Archive for the 'democracy' Category


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.


Art and life

Via Craft I came across this article about a guy in San Francisco who, on one afternoon every month, sets up a sewing machine on the street and sews whatever people bring him. Sure, Michael Swaine is a performance artist. But one could also say that he’s someone who’s just trying to connect with other people. In this age of disposable everything, people who can’t sew rarely bother to mend their clothes, I think. Why pay someone money to fix a shirt when you can get a brand-spankin’ new one for only a few bucks more, right?

I also think this is one of those rare cases where art actually does touch the masses. It’s not hung up in some hoity-toity gallery, or set on a stage or concert hall for which paid tickets are mandatory. It’s right there on the street, accessible to anyone. The utilitarian nature of this project–fixing people’s stuff–makes it easier for people to engage it. Instead of trying to wrap their heads around an abstract painting or interesting wordplay or major and minor themes in a piece of music (not that those projects aren’t worthwhile, too), people can just ask someone, “Hey, can you fix this for me?” and end up having a conversation with that person.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu theorized that the production of art is one way in which the ruling class maintains its status. They have access to the material capital to produce it. A truly democratic society, he argued, should provide gobs of funding for art. (Yes, I know this summary doesn’t even begin to do justice to Bourdieu’s massive oeuvre and incredibly influential work.) We have the NEA here, but that agency funds only people who are “officially” recognized as artists. That money isn’t spread around nearly as widely as Bourdieu would have liked.

I’m not sure how much money should go to public art. I’m not sure how art should–or can–even be defined in these cases. But I do see a need for publicly supported encouragement of creativity. Having worked for two different educational publishers and one organization that was involved in educational activities, I know how state-mandated educational standards have affected what goes on in classrooms. Funding for art, music, and theater programs in elementary, middle, and high schools keeps getting cut because those subjects aren’t seen as “important” enough; that is, they aren’t generally part of the core subjects that students are tested on these days. And by “tested” I mean “taught to memorize tons of information that will be on a standardized test.” Yes, a lot of this is stuff that students ought to know. But what about standard-less creativity? What about time to draw a picture or play a song not to have it evaluated in some way but just for the sheer joy and self-expression?