Art and Culture: A Reflection on Bourdieu

It has become an accepted fact that as time passes, what humans value and what defines their cultures will change as well. One thing that changes along with this is what society classifies as “art”. So what is art? And how does it fit into our cultural landscape?

In the introduction to his 1984 book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu describes art as a refusal to recognize the usefulness that an object can bring to the user, under the perception of a larger cultural context. Along with culture, education helps to impact our definition, as it is one of the main sources where we are exposed to it.

Depending on who you ask, when you say the word “art”, their first thoughts will change. For some, this could mean anything from as abstract of a way to create art as “words”, a genre of art like “music”, an institution to showcase art like a “museum”, or even a specific composer such as “Chopin”. To get an idea of what different people define as art, I asked the opinion of three people, each of a different age group and slightly different profession/area of study:

All three of these definitions agree with what Bourdieu states. It is a matter of what the culture values at the time of creation, as well as the values at the time when the artifact is being considered by the viewer. They also line up with the teaching of Emmanuel Kant, as mentioned by Bourdieu. Kant spoke about disinterestedness, a separation of what pleases the observer from what gratifies the observer. For most people, or what Bourdieu classifies as the “working class people”, it is expected that an image serves a function, therefore leading their judgement to come from a place of ethics. In all three of the descriptions I was given, the only time when art was spoken of as serving a purpose or having a purpose, it was never anything more than to make people feel some sort of emotion.

This led me to another question, if the definition of art in 1984 when Bourdieu wrote his novel is the same as now in 2017 when I am in the position of analyzing it, then what happens to the definition if we were to go back to 1017? Or even forward to 3017? I again asked the three people from before:

Bourdieu includes in the introduction a quote stating, that nothing is obscene in art. While the quote specifically refers to the theatre, I believe that it can be applied to art in all the forms it currently exists, as well as the forms it will exist in in the future. Art both defines a culture, while still being defined by it in turn. You can not have one without the other. As evidenced by Bourdieu, Kant, as well as the people I myself questioned, art is timeless, meant to evoke meaning, and create an emotion for the both the creator and the observer.

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