Can’t Touch This

“To remember that culture is not what one is but what one has, or rather, what one has become; to remember the social conditions which render possible aesthetic experience and the existence of those beings—art lovers or “people of taste”—for whom it is possible; to remember that the work of art is given only to those who have received the means to acquire the means to appropriate it and who could not seek to possess it if they did not already possess it, in and through the possession of means of possession as an actual possibility of effecting the taking of possession; to remember, finally, that only a few have the real possibility of benefitting from the theoretical possibility, generously offered to all, of taking advantage of the works exhibited in museums—all this is to bring to light the hidden force of the effects of the majority of culture’s social uses.”

—Pierre Bourdieu, A Sociological Theory of Art Perception

I’m just beginning to traverse The Field of Cultural Production, a collection Bourdieu’s writings, but this short paragraph (or, I suppose, long sentence) grabbed my attention. It’s an unusually forceful statement of one of Bourdieu’s central theses: The field of cultural production, or art, is located within and somewhat underneath the field of political-economic power. It’s not, Bourdieu says, only the content of art or its cultural context that makes it inaccessible to many (most?) people: It’s the particular ways that artistic content, that which inheres in art, is situated with respect to other art and indeed other distributions of real and symbolic capital.

There’s nothing especially bold in noting a strong linkage between class privilege and what Bourdieu calls “sanctified” art—high art, I guess: What makes the above quote so striking is Bourdieu’s claim that it is next to impossible for people who don’t already know about art, likely through school or informal family socialization (both which are tied closely to class status), to experience it. If this is true, it’s cause for concern, I’d say.

However, Bourdieu wrote this in the late 1960s; if he were alive today, I wonder whether he’d insist on such a clear subordination of cultural power to social power. Regardless of ongoing and chimeric asymmetries in real capital, cultural capital is ripe for a much more equal distribution in the internet era. I’d hope, in other words, that Bourdieu’s “theoretical possibility, generously offered to all,” is increasingly real. Thoughts?

13 thoughts on “Can’t Touch This

  1. philmusic

    When I read the quote Colin naturally I knew that I knew about arts. I get to be included as enlightened unlike them darn “others” (the sort of folks who would never read Bourdieu) who don’t and will never get it. That is; In with the in crowd. Then again perhaps that is not my personal wish.

    Yet it so much of this reminds me of EST Training (don’t ask), “of experiencing the experience you experienced” which was a validation for whatever.

    Still, there are those who do not accept the way the world is and at least in their small communities try to change it.

    Phil Fried Phil’s page

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  2. rtanaka

    I think most composers, at one point or another, attempt to write something that they believe to have an “universal” appeal. For the neo-classisists it was populism, for the serialists it was through rationality and numbers, for the experimental music tradition it was through the inclusion of what they thought of as “all possible” sounds. All of these movements never were really able to achieve the sort of universality that they were striving for, but they were able to survive by appealing to certain audiences which resonated with their approach. This, however, made apparent that classical music’s audience were generally limited to those of the upper crusts of society. Can’t spell classical without class, after all.

    I went through phases of all of the styles above, maybe as an attempt to reach that goal of universal appeal. As time goes on, though, it becomes more clear that such a thing is not really possible. There’s a certain arrogance involved in claiming that your music has the capability to appeal to everybody and people generally do not resonate with that type of attitude. It’s probably better to write things with a specific audience in mind — at least that way, what you’re saying will be more meaningful since its specific to the context in which the work was created.

    Can music transcend those boundaries of class that society sets up for itself? I believe that it can, but it hs to be done with intension and in a very smart way. Oddly enough popular musics is where most of these are happening nowadays, since many of the celebrities who’re making the music are fairly well-off compared to those who are patronizing their work. A lot of the times the success of this sort of thing rides on the vision of the producer rather than necessarily the musicians themselves. Kind of a strange phenomenon, if you ask me.

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  3. TJOG

    One of the things that I’ve often found troubling about the idea (which has been around for a very long time now) that there is some deterministic link between class status and the ability to appreciate classical music (whether of a more traditional style or from the New Music tradition) is the imprecision in the definition of what exactly constitutes the presumably “elite” status that is required. Does one acquire elite status simply by going to college? If so, there are an awful lot of people with elite status and a very small percentage of them who have much interest in any kind of art music. In other words, that sort of “eliteness” doesn’t seem to be much of a predictor. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a question of wealth by itself either (although I realize that wealth brings forth possibilities and experiences that can foster an appreciation for art music).

    I don’t have an answer as to why some people become interested in art music any more than I have an answer why some children develop an intellectual curiosity about a number of things while their siblings (same socio-economic background) never do. But I really don’t think it can be boiled down to any definition of “elite” status or class privilege.

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  4. colin holter

    But I really don’t think it can be boiled down to any definition of “elite” status or class privilege.

    Bourdieu would agree with you – he objects to the “short circuit” effect that prevents discussions about culture from moving beyond socioeconomic class. I think that the notions of “cultural capital” and symbolic capital more generally go a long way toward breaking out of reductive, tax-bracket classifications.

    For what it’s worth, I read a Washington Post review of Rush Limbaugh’s recent biography by Zev Chafets. One of Limbaugh’s main ideological goal seems to be the reversal of Bourdieu’s hierarchy: To convince people, in other words, that symbolic power is more real than real power, that cultural elites are the true enemy (rather than the financial elite).

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  5. pgblu

    Thanks to both ryan and TJOG for their comments.

    Bourdieu is writing to a specific demographic, TJOG, namely the French middle class milieu of the 60s and 70s. Your caveats are certainly valid for our time and place, and were not nearly as problematic back then and back there.

    I am no Bourdieu expert, though I recommend his book Distinction.

    I wonder if there are any music sociologists working today that have taken up his methodologies. Colin? Anyone else know?

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  6. rtanaka

    In the end it might just be a matter of old money vs. new money. Hollywood still has the “wild west” attitude of gold miners attempting to strike it rich. The odds are a million to one, but there are actual examples of this happening. People are very much appealed by the optimism and individualism of the American Dream, even to this day. I think John Adams had a few things to say about this.

    Composer John Adams Dishes On Pop Culture

    Classical music, on the other hand, comes from the old traditions of European cultures and ideas. It’s not so much that one is better than the other, but that they have different strengths and weaknesses — been trying to figure out what those things exactly are and employ them in my musical output as of the late. Not everything is relevant to everyone, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that fact in order to avoid any pretensions.

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  7. pgblu

    People are free to think what they’d like about John Adams as a composer, but with that particular clip he most definitely disqualified himself as a cultural commentator.

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  8. rtanaka

    Care to be more specific?

    People love their pop music because it very much captures that sort of entrepreneurial spirit that this country has founded itself upon. Classical music, on the other hand, tends to represent money from old Europe, and the types of people they promote tend to have ties with those types of social circles. If you’re looking at it from a purely economic point of view, that’s pretty much it. Old money vs. New Money. Patronage vs. Capitalism.

    Maybe its a regional thing. Having been in Los Angeles for a while (Adams is the artistic director of the LA Phil now) nothing he says strikes me as particularly controversial. With the Dudamel hype and the social music programs the Phil is enacting at the moment, the city is taking their musical output in a very different direction than before. Very different from the East Coast aesthetic that has been dominant for years, anyway.

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  9. pgblu

    Adams sets up the following correlations, none of which are self-evident:
    classical=intellectual
    classical=cultured
    pop listeners=”uninitiated into classical culture”

    Where is the notion of class in all of this? Only a severely deluded ideologue would leave that out. The reason people don’t go to classical music concerts is because of the other people who go to classical music concerts, most of whom are perceived as elitist, stuffy, and patrician. I have to say that if I were cornered I’d be hard pressed to disagree with such an assessment of classical audiences. And I’m speaking as someone whose biography also centers around a love of classical music (and, in the last two decades, around its avant-garde offshoots).

    Sure, it’s different in Europe; but not because they have classical composers and poets on television! It’s because of education: children in the more economically advanced countries learn that music (not just classical music) is something to be made, not just something to be consumed. Medial presence is a much much smaller factor. So if Adams talks about TV first, then he is revealing an attitude that basically espouses music as a passive medium. This is a great way to shoot oneself in the foot and a great reason to discount Adams as a cultural commentator.

    Need I even mention how unfair his jibes against cooking shows and Masterpiece Theatre are? As if he’s trying to both champion the presence of art on TV and perpetuate popular stereotypes about art on TV so people feel they can identify with him.

    What I’m really tired of, though, is John Adams the whining, beleaguered artist. First, in the 1980’s and 1990’s he was a self-described tonal “maverick” because the dominant culture was (supposedly) the atonal academic composers who refused to take his music seriously. Then he won a Pulitzer and agonized — unashamedly, in the press — about the Pulitzer’s elitist reputation and what it meant for him (subtext: continuing to call himself a maverick would now be laughable). And today he’s plagued by the supposed “prestige” of popular music. (Choosing Kanye West and Willie Nelson as the examples “off the top of his head” is about as tone-deaf as anything I’ve heard him say, by the way. What politician in the past 10 years has said “Gimme some of that Willie Nelson!” ?) Adams’s own music would have nothing of its current reputation without a strong presence of the pop aesthetic in our society.

    Adams’ agenda is far too transparent here. The whole diatribe has nothing to do with addressing the problems he’s talking about and everything to do with positioning himself as a victim, a strategy which has worked so well for his career in the past. Sorry if that sounds a little harsh; I guess I wish I had his problems.

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  10. rtanaka

    Alright, those are fair enough criticisms. Given his success, he should have relatively little to complain about at this point, for sure.

    You mentioned how Europe has a better system of educating people about classical music, which is why the medium tends to do better there. Education does imply, however, a level of intellect acquired through a process of initiation, so maybe we need to be more honest about the fact that if the medium were to survive here, it is necessary for us to do something beyond just writing pieces and putting on concerts. The LA Phil is already doing this through the social programs that Gustavo Dudamel has brought along with him from Venezuela:

    Gustavo Dudamel’s Musical Misson

    If nothing else, I think that Adams makes a good point about the skepticism Americans have of classical music, which is similar to the skepticism they have toward Europe and European models in a general sense. (Socialism in particular.) Maybe you disagree with him to which degree the media has an effect on people’s aesthetic choices, but being in the middle of it for some years now, I think that its not to be underestimated. Philip Glass gets a lot of criticism for the commercial works that he’s done, for example, but I know of a lot of examples where he was what got some people interested in classical music to begin with.

    Napoleon Dynamite was able to turn the “nerd” stereotype into a positive connotation to some extent, and it see a lot of people now who sport that style as a type of fashion. Who knows what would happen if composers and classical musicians were given the same kind of protagonist treatment in the media? Unlike Europe or Asia, our cultural identity is so scattered and our educational programs are in such disarray that it’s very difficult to socialize people into getting interested in something like classical music.

    I don’t claim to have any definite answers, but I do think that taking an interest in popular culture is pretty much a requirement at this point — if TV is what people are watching, then that’s where we should go if we want to reach out to them. The LA Phil has incorporated a lot of the media techniques from Hollywood and it seems to be working, at least so far.

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  11. philmusic

    Thanks Pgblue–my kind of post.

    “..positioning himself as a victim..”

    Certainly he is not the only highly successful composer to try this gambit. One could name many many more (as your right it does work) but I still want to work in this town. (lol)

    One might think this pure gamesmanship and in some cases it is. Except that I know of many composers who find no satisfaction in any of their high achievements.

    Especially if their colleagues and rivals do just as well.

    Phil Fried Phil’s page

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  12. pgblu

    For the record, I am not interested in “socializing people into liking classical music.” I am interested in having music as part of the active curriculum of schools, not just classical music but all kinds of music. And not just music appreciation but music-making. It can’t possibly be just about breeding a new generation of symphony subscribers, but about empowering kids through music the way they are (for example) empowered through team sports.

    I’m not sure what you mean by this sentence: Education does imply, however, a level of intellect acquired through a process of initiation… – but I assure you that European children are not naturally more intellectually inclined than American children.

    Philip Glass gets a lot of criticism for the commercial works that he’s done, for example, but I know of a lot of examples where he was what got some people interested in classical music to begin with.

    Also for the record: I do not object to the existence of commercial music, just to the use of limited arts funding for what are essentially commercial ventures. Many composers put on the mantle of “classical composer” because they can’t really make it in the pop world… but Philip Glass is in my opinion not one of those people.

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  13. rtanaka

    Adams was one of the composers who treated popular music with serious intension, back when it was less popular to do so. If he was thinking of these sort of things at Harvard and whatnot, it’s pretty likely that he may have very well felt somewhat alienated from the “norm” so to speak. (Though that term probably doesn’t mean anything anymore.) Now that pop-classical crossovers have become mainstream, maybe his words don’t have as much edge as it used to, though.

    Make no mistake — Adams comes from the east coast and his ideas have a very strong European sensibility to them. I do believe him when he says he loves the west coast, but he’s basically there to promote a type of approach that has been rooted in the classical style. As far as I know, he hasn’t had too much experience playing in bands or working within the industry, so his use of popular musics tend to have a distant quality to them, usually manifested in the form of parody and satire (i.e. Nixon in China). Still, I think it serves a purpose since that distance gives him a perspective that allows him to comment and critique on issues from a more objective vantage point.

    Something similar happened with Essa-Pekka Salonen, who came from a very strict academic background but as time went on his output started becoming more tonal and rhythmically oriented. This is probably the most interesting thing about the LA Phil — while they definitely have an interest in continuing the legacy of the classical style, they do make the attempt to cater their output toward the sensibilities of the locals. I think this is something that be done more often, in my opinion.

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