The Conspiracy of Good Taste: chapter 2

Taste in Contemporary Western Culture

'Distinction, a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste' is by far the most authoritative work on contemporary good taste yet to be published. Written by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, using survey data from France, its analysis is largely relevant to other industrialised western states. The quotes that follow are all from this book.

His detailed analysis of taste is important and pioneering. Perhaps one of the most useful contributions is the graphic understanding of class oppression as having a cultural as well as economic dimension, which he expresses most clearly as a cross graph.

It is important to understand the limitations of such a book rather than just be dazzled by its brilliant flights of conceptual architecture or impressed by its erudite tone. The long sentences which take our breath away in awe, can also, by the authority that this style assumes, also deny our brains the oxygen to see his limitations.

Bourdieu sets out to give a cultural definition to class by using statistical data and specific examples derived from mass surveys, to give a scientific basis to the understanding of the dynamics of class identity within the context of western academia. This is achieved with a grand sweep but at the same time he is subject, as he himself admits, to the limitations of his own viewpoint." I cannot entirely ignore or defy the laws of academic or intellectual propriety."

The danger here is that whilst he appears sympathetic he is at the same time reproducing the oppression. This is most revealing in a little footnote in which he admits: "It would have seemed somewhat cruel to quote one or another of the texts in which the 'cultivated' express their image of the 'petit-bourgeois' relation to culture and the 'perversions' of the autodidact" (p.568). This shows how his text is modified within good taste so as not to offend. Through this we can see how extremes of class disgust have been censored from the text, as he says: "one cannot objectify the intellectual game without putting at stake one's own stake in the game -- a risk which is at once derisory and absolute" (p.163)

Distinction seeks to "give a scientific answer to the old questions of Kant's critique of judgement, by seeking in the structure of the social classes the basis of the systems of classification which structure perception of the social world and designate the objects of aesthetic enjoyment" (p. xiii).

"Whereas the ideology of charisma regards taste in legitimate culture as a gift of nature, scientific observation shows that cultural needs are the product of upbringing and education" (p.1)

The dominant culture is however ruled by the ideology of charisma, which gives precedence to those who have from an early age been imbued with culture, each household being ranked in accordance to ancient (mainly aristocratic) rules of precedence. Those who acquire culture by education depend for their position on the ranking conferred on them by a conscious knowledgeability (mainly bourgeois). The superior culture is one that appears to be 'natural', by birthright, rather than having been acquired, artificially, by study. The effect of the mode of acquisition is terribly important. Those brought up in daily contact with ancient objects will show this 'innate' knowledge over a broader field of lifestyle than even the most erudite scholar. The dominant culture tries to achieve a fusion of both traditions, but in reality it is always generating conflicting claims to superiority.

Any outsider to a culture needs to know the code of that culture to get meaning and interest from it. Without understanding the code, we must stop short at the sensory qualities, or interpret them in terms of our own cultural code, which may share meanings in common to a greater or lesser degree. To this extent no work of art may be appreciated universally unless it could exist purely on a sensory level. It must be decoded.

"The encounter with a work of art is not 'love at first sight' as is generally supposed, and the act of empathy, Einfuhlung, which is the art-lover's pleasure, presupposes an act of cognition, a decoding operation, which implies the implementation of a cognitive acquirement, a cultural code" (p.3)

This decoding process is itself mystified and mythologised as an innate quality of those with good breeding. It is an unspoken code whose terms are learnt by familiarity. Its verbal expressions are rather general and vague terms in opposition, which only have an accurate meaning within the right context  (see diagrams). This is necessarily so, as good taste must give a sense of the indefinable, the je ne sais quoi, the implicit.

This legitimate aesthetic was argued by Kant to be superior to a common aesthetic in which the pleasure to be gained is through an object's sensory pleasures, its usefulness or its meaning as a sign. In the legitimate aesthetic the important quality is one of 'disinterestedness'. The satisfaction is not connected to bodily pleasures, nor to social necessities, but to an "elective distance from the necessities of the natural and social world" which "takes the bourgeois denial of the social world to its limit." To put the utmost value on these qualities is to devalue ordinary life. This makes the sufferings of oppression seem both unimportant and necessary in the general scheme of producing this higher realm.

The owning class aesthetic is interested in the representation and disinterested in the relation between the representation and reality. The aesthetic applied to all areas of culture also functions as a way of legitimating social status.

What is implied in Distinction is that 'the lower orders' do not appreciate these higher pleasures. Bourdieu does not contest this, although he does protest in favour of the cultural legitimation of sensory pleasure. What is lacking is a search within the wreckage of working class culture, and possibly in more traditional cultures, for evidence of these higher appreciations of form but which are not 'disinterested'. Bourdieu considers working class culture as it appears in his survey. He does not consider it as a repressed culture, one that exists in latent form, as if under a lid, which is outside the scope of sociological surveys, almost as a prerequisite of its existence. He does not consider the (largely unwritten) history of working class culture. "It must never be forgotten that the working class 'aesthetic' is a dominated 'aesthetic' which is constantly obliged to define itself in terms of the dominant aesthetic" (p.41). Dominated, yes, but not totally. In different areas and at different times it is more or less dominated, sometimes creating temporary autonomous zones.

"Music represents the most radical and the most absolute form of the negation of the world, which the bourgeois ethos tends to demand of all forms of art" (p.19). To someone who knows the working class traditions of music the idea that there is no appreciation of the complex or subtle abstractions of music is absurd. There is an appreciation of the same subtle relationships and qualities, but it is not put on a 'higher level', nor does it serve the same function of 'disinterest'.

Bourdieu is saying that working class culture is totally dependent on the dominant culture and lacking in the higher qualities that the dominant culture embodies. This is nothing but the perpetuation of a central myth of oppression. On the contrary I would say that it is owning class culture which is organised to disguise its fundamental lack, which tortuously has to perpetuate an appearance of 'civility' to cover gross abuse of basic human rights. It is their culture which has grown like a cancer from ours. Most bourgeois high art is actually made by working people. It is working class skills which put it all together, and it is often working class artists who provide the innovations.

"In matters of taste, more than anywhere else, all determination is negation; and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes, disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance of the tastes of others ... which amounts to rejecting others as unnatural and therefore vicious. Aesthetic intolerance can be terribly violent. Aversion to different life-styles is perhaps one of the strongest barriers between the classes" (p.56).

Here Bourdieu does put his finger on the negative basis of good taste in disgust for those inferior to you. Good taste is the wallpaper over this class hatred.

Bourdieu is immersed and dependent on this world himself and whilst he recognises the way that folk forms of culture such as football have been transformed from participative games to spectacle, he does not look further and see what games and culture the spectators re-invent. (See Richard Turner, In Your Blood, Football Culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Working Press, 1990).

Because the working class has not been able to have its own cultural apparatus it is not surprising if it does not react with understanding to the images presented in Bourdieu's survey. Because of this repression we must look elsewhere into non-legitimate areas of culture to investigate people's appreciations and use of representations: an example here could be the shanty houses discussed earlier. In Bourdieu's grand scheme the lack of data due to repression is not adequately compensated for. Its replacement with stereotypes may be a true reflection of an impoverished present, but is an actual block to latent becoming. He says that the dominated classes have produced no art and culture to objectify the cultural game, because they are so "imbued with a sense of cultural unworthiness" (p.251). Anyone attempting to survive as a working class artist can testify that the external barriers of exclusion are at least as great as any internal sense of cultural unworthiness.

"The educational institution succeeds in imposing cultural practices that it does not teach and does not even explicitly demand, but which belong to the attributes attached by status to the position it assigns, the qualifications it awards and the social positions to which the latter gives access" (p.26)

The point here that Bourdieu seems to miss is the way that this process is intuitively resisted by those lower class people who enter it, even though they are often unaware of the nature of the game they are entering. This resistance may not take legitimate forms and so goes unrecorded.  He speaks as if the process of imposing were total, but at best it is a lightweight cultural surface over what is an altogether more profound set of values. If what is latent, buried or under the surface is not investigated, such a study will inevitably reinforce the dominant  images of reality. At one point he does have a short discussion of working class culture in which the importance of "an old erudite culture" is dismissed, and the existence of urban working class art denied (see p.395). He concludes that the only option for a liberatory "reaffirmation of cultural dignity," therefore "implies a submission to dominant values." He shares here with E.P.Thompson, in his recent Customs in Common, unusual insight combined with a hopelessness about the liberatory potential of working class culture. Neither of these great intellects has grasped the crucial fact that this attitude is itself part of the oppression which they are meant to be opposing.

Within the dominant culture there are many factions each vying for position to a greater or lesser degree. In each, there are oppositions between economic and cultural capital and between modes of acquisition of both. Radical revolts occur within the dominant culture. What is not mentioned by Bourdieu is the way that modern hegemony contains its reversal. If hegemony is the pervasive control of the population through the many social institutions that mediate the dominant culture, then we can observe also a class resistance that happens at all levels of social institutions, infiltrated as most now are by many people of working class backgrounds, whose respectability and middle class identity is a brittle myth. So the struggles within the dominant culture are not simply between internal factions of that class as Bourdieu says. I suspect that the dominant culture is a bubble which has absorbed so many lower order people, thinly disguised in good manners, that it is about to burst.

This is not to underestimate the immensity of the problem of dismantling the mechanisms of oppression:

"Routinely the question is that of whose opinion is voiced most frequently and most forcibly, who makes the minor ongoing decisions apparently required for the joint co-ordination of any joint activity, and whose passing concerns have been given the most weight. And however trivial some of these little gains and losses may appear to be, by summing them all up across the social situations in which they occur, we can see that their total effect is enormous. The expression of subordination and domination through this swarm of situational means is more than a mere tracing and symbol or ritualistic affirmation of the social hierachy. These expressions considerably constitute the hierachy" (E. Goffman, 'Gender Display' [paper presented at the Third International Symposium, 'Female Hierachies' at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, April 3-5 1974], quoted in Bourdieu, 1979, p.597, Bourdieu's emphasis).

The project of the demystification and practical deconstruction of this dominant code of manners is our main historic task and one that is well within human capabilities. But first we must dare to face it fairly and squarely.