High culture refers to the cultural pursuits of the elites. It is often expensive and exclusionary, giving it high social status.
Typically, high culture is intentionally (or, at least, aims to be) sophisticated and focused on taking pleasure in pursuits that have historical, intellectual, philosophical, or interpretive significance.
High culture is contrasted to low culture, often also termed popular culture, which is the culture of the masses. Low culture tends to be derogatorily seen as unsophisticated, unintellectual, and crass.
High Culture Examples
Ballet is a form of interpretive dance that has delicacy and intricacy that appeals to elites who consider themselves to be sophisticated.
It has roots in the Italian Renaissance, a time from which a wide range of high culture pursuits emerged.
There are also elite ballet schools, particularly in Russia, which attract a high price for performances.
Like many elite pursuits, it involves live performances rather than recorded films for the masses (i.e. low culture takes place at the cinema, while high culture often takes place at a live theater). Elites like to be performed for rather than watching something that is designed for everyone because live performances feel more personalized and exclusive.
2. Cannes Film Festival
The Cannes film festival is an elite film festival that has been ongoing since 1946. The festival has garnered elite status, partly because it is an invite-only event.
The films at the festival are not box office hits, but rather, niche and indie films designed for a high culture audience. Awards are presented for cinematography, directing, screenplay, best short film, and other elements of artistry.
The award for the best film is called the Palm d’Or (Golden palm).
3. Classical Literature
While low culture people might read airport novels that are easy-to-read spy thrillers or romance novels, classical literature is reserved for people of high culture.
Examples of high culture literature include books of historical importance such as Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace, and Jane Eyre.
Classic literature is not as compelling or easy to read as contemporary literature, but those who read it embrace the historical importance of the texts as well as the interpretive practice involved in scrutinizing the complex plots.
4. Classical Music
Classical music is not popular with the masses, but retains popularity among the elites and people trained in music theory.
Classical music, such as the symphonies produced by Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach, are believed to be some of the most beautiful and detailed pieces of music ever written.
This music is performed by orchestras and appreciated for the depth and detail of the themes.
This high culture music stands in stark contrast to the Top 40s pop and rock music of today which follows relatively rhythms accompanied by lighthearted lyrics.
5. Debutante Balls
Debutante balls usually occur to celebrate a young woman’s coming of age, and they often involve a large number of guests. Because of their formality, debutante balls can be quite expensive to attend.
The typical age for a debutante is 18, although some balls are held for women who are slightly younger or older.
There are many debutante balls held across the United States each year, often in conjunction with other large events such as charity fundraisers. In order to be invited to a debutante ball, one must usually be sponsored by an organization or have some connection to the event’s host.
They typically involve a lot of pomp and circumstance, including formal dinners, dancing, and live music. In some cases, young women may even be presented to society at these events.
Debutante balls can be considered a type of high culture because they are very traditional and formal events. The music, dance, and dress at these balls are all very specific and elegant.
They are very common in upper-class families, and they are often used as a way to debut young women into society. Many debutante balls are held in large mansions or ballrooms, and they can be quite extravagant.
6. European Weekend Travel
Stereotypically, the elites of Europe take weekend trips to charming European capitals like Paris and Milan to enjoy high culture.
Even in North America, European trips rank highly among the travel itineraries of the elites who want to visit the cultural origins of Western civilization.
Trips to the Acropolis in Athens, Louvre in Paris, and the Pantheon in Rome are trips to visit cultural landmarks.
Contrast this to the holiday for the masses – an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, Spain, or Bali – where there are no cultural trips and holidaymakers simply indulge in books on the beach and cocktails for a week before returning to their lives.
7. Fine Wine
While the drink of choice for the working classes is mass-produced lager, the elites choose fine wines that they can certify are highly exclusive.
For example, wine connoisseurs like to name the year of the bottle as well as the winery it comes from. They will also pair the wine with the perfect meal to ensure the flavor palettes match.
Buying an item for its cultural value can give someone objectified cultural capital, which is one of the three types of cultural capital that elites can acquire.
8. Finishing Schools
A finishing school is a type of educational institution, typically for girls, that emphasizes culture and social graces instead of academic study.
A finishing school may be either a secondary school or a post-secondary institution. In the United States, many private secondary schools include “finishing” as part of their mission, such as the Sacred Heart Schools in New York and San Francisco.
There are also specialized institutions that offer programs to prepare young women (and occasionally men) for entry into society, such as the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.
The term “finishing school” is sometimes used more broadly to refer to any educational program that helps people develop social skills and etiquette, such as business etiquette training or wine appreciation.
Golf can be an expensive sport, making it one that excludes many people from the working and middle classes.
While golf is not a sport that requires a sophisticated knowledge of culture and history, it is nonetheless a sport that has come to attract high-end business people, making it part of an elite culture.
Many business deals are made on the golf course, making it a desirable sport for many people who want to get access to the upper echelons of business.
Interestingly, golf culture among businesspeople has also been seen to be exclusionary to women, sustaining the glass ceiling in business.
10. High Fashion
High fashion, also known as Haute Couture, describes the culture of having custom-made clothing for special events such as theater premieres or awards nights.
The exquisite dresses and suits from Haute Culture are extremely expensive because they are custom-made pieces designed to complement the wearer. They’re also a demonstration of the craftsmanship of the producer and the wealth of the wearer.
This is the extreme opposite of fast fashion which involves mass production of cheap products designed to last less than a year. Fast fashion is affordable for the masses, but there is no uniqueness in the designs.
11. Ivy League Universities
Ivy League universities are some of the most prestigious and selective universities in the United States. The Ivy League universities are: Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University.
Traditions at ivy league universities include secret societies and competitive sports. Students who attend ivy league universities are often considered to be the best and brightest in the country. These schools are also very expensive to attend, with tuition and other costs totaling over $50,000 per year at some of the schools.
12. Live Theater
Live theater is a performing art in which the performers act out a story for an audience. It can be performed in a variety of venues, including traditional theaters, outdoor amphitheaters, and even private homes.
One of the reasons that live theater is considered high culture is because it requires a certain level of sophistication and knowledge to appreciate. Unlike other forms of entertainment, live theater often deals with complex topics and ideas that can be difficult to understand if you’re not familiar with the subject matter.
Additionally, live theater also tends to be much more cerebral than other forms of entertainment, and often requires the audience to think critically about what they’re seeing in order to appreciate it fully.
Live theater is also generally considered to be more “serious” than other forms of entertainment, and is thus often seen as a more refined way to spend your time.
13. Michelin Star Restaurants
Michelin star restaurants are elite restaurants that have been awarded one or more Michelin stars by the Michelin Guide. The guide is published annually and rates restaurants on a scale of one to three stars, based on anonymous inspections by experienced chefs.
A restaurant that has a Michelin star is seen as having some of the best food in the world. These restaurants are typically very expensive and often have long waiting lists for reservations.
Michelin stars are not easy to come by. In order to receive one, a restaurant must meet strict criteria set forth by the Michelin Guide. Some of these criteria include excellent food, outstanding service, and a setting that is conducive to a fine dining experience.
Museums are considered high culture because they preserve and present works of art and other artifacts that represent the heritage of a nation or a people. The word “museum” is derived from the Latin word for a place where one can contemplate the muses, which were the goddesses of inspiration in ancient Greek mythology.
To appreciate the works of art and artifacts in museums, it is important to understand the historical and cultural context in which they were created. For example, a painting by Rembrandt can tell us much about 17th-century Dutch society, while a samurai sword can provide insights into the samurai code of honor in feudal Japan. Therefore, you need to be highly educated and cultured in order to appreciate them.
Opera is an example of high culture because it is a form of sophisticated art that is enjoyed by elites rather than the masses.
Unlike popular culture music, opera is not easily accessible or popularized, and it often requires a certain level of knowledge or education to appreciate. It often takes years of training to be able to fully appreciate and understand opera, which is why it is considered to be such a sophisticated art form.
Opera is also typically more expensive to produce than popular culture music, which further adds to its elitist reputation.
Philosophy is considered high culture because it is the study of fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, and ethics. It is a rigorous discipline that requires a great deal of critical thinking and analysis.
Philosophers often debate complex ideas and concepts that can be difficult for non-philosophers to understand. Additionally, philosophy is not generally considered to be entertaining or easy to read, which further adds to its reputation as high culture.
Poetry is considered high culture because it is seen as a refined and sophisticated art form. Unlike prose, which is the most common form of writing, poetry often employs literary devices such as meter and rhyme to create a more aesthetically pleasing effect.
Poetry is often seen as being more difficult to write than prose, and it often requires a greater level of skill to appreciate. Additionally, poetry is not generally considered to be entertaining or easy to read, which further adds to its reputation as high culture.
Polo is a sport that is typically associated with the upper classes. It is considered high culture because it is typically only played by those who have the time and money to do so.
It is very expensive because it requires special horses and equipment, and because it is typically played on private fields. Maintaining a polo horse costs eye-watering sums of money. Even an older polo horse purchased by a beginner will cost anywhere from $100 to $500 per week to maintain.
Famously, the royal family in England are avid polo enthusiasts. Prince Charles has been playing the sport since he was a young boy and has quoted it as his “one great extravagance”.
Portraiture is often seen in famous castles and mansions. Wealthy people commission portraits to demonstrate their grandeur. For example, famous people who have portraits of themselves and their families up in their houses include the Queen and Donald Trump.
Portraits have an added layer of sophistication above and beyond photographs because there is a lot more scope for an artist’s interpretation, which viewers can then interpret and critique.
These features – interpretation, critique, and artistry – make portraits examples of the boutique-ness that characterizes high culture.
20. Private Schooling
Private schools are exclusive schools attended by wealthy people who don’t want their children associating with the “riff-raff” in public schools.
Private schooling is considered high culture because it allows children to be around others of the same social class, which helps to maintain social stratification.
It also gives children an opportunity to receive a better education than they would at a public school, as private schools often have better resources. Essentially, it is the wealthy leveraging their money to secure exclusivity and advantage.
Additionally, private schools sometimes offer education in areas of study that public schools typically do not. Examples might include Latin and philosophy. These additional courses help to give private school students a more well-rounded and sophisticated education.
21. Received Pronunciation (Queen’s English)
Received Pronunciation (RP) is the standard accent of Standard English in the United Kingdom.
It can be traced back to the dialect spoken by the upper classes in southern England in the 18th century. RP is commonly referred to as “the Queen’s/King’s English”, “Oxford English”, or “BBC English”.
People try to speak in Received Pronunciation in order to sound more educated or posh.
22. Renaissance Art
Renaissance art is art that was created during the Renaissance (a period of time from the 14th century to the 17th century in Europe).
The art from this era is characterized by its realism and its use of perspective. Renaissance artists were able to create such realistic art because they had access to better tools and techniques than their predecessors.
Examples of famous renaissance artists include Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael.
Today, Renaissance art is prized, respected, and admired in museums around the world. Private collections sell for multiple millions of dollars. The largest collection of Renaissance art is found in the Louvre museum in Paris.
23. Rolls Royce and Bentley
Rolls Royce and Bentley are high culture vehicles because they are seen as symbols of wealth and sophistication. They are also very expensive, which makes them exclusive to only the wealthiest people.
These cars are often seen as status symbols, and owning one is a sign that you have made it in life. Rolls Royces and Bentleys are also seen as luxurious and comfortable, which makes them perfect for special occasions or for simply showing off your wealth.
Rugby is a sport that is often seen as being “posh”. It is played mostly by the upper class in England, and it has been referred to as “the sport of gentlemen”.
It is said that in 1823, a young man named William Webb Ellis was playing a game of football at his school in Rugby, England. He became frustrated with the rules of the game and decided to pick up the ball and run with it. His schoolmates followed suit, and thus the game of rugby was born.
Rugby is played by elite schools and universities. For example, in England, schools such as Eton, Harrow, and Winchester play intramurals against each other.
An offshoot, called rugby league, is the working-class version of the game.
Truffles are a type of fungi that grow underground. They are considered a delicacy, and they are often used in high-end cuisine.
They can be very expensive, depending on the type and quality. For example, white truffles can sell for up to $3,000 per pound.
Thus, people have come to see truffles as a sign of wealth, exclusivity, and taste.
Truffles are also used in some high-end perfumes. For example, Chanel No. 5 contains an extract of truffle.
Skiing is often seen as a wealthy person’s sport. It requires expensive equipment and clothes, and it is often done in exclusive locations.
The sport has been popular among the upper class since the 19th century. In 1864, an Englishman named James Slimmon decided to try skiing while on a trip to Norway.
He found that it was a great way to travel, and he soon popularized the sport among his wealthy friends back home.
Skiing became increasingly popular among the wealthy, and eventually it became a staple of high society.
27. Tea Ceremonies
Tea ceremonies are a traditional Japanese way of preparing and drinking tea. They are very precise and specific, involving careful preparation of both the tea and the utensils.
They could be considered high culture because they are a very old tradition that is respected and admired by many. Tea ceremonies are also seen as a way to connect with nature, and they can be very meditative and calming.
Many people from the West have started practicing tea ceremonies in recent years. An adaptation is to go out for ‘high tea’, which is a meal that consists of tea and small sandwiches or fine pastries.
Tennis is often seen as a sport for the wealthy because it requires expensive equipment and membership fees at private clubs. It is also considered to be a very stylish and sophisticated game.
Tennis players are often seen as being calm and composed, which adds to the sophisticated image of the sport.
High culture can be seen as a way for the upper class to show their wealth and sophistication. It often involves expensive items, traditional activities, and elite institutions. While some people may see it as pretentious or elitist, others appreciate the beauty and refinement of high culture.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.