Lately I’ve been pondering whether tarot card art is high art (i.e., fine art) or low art (because it’s considered illustration).
It’s hard to argue that tarot card illustrations are anything other than low art.
It was made intended to be functional, it’s commercialized, it’s a craft rather than a form of fine art, and it’s formulaic. So of course it’s low art.
And if it’s digitally done, then of course it’s low art. (Words in italics emphasized in an affected manner wrought with contempt. Of course.)
Plus, today tarot is by and large mass-produced, and as a mass-produced commodity, created with the intention of it appealing to as wide a market audience as possible. Many of the modern decks at the moment can even feel like kitsch art. Except… is kitsch art a form of high art? Even that is a question to ponder.
Yet I’m equally unconvinced that the works of Il Meneghello isn’t a form of high art, even while it conforms to definitions of “low art,” such as it being a craft, functional, and formulaic in the sense that it’s reproducing a structured tarot deck.
The Mary El Tarot. The Thoth Journey Tarot. The linework on the Tarot of the Abyss. The Dracxiodos Tarot, to me, is modern art that is fine art. Navigators of the Mystic Sea. Both the Rosetta Tarot and the Tabula Mundi. Or how about the Palekh miniature paintings commissioned specifically for the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg deck?
And how would I categorize art decks, where the images on the cards are reproductions of fine art? Some are akin to the Mona Lisa on a pillowcase or Rembrandt on a tote bag. Others are derivatives of public domain high art. Which I guess immediately makes it low art?
When it comes to the factor of purpose, here is where I draw a question mark in my mind. Low art is created for entertainment purposes and doesn’t necessarily require you, the viewer, to cogitate about the philosophical and metaphysical meaning of life.
Is a tarot deck created for entertainment purposes? Does it require a priori knowledge for you to appreciate that work of art?
High art, or fine art, is intended for a limited audience, because it requires “a priori knowledge” for you to fully appreciate the nuance and the skill of the art. Where low art is mass-produced, high art is limited in its production. Where low art is entertaining, high art calls for aesthetic contemplation.
Couldn’t much of today’s tarot art be considered high art, when evaluated through those parameters?
Sure, it’s a spectrum, a scale with blurred lines of measurement, and few things are absolutely one or the other at the extreme.
Let’s take a famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci, or Botticelli, or Van Gogh to contemplate a point: the original work itself was surely what most of us today would categorize as high art. But what about the Birth of Venus or Starry Night mass-produced on tote bags, pillowcases, and coffee mugs?
Does centuries of passing time, changes in culture and society, and the evolution of how one specific work of art or artist goes from obscurity to commercial success transform how we view something as high art vs. low art?
Or have we constructed a clear line of separation between Mona Lisa printed on a tote bag and *the* Mona Lisa hanging at the Louvre in Paris?
In its time and context, the original paintings on the Visconti-Sforza tarot cards might be categorized as low art.
But the originals encased under glass in fine art museums today– did centuries of passing time and changes in culture and society transform it from low art to high art? Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that question.
A while back my father and I debated each other on a variation of this issue. Was the creation of my tarot deck “traditional art” or “graphic design”?
This was bearing in mind that the definition of “traditional art” evolves, where mediums such as watercolor or photography would not have been considered forms of traditional art at one point, but now, by and large are.
My father called my tarot illustrations “graphic design,” and that it was not a form of traditional art because I was printing thousands of reproduced copies of it and moreover, made for people to handle, shuffle, and use in tarot readings (i.e., created with the intention of it serving a functional purpose).
He wasn’t wrong, and I had to really dig deep within myself to question why it upset me that he called my tarot art “graphic design” rather than “traditional art.”
Back in 2019 I shared a Facebook post about this topic, well, a variation of the theme, and a lot of incredible minds chimed in. Lots of deck creators whose names you’ll recognize, tarot luminaries, professional artists, graphic designers, and thinkers shared their insights, so worth a read just for their two cents.
I didn’t get to see my parents in person in 2020 due to the pandemic, but they came to stay with me for a while earlier this month. My dad and I revisited this debate. He could tell that it bothered me on some gut level that he called SKT “low art.”
I mean, yeah it is low art. I’m not sure I can counter that assertion. But still.
In response to that observation, he pointed out it’s a little hypocritical of me to be upset that my tarot deck is low art if I claim that I care about helping as many people as possible, i.e., service of the masses. Something like “low” tarot art, even an indie deck that sells for a hundred dollars, is leaps and bounds more accessible to people than a single original work of “high” art.
Owning an original work of high art only serves to feed the narcissism of someone already of ungodly privilege, while owning a work of low art not only brings joy to more people through its aesthetic value, but because it’s functional, it also serves.
The purported philosophical contemplation and a priori knowledge that goes into cogitating on high art can still happen with low art, but where low art can serve a function, high art by its very definition cannot.
Ultimately, I have concluded for myself that some tarot deck art does fit the defined parameters of high art while others are unabashedly forms of low art, and that’s not to say one takes lesser skill than the other, but just to separate out into different categories the deck creator’s intentions.
In fact, if your intention is to create a tarot deck, you want it to be low art, in the sense that I presume you want it to be functional. High art is more often perceived as being esoteric, complex, limited in production somehow, for a limited audience, and more to the point of aesthetic and philosophical contemplation than functionality. And a tarot deck ought to be functional, right?
Developing that line of inquiry further, would I then say that deck art that closely copies a pre-existing tarot system, e.g., based on Pamela Colman Smith’s compositions in the RWS, are formulaic and therefore definitely low art, while deck creators who go way off the beaten path to conceive original interpretations of tarot themes are unique enough to be high art? I mean. What are even the factors for deciding low art vs. high art in tarot?
Take the cover art you see above. If I had hand-drawn and hand-colored with oil paints every single mark and form there, most of us would probably call it high art. But because I only hand-drew a quarter of the image, scanned it in, and then digitally colored it in, and digitally did the mirroring effect to produce what you see above, now most of us would call it low art.
So then by that count, you would conclude that one factor of distinction between high and low art is skill level and the intensity of the labor.
Except not. Because there are plenty of examples of hand-drawn, hand-painted work requiring master-level talent and skill that, because of the nature of the work, we’d still consider mere illustration or low art.
So it’s almost like the bar is constantly shifting to suit our convenience, based on our preconceived biases.
A follow-up question that came to mind while thinking about this cultural distinction between high art and low art is — Who cares? What’s the point in trying to make a distinction between high and low, other than to separate, divide, and put people and their Works into boxes? And why even go through the exercise of putting different people’s Works into different boxes?
And I couldn’t answer that question, at least not with an answer that’s valid.
Here I pass the question on to you: How do you contextualize tarot deck art in the framework of “high art” and “low art”?