Festival provide us the opportunity to reassess the arts, to applaud fine talent and adjust our own perceptions. The festivals give us a chance to become familiar with the new and measure it against the old. They emphasize, and sometimes reset, the height of the bar and remind us what artistic achievement looks and sounds like.
Of course, not everything offered by these two festivals is high art. Hardly. There is plenty of pop, folk and jazz music, physical theater, comedy, open-air events and family-friendly shows. The nice thing is that even the stuff we might not label "high art" is likely to be good, even eye-opening.
But surely there is a place for artistic elitism, so let us pay our respects to those who have dedicated their lives to perfection and performance. For it is this highest level of expression that shows us all what humankind is capable of achieving.