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?