Tarot Cards: High Art or Low Art

Top, Left to Right: Oswald Wirth Tarot, Soprafino, RWS. Bottom: Convers TdM, Thoth, Spirit Keeper’s Tarot

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.)

From The Cards (2021) by Patrick Maille

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.

Image source: Il Meneghello, studio of hand-painted Italian tarots

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 Rosetta Tarot

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?

Tarot of the Thousand and One Nights

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.

The Venetian Tarot

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.

Tarot of the Abyss

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.

Golden Botticelli Tarot

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?

Golden Tarot of Klimt

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?

Visconti-Sforza Tarot reproduction by U.S. Games

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.

Spirit Keeper’s Tarot, Vitruvian Edition

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.”

Lion’s Gateway Tarot

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.

Carnival at the End of the World Tarot

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.

Haindl Tarot

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.

Thoth Journey Tarot

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.

Zillich Tarot

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?

Evolutionary Tarot

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?

Covert art on the Book of Maps, Revelation Ed.

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.

Ancestral Path Tarot

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.

Encore Tarot

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”?

25 thoughts on “Tarot Cards: High Art or Low Art

  1. Joshua Vines

    I think it is the rarity that truly divides high vs low art. a tarot deck made to be sold to the masses would always fall into low art. however a one of a kind tarot deck personalize customized for one self or a dear friend, could fall into the high art category.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Joshua! I don’t disagree with you, but I wonder if here there may be a difference of preliminary definitions? Here’s what I mean by that.

      If I pull up an image of a Rembrandt on my phone and show it to you and ask, is this high art or low art? Versus if I pull up an image of a particular work of art by a tarot deck creator and ask, is this high art or low art? Your next follow-up question will probably be, well it depends, who is the deck creator and it is case by case, depending on the particular tarot card image.

      To which, of course, we now have to have a discussion of parameters and how to define high art versus low art in tarot, and what factors we’re working with. I think that’s where I get stuck. ☺️

      Ultimately, I agree that the distinction and the debate is meaningless. But then with that philosophical approach, everything is meaningless. Does something being an arbitrary social construct mean it is now meaningless and should not be discussed? I honestly don’t know.

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  2. stankbeest

    I prefer not to make a distinction. Dualities (‘High’/’Low”, ‘Better’/’Worse’) are false human constructs that can only distract from the experience. There is only Art.
    (Apologies to Huang Po and other great Buddhist philosophers for paraphrasing (co-opting?) their ideas.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh definitely. I don’t think anyone is arguing that these distinctions are false human constructs and very arbitrary, not to mention constantly shifting just to suit our own agendas.

      And yet undeniably there is a social or cultural agreement that these distinctions, at least as a construct, exists. Not exists as in they are immutable and natural, but exists as in we have ideologically brought them into existence.

      I side on the preference for not making a distinction, too. But since I live in a society where this construct exists, I’m just ruminating on how I can make peace with it. 🙂

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      1. stankbeest

        Point well taken. We do indeed live in a society that is saturated (and obsessed) with categorizing everything. I wish I could say I don’t indulge in that either, but that would be a lie. How about just saying ‘highness’ or ‘lowness’ is in the eye of the beholder? (aaarrgghh – there I go again with the paraphrasing/co-opting, this time with a cliché no less!)

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  3. Sally

    I agree with your dad. You would know this about me of course. Tarot cards to me fit into the graphic arts/illustration/cartoon world. Highly skilled people who do this kind of narrative work! But not fine art. I could give you names of fine artists to peruse if you want. Let me know 😊🧡😘

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nina

    Lol this discussion is one of the aspects I ponder weekly in my blog. So this will be a bit of a ramble (deep discussion in small spaces lol) I believe science, spiritual practice and art are all aspects of humanity trying to divine/explain/understanding oneself and our place in the world/cosmos. Art and spirituality being the oldest forms. And because we are, typically, a visual first species that art in all its forms becomes highly valuable in representing our subconscious/conscious, id/ego etc… and hence why tarot has become more widely accepted as a divination/tool in investigating our place/experience. So using that perspective all art is a creation of who we are as individuals and as a society. And thus this concept of low and high does not inform other then possibly as a way of classifying it monetarily. This argument however can also be rallied against by asking what now is consider ancient art forms does not have a “high” monetary value like Egyptian statues (which can be considered as advertising or low art of its time) or even many of the Asian art from the Edo period (Kiyohara Yukinobu) was made for “middle class” but now considered as “high” art . Or Sonia Delauney’s work where she uses art and creates an art form,orphism, and applies it to fabric. Or Frank Lloyd Wright “falling water” house is that not an art form because we can live it does it make it low art? This discussion is heavily pondered between what is craft versus art also using the definition of utilization. And was used by many to keep women out of “high art” . So this conversation is great to keep pondering on a variety of levels. What is art? Is creation and art the same? Does art have a soul component and/or does it depend on intention? Though helpful at times, when does classification become a hinderance to us, our understandings, creativity and evolution?

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  5. honorthegodsblog

    Excellent article!

    Divination was an intrinsic part of many ancient religions – take the Oracle at Delphi as just one example – and it remains a serious pursuit for many people today. Just because one of the leading publishers of tarot cards happens to be named U.S. Games Systems doesn’t mean modern tarot decks are produced just for “entertainment.”

    Many tarot decks begin as “high” metaphysical art. The quality of the work in no way changes just because the paintings are turned into cards. Pamela Coleman Smith, the artist of the Rider-Waite tarot deck, was a well-known artist before she was commissioned to design the tarot cards, and her original art remains highly collectible today. In fact, Tarot decks are a lot like Illuminated manuscripts and have long been collected by art connoisseurs, along with paintings and decorative objects. I’m specifically thinking of the art collected by J.P. Morgan, which includes cards of the Viconti-Sforza tarot deck.

    Actually, the reason I collect tarot decks is because it’s a convenient and relatively inexpensive way to own high-quality reproductions of metaphysical art, like collecting beautiful art books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. stankbeest

      Your last paragraph pretty much nails my perspective on Tarot collecting. And it would be hard to consider the stupendous Visconti-Sforza as anything but great Art – reproduced or otherwise. Though seeing the originals is truly a mind-opening experience. I had the good fortune of getting to view several of the originals when they used to be displayed many years ago at the Morgan Library & Museum in NYC. The Queen of Swords in particular looks like she is just about to say something to you. But I kicked myself when I discovered after the fact that almost the entire existing deck (and several other rare ancient ones) had been on display not so long ago at the Cloisters in Washington Heights, NYC, when they put on a special exhibit of old Tarots loaned from collections around the world. I can’t believe I missed that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Interesting Benebell.
    I consider an entire complete work of Tarot to become a single piece of fully realised Fine Art, but perhaps not the individual cards. SIngly they are components of the the whole.

    I say Fine art rather than High art and guess the two terms are interchangeable.
    I studied Fine Art painting at uni in the 90s. Concept was King and ruled with an iron will. As a youth I struggled to fit in, as I was pretty much an uncarved block and had few synthesized statements worth making.
    So I transfered my studies to The Decorative Arts, where the creation of beauty was Queen and we were ‘designers’ not artists. We studied the history of adornment and enhancement, rather than the history of wrestling with the soul.
    What was on the surface was ultimately what counted, not the intention of that which lay beneath.
    Tarot art somewhat straddles these two.
    Ultimately though I feel as Tarot makers we are designers, we work to a brief and it is rather inflexible.
    So I don’t feel like I make high art as I wrestle with the composition and components of making a single tarot card. Though I incorporate all that I have learned and wield the tricks of the artist’s trade I have managed to grasp.
    But when I look back on a completed deck and that which is contained within I can begin to see a giant single piece of High/Fine Art.

    Kind of relates to intention and how the maker views their role. As makers do we see ourselves as Fine artists or Designers?

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    1. stankbeest

      Yeah, I like the idea of the complete deck as a single work of Art (which it is), and each individual card as an element of the whole. Like the organs & other parts that make up a body. With that, then, you can resolve this whole issue by saying each card is a work of ‘low art’ while the complete deck is a work of ‘high art’? Or not.
      Maybe it’s just ‘medium art’ (no pun intended)…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Nina

      Even though you work within a script there is still an element of the artist in the card. An interpretation or synthesis through the artist. But then I can see that in some tarot decks where it’s just seven gold disk on a flat background but I wonder even there at time placement can show an essence of the card. Or even color choice can convey meaning in tarot. But that type of tarot leans or at least the lower arcane leads to a more design or graphic. Maybe tarot is unique and requires as said below a new category of “medium” lol.

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  7. Elisabet

    For me it is closely related to commercial interests, the creator of tarot decks must always look at the viewer. It will be a kind of mirror-making instead of soul-reveal that I connect with art that I visit on museums or want to put on my walls. Some, of course, make mirrors by revealing the soul but it is not the intention. And sure, you can make the Hilma af Klint rug or the da Vinci tote bag but the intention from the creator behind the rug is for the consumer and is therefore not the same as the original art. With this I think it is important to note that quality can be high and low on both and both can be done by any chosen medium (media?) (🤷‍♀️ English). And of course we have to consider class, gender and geographical location, the genius of Yoko Ono or Yayoi Kusama went without public recognition for a long time and perhaps not possible without moving to the us.

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  8. Shadowrose

    I personally do not distinct between “low” and “high” art. For me there is simply art and a whole lotta bunch of different art styles (ever evolving) and mediums.
    I do not believe that any is necessarily “better” than the other. As you pointed out correctly – just because digital art is digital does not mean there wasn’t any afford and thought put into it. And even the most mass produced object can still spread joy or become a symbol of something meaningful. It’s the intention (or personal meaning) put into it – as well by the creator as by the user.
    Same goes for music, by the way. And it arises another question in me: While I (as a musician myself) do appreciate some classical music and admire what a high level of skill the old masters of music had, I still keep listening to more modern rock and pop music. But does that make me a “low”/unsophisticated person? And then: Does it make one a “better” or more “sophisticated” person, just because one is more into a certain art style and considers other ones as “low” or “worth less”? I don’t think so – but most of us do.
    Same for fashion: Someone styled as a punk or effortless in dirty joggers and t, would not be considered as someone with brains and manner in our society – though it actually doesn’t tell the slightest thing about that someone’s intelligence and behavior. Because it contradicts our established cliches/archetypes/prejudice/symbols. Thus society forces us to at least pretend to have a certain taste in fashion, art and music to be considered “intelligent” or “of worth”.
    Concerning tarot:
    For divination purpose only I wouldn’t even need any art. Paper scraps with numbers 1-22 or 1-78 would be enough, if I start out with the intention that those numbers mean specific cards. As someone who appreciates art (or if I wanted to use certain symbols) – however – I prefer tarot cards with art on them, of course.

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  9. Jon

    Why not ask about high tech versus low tech? Does anyone believe that tarot can act as a connector between divine will and the supernatural? Superconductive materials would bypass the intellect altogether.

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  10. Anonymous

    My feeling about the difference between high art and low art is that if any art elicits an “oh my” response in my soul, a sense of awe and wonder, then it’s high art, regardless of its format.

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  11. Jon

    Can technology be an art? Particle physics can augment low art. Beryllium and Lithium are lightest known materials. For me its what I can touch and experience alchemically. Planets have sound and electromagnetic fields actually faster than light. What is this dark matter business anyway? Why rely on impressions like zombie banking when mindfulness is more reliable. Rare earths are way more grounded in heavenly existence than what you may beleive.

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  12. Ran

    I don`t care what`s the high art or low art because – there are a thousand Hamlets in a thousand people’s eyes. If I use the Tarot for divination, it`s a tool; If I just want to collect and appreciate, it`s an art. However, I don’t like to classify them in levels. In people like, it is good, and will naturally feel that that is a high art, but in people who don’t like it, no matter how expensive or fine a work of art is, it is worthless whether high or low.

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  13. Stuart Shrigley-Wightman

    I think this debate will ever continue. What is art but I think for me Will always be the intention, the drive behind it and the need to express-to create something and when that happens when there’s that connection for me it becomes a piece of art and we the viewer connect to that piece of art.

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