Bourdieu, Pierre. "Introduction." Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984. 1-7. Summary The goal of sociology is to determine how consumers of cultural goods produce and are produced by their tastes in a given historical moment, and to examine the social conditions that legitimize certain cultural products and not others (1). Surveys indicate that educational level and duration, as well as social origin, determine all cultural practices. Although formal education can teach individuals how to "read" legitimate art, the best teacher is early experience, which naturalizes artistic appreciation (2). The code must be learned, but the early learner gains an "eye" for art and applies it seemingly without the mediation of intentional cognition (3). The "pure gaze" (4) of the culturally and artistically competent is opposed to the ordinary way of seeing the world, which privileges function over form. The "popular aesthetic" thus abolishes the distance cultural elites attempt to establish between themselves and the art they evaluate. Kant's division between the ethical and the aesthetic does not hold for popular methods of judgement, since popular evaluation always has an ethical basis; the objects of art are reduced to the objects of life (5). The pure aesthetic, contrarily, demands a distance from life and necessity. This distance is enabled by the lives of ease enjoyed by those who hold this aesthetic disposition. Because artists have also adopted this doctrine of distance, art is no longer based on reality, but upon other art (5). Science overcomes the "sacred" barrier erected between legitimate culture and culture taken in the broader, more simply anthropological sense, so that useful evaluations and comparisons can be made (6). Preferences in art are related to such apparently mundane things as preferences in food, sport, and hairstyle. A given system of interrelated preferences indicates social standing: "Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier" (6); art legitimizes social differences (7). Critique Bourdieu's conclusion that art is predisposed "to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences" (7) demands further distinctions and qualifications, few of which are provided in his introduction. Even what seems to be the most easily defended aspect of his claim, the fact that art functions or has traditionally functioned to legitimize social differences, holds up only in specific times and places that he has not specified. If one assumes he means that art has legitimated social differences in the west for the last 400 years, the claim perhaps becomes defensible, though to support it he adduces not even the cursory survey evidence he produces in defense of other claims. But this is still far from supporting the assertion that art is predisposed to fulfill this function. It is still further from proving that this is art's primary function, an argument Bourdieu makes implicitly throughout his introduction. Of course, a circular argument makes a grand claim easier to support. Bourdieu suggests that there has emerged "an autonomous field of artistic production" (3) which is "capable of imposing its own norms on both the production and the consumption of its products" (3). In other words, only those things which the elites have designated as art can be art, and so modes of artistic production and consumption will follow the (always implicit) criteria these individuals set out. Since the elite use art to legitimize their social position, art's defining feature becomes its ability to perform this function. So, art becomes that which legitimizes social position. By positing his conclusion as the definition of the term in question, he reduces his argument to a tautology. Bourdieu's claim that one's choices in "music and food, painting and sport, literature and hairstyle" (6) are indicative of one's social standing seem to have a solid basis in lived experience. It is not difficult to imagine systematically classifying individuals into their positions in a social hierarchy according to their tastes and preferences. A young adult with a penchant for Kraft Dinner, loud music, beer, and Robert Burns might confidently be classed as an undergraduate literature student, though this is not by any means certain. This does not mean, however, that social classification is literature's defining or primary function. For a parallel example chosen from the list of social indicators above, one would not claim that food's primary and definitive function is to mark social standing, though it performs that duty well. A strong sense of division between the culturally competent individual and the ordinary person pervades Bourdieu's arguments, with binary opposition being the dominant mode of comparison. The aesthete is a person of leisure who values form over function and employs the Kantian division between aesthetic disinterestedness and moral interest (5). The ordinary person is a worker who fails to recognize the Kantian distinction and is only capable of appreciating art at the level of sense (4). These categories, so rigidly defined, make a caricature of all they describe. Also, to suggest that an appreciation for the "sensible properties" (2) of a work and the "stratum of secondary meanings" (2) are mutually exclusive is completely unfounded. Bourdieu's oppositions also exclude the possibility of the production of unsanctioned or subversive art, as well as the possibility that the "uncultured" can appreciate art in sophisticated ways. Both of these possibilities occur frequently in actuality, rendering Bourdieu's model at best a highly preliminary simplification of art and its functions.
Document created March 4th 2005