The division of culture by the spatial metaphors of high and low may be regrettable but has informed cultural criticism for too long simply to be ignored. For its proponents, the origins of this division lie in religious ideas of a spiritual ascent from the earthly to the heavenly. In this model, the low is confined to the physical and material conditions of our animal existence, whereas the high is concerned with the spiritual. The low is mortal and ephemeral, whereas the high is immortal and eternal. For its opponents, on the other hand, the metaphor maps directly onto the class divisions that embody hierarchies of social power. Low culture is thus that of the oppressed, and high culture that of the oppressors. Low culture voices a refusal of oppression, however impotent, while high culture celebrates power and confirms repression in the aesthetic domain. The first interpretation, in its secular form, is that of idealism, which had a definitive philosophical influence on aesthetics; the second is that of historical materialism, which exerted a similarly definitive influence on sociology and cultural studies. The first insists on a formal understanding of art, but in downplaying social and historical categories, it is apt to appear politically reactionary. The second emphasizes the primacy of social and historical conditions but is apt to make the artwork itself peripheral.
My summary is crude, but it touches on a profound division in thinking about culture. I want to suggest that these apparently antithetical readings of the same hierarchy have a common root and that the opposing positions they represent may yet be overcome. But whether we are able or willing to do this hinges on our larger conception of what it is to be human. It has to do with how we conceive of ourselves—whether our being is exhaustively mapped by an empirical science or whether our creative, reflective, and affective capacities exceed what can be accounted for in that way. I have argued that classical music projects an understanding of being human based on the idea of its capacity to exceed itself. Over and again, in