2: Notes for Project 2 The hierarchy of legitimacies

One of the things that has troubled me with this essay is the language but I do think some of the things I find offensive are down to translation.  Instead of ‘peasants’ we can refer to an underclass, for instance. But then again, maybe I’m quite wrong and he does actually mean peasants in the old fashioned sense of the word.  Because of the time this was written (not that long ago in the scheme of things), and because the word peasants, if referred to certain sections of society today, is not that kind, it is difficult.

The other thing that is troubling are the sweeping statements – perhaps again down to translation, but also probably due to an altered sense of what is acceptable in 2016 as opposed to 1960.

I had to do some research about Bourdieu (since I had not heard of him) and after a very brief search and minor education about some of his ideas I see that he is concerned with ‘cultural capital’, and that is what he is discussing in the essay.  He is comparing various levels of cultural capital and making observations about the value of that capital, and how a dearth might present itself.

There seem to be two separate distinct parts to the essay, one of which comes across (perhaps due to translation) as though Bourdieu feels immensely superior, and one of which doesn’t.  So for me, the section titled ‘hierarchy of legitimacies’ is far more observational and anthropological – noticing and measuring.  I can’t work out if he is criticising practitioners who attempt to legitimise their craft, (crafts from the middle brow sphere such as jazz, photography and cinema) by transferring ‘models of behaviour’ from arts that sit higher up the chain of authority such as painting, sculpture, literature and theatre.  Or if he’s just suggesting that is what happens.

Bourdieu suggests that the middle brow arts are more accessible because people do not feel ‘as forced as they do in other areas to make the effort to acquire, preserve and communicate’ (pg 177) scholarly backgrounds from the upper echelons of ‘legitimate’ art.

As I look at the diagram on page 177 and note that fashion, advertising and design are placed in the sphere of the arbitrary I am reminded of a blurring of authoritarian social structures, which I mentioned in the last project.  Fashion, photography and fine art for instance are not always so separate now.

I wish I could say whether his arguments can be applied to contemporary forms of artistic expression.  But at the moment I’m having trouble trying to figure out what his arguments actually are.  Is he saying that the vast majority of people do not have the wherewithal to understand or appreciate high art?  But that middle brow art does not come with the same academic and tightly defined social baggage, so is less frightening for people?  And that the underclass are simply kept out of the picture because their interests are squarely placed in the sphere of the arbitrary? (My first proper partner, a boy from Workington with a very strong Cumbrian accent, who came from a long line of miners but had aspirations to become a camera man – and was successful, would have referred to this sphere as the “Bingo and Chips” sphere.  It was he who introduced me to foreign films and photography. His social history and political knowledge was greater than any of my friends’ whose received pronunciation had been learned in expensive schools and handed down by parents who picked them up at the end of term in Audis and BMWs.  He does not fit neatly into Bourdieu’s categories.)

I do, however,  keep thinking about Tate Modern,* one of the busiest, most successful ‘attractions’ in the UK, a space filled with photography, installations, and video art. And the middle classes.  I took my son there when he was 7 to do a school project.  We watched a short film where some cubes of sugar have petroleum poured on them and then disintegrate.  He loved it!  Kader Attia’s installation reminded him of a YouTube video so he could relate to it.  I have not seen him react with such enthusiasm in the National Gallery.  Titian, Rembrandt or Manet have never elicited such excitement (although Malevich sent him somewhat crazy, I must admit – he kept saying they were like optical illusions, which he loves too.  But then Malevich is modern art so maybe my son’s enjoyment of it confirms some of what Bourdieu is saying). Is this child-like appreciation relevant?  An unadulterated enjoyment of something that requires minimal education?

Of course, an educated appreciation of any art, even middle-brow photography or jazz, can be very satisfying.  It is also jolly nice to feel superior about having some knowledge and understanding when you know others might not have it.  To have a relatively decent degree of ‘cultural capital’, which I have clearly demonstrated exists in our financially, restricted, single-parent family, perhaps gives us an advantage in some areas (Although, I note, we have less cultural capital than others I know, such as the children of parents who attended Oxbridge for instance, where the habit of learned appreciation is greater than in my family).  But I feel very uncomfortable with some of the statements made in this essay.  And I am confused by the different tones in the two sections.  I do feel this is quite tricky to tackle without having a deeper understanding about Bourdieu’s ideas and my afternoon looking at a couple of YouTube videos hasn’t helped enough.

*What’s so Great About Tate Modern – an article looking at Tate Modern’s popularity.


2 thoughts on “2: Notes for Project 2 The hierarchy of legitimacies

  1. Maybe it’s not to do with education but having an ‘open’ approach towards art. I do keep pondering on the ‘visual’, Would hate to think that I have to read reams of words to appreciate what my eyes are seeing – the two sides of my brain would be very much competing .


    1. Gosh, if that is what I’ve communicated I’ve done him a disservice really. His overall thesis seems terribly complex. But reading this essay without having any links to the rest of his work makes it very tricky to make sense of. I think the thing is if you’re born into a family where there is a good amount of cultural capital, i.e. intellectual socialisation, extra-curricular activities, tremendous support, perhaps knowing people in the arts, you will grow up just automatically having certain tastes and an inbuilt ability to think intellectually in a well informed, educated way, as well as respond instinctively. It just becomes internalised, and happens as a matter of a course because of the capital (not fiscal although that is one type of capital, amongst others). So, my friend who grew up in an empty coal bucket in Wales responds instinctively to things but never had the education that would have supported her instinctive appreciation -so she has had to work quite hard. And also has rejected some of the tastes PB would, I think, expect from ‘peasants’ or ‘working classes’. And embraced more middle class tastes. This was written in the mid 60s and things have changed a great deal since then. The boundaries are less structured. I also think one could talk about the well documented pattern of middle class virtues and tastes having an influence on the section categorised as below it. The posh lot at the top have their very own separate and distinct tastes too. But they are highly educated and their education just happens a they grow and learn in their schools where wine tasting might be a subject for a couple of terms for instance. Music lessons are just part of life. Not just a few piano lessons which tail off eventually but an extensive musical education. (and I don’t mean just any old independent schools – as they aren’t always any better than decent state schools). The other thing is that there is something to be said about the middle classes who aspire ‘upwards’ now spending way more time, effort and money trying to emulate and work towards some of the cultural ideals they believe the upper echelons offer to their own offspring by becoming helicopter parents and making their children go to afternoon clubs and activities every day. Anyway, I have to reread it and concentrate on the photography aspect of the it all. Jazz – That’s what he puts photography alongside. One of most helpful things in the whole article maybe.


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