Thursday, September 5, 2013

Bourdieu on Everyday Aesthetics

In my book, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life, I failed to give sufficient credit for Bourdieu in his views on everyday aesthetics.  I cannot pretend to have a thorough knowledge of this thinker, but would like to refer to the Introduction to Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1984) orig. 1979.   Thanks to for providing the Richard Nice translation in a form that can be easily copied.

There he says:

“Although art obviously offers the greatest scope to the aesthetic disposition, there is no area of practice in which the aim of purifying, refining and sublimating primary needs and impulses cannot assert itself no area in which the stylization of life, that is, the primacy of forms over function, of manner over matter, does not produce the same effects. And nothing is more distinctive, more distinguished, than the capacity to confer aesthetic status on objects that are banal or even 'common' (because the 'common' people make them their own, especially for aesthetic purposes), or the ability to apply the principles of a 'pure' aesthetic to the most everyday choices of everyday life, e.g., in cooking, clothing or decoration, completely reversing the popular disposition which annexes aesthetics to ethics."

This is a ringing endorsement of everyday aesthetics, although it does seem strange that he is committed to distinguishing between pure aesthetic choices in this arena and ones that are annexed to ethics.  In this regard I prefer Saito's approach to everyday aesthetics in which she sees ethical and aesthetic choices as deeply intertwined.  

I am also struck by Bourdieu's comment that "But one cannot fully understand cultural practices unless 'culture', in the restricted, normative sense of ordinary usage, is brought back into "culture'' in the anthropological sense, and the elaborated taste for the most refined objects is reconnected with the elementary taste for the flavours of food."  Like Dewey before him Bourdieu is seeking to overcome the discontinuities in aesthetics. 

Here's another quote of interest:

"The science of taste and of cultural consumption begins with a transgression that is in no way aesthetic: it has to abolish the sacred frontier which makes legitimate culture a separate universe, in order to discover the intelligible relations which unite apparently incommensurable 'choices', such as preferences in music and food, painting and sport, literature and hairstyle. This barbarous reintegration of aesthetic consumption into the world of ordinary consumption abolishes the opposition, which has been the basis of high aesthetics since Kant, between the 'taste of sense' and the 'taste of reflection', and between facile pleasure, pleasure reduced to a pleasure of the senses, and pure pleasure, pleasure purified of pleasure, which is predisposed to become a symbol of moral excellence and a measure of the capacity for sublimation which defines the truly human man. The culture which results from this magical division is sacred. (cultural consecration does indeed confer on the objects, persons and situations it touches, a sort of ontological promotion akin to a transubstantiation.)"

Sociologists, he implies, notice similarities between choices in hairstyle and in literature.  Kant's distinction between two kinds of taste is dissolved.  Well, I don't think it is quite dissolved...maybe undercut as a rigid distinction.  One could argue that the sacred realm of the aesthetic taste is part of our (or at least of the cultural elite's) everyday phenomenology.  There are spaces in our lives that fall into this special "sacred" realm.  The issue is whether one wants to just note that it is there for some and not for others, or whether one wants to go on and abolish it.

He concludes the Introduction with this:

"The denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, venal, servile-in a word, natural-enjoyment, which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane. That is why art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfill a social function of legitimating social differences."

I wonder whether a sacred sphere can be retained without the denial of the other as lower, coarse, etc.  Similarly, could it be possible for more movement here, the "distinguished pleasures" not "forever closed to the profane" or only closed insofar as they choose to remain in the profane realm?  My egalitarian side urges me to break down social differences and thus not to support legitimization of such, and yet I am not ready to abandon the sacred realm of art.


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