High and Low Culture.
Conflict theorists, unlike their consensus counterparts, tend to argue that all modern societies consist of the appearance of a common culture, shared by everyone in society, which masks the reality of competing cultural forms. Marxist Conflict theorists in particular have argued that every society consists of social classes defined in terms of whether they own or do not own the means of economic production in society (in simple terms, society ultimately consists of two great classes:
In this sense, each of these two classes have very different interests and experiences in society. The bourgeoisie, for example, are the wealthiest (minority) in society whose interests lie in hanging-on to their privileged position. The proletariat, consisting of the least wealthy majority, have according to Marxists the common interest of taking away the wealth of the bourgeoisie. As can be imagined, the relationship between these two great classes is built upon a fundamental conflict of interest.
For Marxists, therefore, the bourgeoisie have two main problems in terms of their relations with other social classes:
One solution is to develop and enhance cultural artefacts (that is, the material things and non-material ideas that constitute a particular culture) relevant to the bourgeoisie for two main reasons:
a. Firstly, to give the members of this class a sense of having things in common (a common culture and hence class identity) and
b. Secondly, to try to impose the cultural ideas useful to this class on the rest of society. If this happens it makes it appear that everyone in society has much the same interests, making it less likely that the working class will see themselves as fundamentally different and opposed to the ruling class.
In this respect, many Marxist sociologists have tried to show how cultural artefacts can be used by a dominant economic class (the ruling class) to enhance their social status over other classes in society, This, therefore, is where a distinction between high culture and low culture can be an important one.
The status (or social standing) of a ruling class is enhanced through claims that their culture is superior to the culture of the rest of society ("the masses").
By its ability to spread its concept of superior (high) and inferior (low) cultural forms (through ownership and / or control of cultural institutions such as religion, education and the mass media), a ruling class is able to impose cultural ideas on the rest of society that reflect its interests.
High culture, therefore, refers to what are (supposedly) the greatest artistic and literary achievements of a society. Clearly, what counts as "the greatest" is going to ultimately be a matter of values - judgements about what should or should not count as high culture.
However, according to Marxists, the people who are in the most influential positions in society are able to impose their definitions of "great" - and these definitions invariably reflect the kinds of activities and ideas that are most relevant and useful to a ruling class. Cultural forms such as opera, classical music, the literary works of Shakespeare and so forth all fall under the heading of high culture.
Low culture, on the other hand, refers to a wide variety of cultural themes that are characterised by their production and consumption by "the masses". At various times, low cultural forms have included the cinema, certain forms of theatre, comics, television (especially soap operas, game shows and the like).
A simple example illustrates the difference between high and low culture:
A painting of a nude woman hanging on the wall of a gallery is "art" (part of high culture), whereas a picture of a naked woman published in a mass circulation newspaper is certainly not "art" (and may, under certain conditions, be labelled as pornography) but the very opposite of art, namely low culture.
The justification for the distinction is found not in the cultural form itself (a picture of a naked man or women is much the same whatever medium it is presented in) but in the theoretical elaboration of that form.
Thus, when a painting is hung in an art gallery what is being admired is the skill and composition, the cultural references and representations. When a picture appears in a newspaper, these are absent and all that is left is a titillation factor.
Whether or not you are convinced by these arguments is probably a matter of your perspective on culture (although Elite theorists would disagree with such a statement), since there can ultimately be no cultural absolutes on such matters, just cultural preferences - the argument being that one social class is able to impose its cultural preferences on other classes in society.