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.

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