Wednesday, October 7, 2015

More on Bourdieu art and everyday aesthetics

Bourdieu's book Distinction provides an important source for everyday aesthetics.  I have already commented on it here.
But here is some more.  Sociology as Bourdieu understands it is a bit complicated...more like a combination of science and philosophy than science alone.  He insists that in order to truly understand the conditions of production and appreciation of objects of taste we need to bring culture in the normative sense back into culture in the anthropological sense.  On one level this would seem to be simply saying that we need to just give up on philosophy of art and do a kind of anthropology of taste.  But he sees this as reconnecting elaborated taste for refined objects with elementary tastes such as the taste for food flavors.  This sounds more like the kind of thing Dewey advocated:  i.e. a reformative approach not only to philosophy but also to social practices.  This appears to also be part of what Bourdieu means by "sociology."  I suppose that this is obvious to people in Sociology or at least to followers of Bourdieu.  So, sorry if I am stating the obvious.  

Bourdieu makes an interesting distinction between two ways of acquiring culture, one being in terms of educational level and one in terms of social origin:  the scholastic vs. the domestic.  And yet, he observes, the classroom also favors "those who have had early access to legitimate culture, in a cultured household, outside of scholastic disciplines."  He even notes that within the classroom there is a certain devaluing of "scholarly knowledge and interpretation" as scholastic.  Privileged, rather, is "direct experience and simple delight" which, presumably, comes to those who are cultured at home.  

The pedantic or scholarly approach, he argues, involves "mastery of a cipher or code" which gives us the "capacity to see."  That capacity is based on a certain kind of knowledge.  This is similar to Danto's theory of artistic identification where identifying something as a work of art requires an atmosphere of knowledge (but we will see later that the similarity is weak).  Here, it is perception that requires such knowledge.  Without knowledge of the code, the appreciator is lost in a chaos of sounds and rhythms.  Instead, he only perceives "sensible properties," for example that this lace-work is delicate, and cannot move to the level of the "secondary meanings."  For that, he needs the appropriate concepts.  He would need such concepts, for example, to identify "the specifically stylistic properties of the work."  The encounter here is what Bourdieu calls an "act of empathy" based on cognition, i.e. decoding. 

This idea of culture, again, is in opposition to that which sees it as a matter of "insensible familiarization within the family circle," where the "enchanted experience of culture" forgets the process of concept acquisition.  Here, what is considered is "form rather than function."  It is accepted in this context, and by the formalist (whom, after all, is the referent here), that artistic seeing can be applied to anything.  In the practice of art, for example in Post-impressionism, this implies that the mode of representation is more important than its object. The distinction is virtually the same as that of Danto vs. Stolnitz, for example.  (But again, we will see that this is simplistic and that from Bourdieu's perspective Danto and Stolnitz are one.)

The artist who follows the second path intends to be autonomous, to be "master of his product."  Such an artist rejects both the a priori programs of scholars but also their a posteriori interpretations of his work.  The method is to proclaim that his work has many meanings, that it is open.  Again, what gets primacy is what the artist is master of:  form and style and not referent and function.  Necessity here is limited to the discipline itself:  there is a shift from that which imitates nature to that which imitates art, the history of art itself being the source of its experiments.

But, oddly and paradoxically, I now find Danto here!  "An art which ever increasingly contains reference to its own history demands to be perceived historically; it asks to be the universe of past and present works of art."  Such historical perception refers to that which deviates from previous art and thus makes up a new style.  This is a mastery, Bourdieu insists, that comes through "implicit learning" i.e. from "contact with works of art."   One does not, for example, have to be able to explicitly distinguish the features that makes something original in order to make or appreciate art in this mode.  

The so-called "pure gaze" of the formalist then is really one based on historical knowledge.  Bourdieu identifies it with something in Ortega y Gassett, i.e. the idea that the human or that which is associated with the passions of ordinary lives is to be rejected by the modernist artists and appreciators.  It is the aesthetic, as opposed to the ordinary, attitude.  The ordinary attitude is associated with what is called "popular aesthetic" which affirms continuity between art and life and subordinates form to function. The "popular aesthetic" is that of the working class insofar as they reject formal experimentation and any the unconventional.  The popular aesthetic requires full identification between the spectators and the characters, as in Brecht's plays.  This, then, is contrasted against Kant's notion of disinterestedness (which is now associated with y Gassett).  Formal experimentalism rejects the vulgar enjoyments of the working class.  The aesthetic, or rather the ethos, of the working class is the opposite of Kant insofar as it does not separate what pleases from what gratifies or from "the interest of reason" or the Good.  Bourdieu seems to join them in this.  

So, popular taste reduces "things of art to the things of life."  Pure taste, by contrast, is opposed to the naïve and half playful relationship to the world characteristic of the working class approach to art.  

This leads Bourdieu to discuss what we would call aestheticization or even artification.  Even though art itself allows the greatest scope for purifying vision or "the aesthetic disposition," it is possible to stylize life anywhere, and in doing so we may "confer aesthetic status on objects that are banal or even 'common'." In doing this we are applying aesthetic principles to "everyday choices of everyday life," for example to cooking, clothing and decoration.

So, different ways of "relating to realities and fictions" is a matter of different positions in "social space" which is a matter of the habits of different classes:  "taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier."  Thus the oppositions in cultural practices are also found in eating habits as much as in differences in appreciation of high art.  The taste of "liberty," as opposed to that of "necessity," favors the manner of presenting food over the practical value of food, thus denying function.

So we return to the issue of sociology and the surprising idea that "the science of taste and of cultural consumption begins with a transgression that is in no way aesthetic." In doing so, "it has to abolish the sacred frontier which makes legitimate culture a separate universe" simply in order to find the unity of choices or preferences within certain classes.  For example, if one takes a distanced approach to music one will also do so for food.  Bourdieu recognizes how radical this is when he says that "this barbarous integration of aesthetic consumption into the world of ordinary consumption abolishes the opposition" which is the basis of Kant's aesthetics, i.e. between taste of sense and taste of reflection, the latter only representing, for Kant, the "moral excellence" and "capacity for sublimation" that makes us truly human.  What is opposed is this "magical division" which is "sacred" and a matter of "transubstantiation."  

Danto is defeated (if Bourdieu is right, anyway) and the aesthetics of everyday life is assimilated to the aesthetics of art.  This all explains why art (high art) legitimates social differences.

If Bourdieu is right then there is something problematic about having an aesthetics of the everyday.  What we should have instead is an aesthetics in which the distinction between the everyday and the refined dissolves and the distinctions so dear to Kant and his followers are set aside.


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