More musings on art

My secret pal’s comment to my last post has had me thinking about class and art and Bourdieu and whatnot these past few days.

I’m certainly no expert on Bourdieu, so I’m sure there are all sorts of nuances that I’m missing–especially since he did gobs and gobs of writing about art and aesthetics. He spent a lot of his career trying to understand why rich people and poor people (in France, specifically, but his theories are generally applicable) have different tastes in art, music, literature, etc. One point he made in one of his most famous works, Distinction (and no, I haven’t slogged through the whole book–just bits and pieces), is that because rich people have the economic capital to own works of art, they therefore set themselves up in opposition to those who don’t. So art works to legitimize social differences: because rich people, freed from focusing on survival and the necessities of life, can pursue art that is far removed from the quotidien. A shared interest in this kind of art ( e.g., antiques, “complex” works) helps shape and reinforce an unconscious sense of class unity.

At least, that’s what I remember from grad school–and I’m fairly surprised I remember that much! I like Bourdieu–rather, I should say I like the idea of Bourdieu, since I can’t claim to have read even a small portion of his prodigious output. I like that he was thoughtful and publicly committed in a way that few academics are these days. I was very hopeful when, upon becoming prime minister, Tony Blair announced that Anthony Giddens would be one of his advisors. But then that whole relationship seemed to fall by the wayside, and after a while we saw the UK join the USA’s headlong rush into war (and tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq). Here in the USA we had John Kenneth Galbraith, but he left us last year. At least we still have Noam Chomsky!

Anyway, I don’t think Bourdieu would say that “art isn’t art unless it’s a grand bronze sculpture or oil on canvas.” I think he would say there is a distinction–made by both rich people and poor people–between grand bronze sculptures and finger drawings in the dirt, though.

I don’t pretend to have a clear definition of art–at least, not one that is generally applicable. I think of art mostly in terms of “I like it” or “I don’t like it,” and in terms of whether or not something prods my thinking in new ways. I do think there has to be some intentionality, though. So, for example, when my daughter upends the contents of her breakfast plate onto the floor, I wouldn’t say that the oatmeal-splatter marks in my dining room constitute art per se because she wasn’t intending to be creative or thought-provoking.

Some things fall under the rubric “art” because they were innovative. When Marcel Duchamp stuck a urinal on the wall and called it art, he was the first person to so something like that (and his name became forever linked to an entire movement).

When someone makes a chandelier of gummi bears (yes, that’s right), I find that pretty novel–especially when the artist is striving for some social commentary. YaYa Chou did this first, and I’m happy to call it art. But if this sort of thing became popular and widespread enough to appear in many other incarnations, well, then it seems to me less “artsy” because the initial impact is no longer there.

My brain hurts now. (Social theory tends to do that to me after a while.) I’m going back to knitting. I have a few finished objects and works in progress to chat about, but I’ll save that for another time.

4 Responses to “More musings on art”

  1. Your Secret Pal 10on 20 Mar 2007 at 3:09 pm

    ::So art works to legitimize social differences: because rich people, freed from focusing on survival and the necessities of life, can pursue art that is far removed from the quotidien::

    I agree with and understand the point. I do find it interesting that what used to be a way of life is now an artform — i.e. knitting. I doubt there are many middle to upper class Americans knitting to keep their children clothed, but there sure are a lot of us out here knitting for the art of it. (smile)

    ::I don’t pretend to have a clear definition of art::

    But isn’t this also what is so wonderful about art? Each person takes away their own impression of everything. One person’s rubbish, or in some cases urinal, is another’s art.

    So, were you an art student?

  2. Marsha Brofka-Berendson 20 Mar 2007 at 7:57 pm

    An art student? Me? No, no–not at all. I have trouble drawing a straight line with a ruler. I’m an anthropologist by training, of the sociocultural variety.

  3. Ginaon 21 Mar 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Yes, there is no clear definition of art. There are many who will argue that any created thing that evokes an emotional response is in some way “art,” whether it be Mozart or Marilyn Manson; Michelangelo or Dali. I tend to agree with that sentiment. And yes, that IS what is wonderful about art!

  4. Slaax Gumboon 22 Mar 2007 at 12:59 am

    This is an interesting article. I have problems “getting” a lot of modern art, but I’m finding that I like it more and more.

    I sometimes wonder if a lot of people say they “get it” just to look like they aren’t ignorant. But then sometimes I wonder if we take art too seriously, as if we try to interpret art in a very literal way when the meaning is symbolic.