Aesthetics and Class

Oh, Bourdieu, you are a classy gentleman. I really enjoyed Distinction because it helped to finally synthesize our many discussions on the nature of art and the utter subjectivity that arises as a result of social classifications. I was torn between blogging about education – that looming mechanism of cultural indoctrination – and aesthetics. Ultimately aesthetics won out due to the fascinating point Bourdieu drives home: art is not a window to the human soul, some monolithic object whose form evokes universal feelings and thus a universal function. Art only gains cultural significance when read as “legitimate” by the right people, meaning those blessed with a “high culture” mindset and lifestyle.

The meat of this discussion can be found between pages 41-47. To start with, the dominant aesthetic regards art as pleasing and beautiful if it represents an object “worthy of representation.” This is extrapolated to reveal that pure realism best meets the needs of good taste; a subject venerated by human beings and painted or photographed with instant recognition as the goal will come across as aesthetically acceptable in high culture.

Bourdieu goes on to say that when one does not have the framework of taste to evaluate art, one reverts to another system of reading, one which “[reduces] the things of art to the things of life.” For example, on page 44, people from a cross-section of classes respond to a photo of an old woman’s hands. Those with taste respond with references to other famous works (“The sort of hands you see in early Van Goghs”) while those without concentrate on the subject’s relationship to concrete experience (“The old girl must have arthritis”). The most telling statistics come on page 47, when Bourdeiu measures reactions to a photo of a metal frame. 6 percent of manual workers perceive it as “a beautiful photo”, as compared with 50 percent of secondary or higher-education teachers. The workers presumably did not perceieve the frame as beautiful, and thus the photo was not beautiful. The higher-class individuals, thanks to their social conditioning, recognized pleasurable aesthetics and the culturally relevant form of an artsy photo.

 One conclusion to draw is that “low culture” always assumes a kind of practicality, a disregard for function and a literal appraisal of form. Another conclusion, and I would venture to say Bourdieu’s, is that all interpretations of the photo are legitimate culturally, but only a specific process of social indoctrination and long-established class-bound tradition can transform the photo into real art.

4 responses to “Aesthetics and Class

  1. In thinking about all this and [pretentious quote] I have to wonder if those critics who originally said that taste and appreciation of beautiful things is actually natural. I totally agree that education (and class) can mold a person’s way of looking at art, but I don’t know that it changes, in the end, what that person finds beautiful. Personally, I think a picture of a metal frame would be not that beautiful. Perhaps it was interestingly composed, perhaps its reminiscent of another artwork–I have the vocabulary to discuss it, sure. But in the end I still probably wouldn’t like it very much. At most I might appreciate it’s attempt to make art out of something not usually thought of as art–but appreciation for effort is not the same as appreciation for beauty. Perhaps I’m making an obvious distinction here, or perhaps (as it seemed to me) Bourdieu really does pass over the difference between ability to discuss art and appreciation of beautiful art. Or maybe I’m not as “well-educated” as I ought to be. But I’ll take a sunset over a cabbage any day.

  2. haha I meant to go back and find that quote about pretentiousness, then forgot I left the bracketed section. Here’s what I was referring to: “[The artist] prefers naivety to ‘pretentiousness'” (62). (The idea here that some people really just pretend to like art because they know they’re supposed to.)

  3. Your conclusion that “low” culture assumes a disregard for formal qualities was definitely what I took from this reading, too. Also, I agree that Bourdieu is saying that both approaches are legitimate. His point is, like you said, that the ability to perceive art is built on very concrete practices of cultural and educational capital. This is a bit disorienting because it takes away the possibility that some people have an ability to understand better than others. Instead, we are all equal and are just nurtured in different ways. It seems like this assumption should then speak to our ability to actually create art. Artists and their work are held up as “genius” reflections of the world. How does the artist fit into all of this? I guess the type of work the artist produces is enjoyed by people within his own educational grouping, but I’m not sure if I completely buy this.

  4. This is definitely what I got from the book as well. I sort of agree, for the most part. Interpretations of art, and how an individual reaches their conclusions, do tend to differ a lot based on background, I do feel there are a few works that truly are “a window to the human soul” and so rife with raw and obvious emotions that everyone gets the same general point from it. The best example of this I can think of is “The Scream.” I feel like almost everyone, regardless of background and age, it’s so clearly about human suffering. I feel like people from more privileged classes may have more in depth reasons for their end argument, but I feel the general sentiment is the same (perhaps this is part of the reason why the painting is so well known.)