Bourdieu, Pierre

Assigned: Bourdieu, Pierre. From Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, “Introduction” (1586-92); from The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, Part I, from Chapter 2 and Part III, from Chapter 1 (1592-1602). Also read the editors’ introduction (1583-86).

From Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979)


1. On 1586-89 (“There is an economy of cultural…”), Pierre Bourdieu asserts and explores the principle that there is a “specific logic” to “cultural goods” (1586)  and that “cultural needs are the product of upbringing and education” (1587 top). In his view, what are the implications of these assertions in the context of aesthetic education? In responding, attend to Bourdieu’s remarks about the privileged class’s ideal way of coming by a proper appreciation of and attitude towards art as opposed to a merely scholarly (“intellectualist”) interpretation of it. Why, according to Bourdieu, is the latter devalued and the former exalted? (1587-88)

2. On 1589-91 (“The pure intention of the artist…”), Bourdieu discusses what happens when artists begin to claim a high degree of autonomy as producers of aesthetic objects. What changes in doctrines of artistic representation and value consequently take place, and what demands are made upon the aesthetic sensibilities and perceptual abilities of those who come into contact with the works that are produced? In responding, be sure to comment on the opposition Bourdieu explores between “intellectuals,” the wealthy, and “the people” as well as his remarks about “disinterested” (i.e., free of material interest) Kantian aesthetics (1590). In other words, consider what Bourdieu is suggesting about how socioeconomic class structures the manner in which people relate to works of art, and what they expect from it.

3. On 1591 (“Although art obviously offers the…”), Bourdieu expands his discussion to the reception of items that we would not strictly call art: household items, for example, or “eating habits” and the presentation of food on one’s plate, etc. What similarity does he say exists between certain groups’ attitude towards these ordinary things and towards more exalted things, namely works of art?

4. On 1591-92 (“The science of taste and of cultural…”), Bourdieu remarks upon the significance of his project, which he connects with “[t]he science of taste and of cultural consumption” (1591). What does he suggest must be done to advance this science, and why does it matter? Why, based upon what you can infer from the author’s introduction generally and these pages in particular, does Bourdieu believe we need to historicize the definition, production and consumption of works of art—what practical value would any insights thereby gained hold for us?

5. General question: In our selection from Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu deals with the historical development and social conditioning of artistic production and reception or “taste.” In essence, Bourdieu historicizes something we are used to thinking of more or less in terms of innate capacity, as if fine judgment regarding works of art and natural beauty were a gift, not a matter of cultural and class-based conditioning. In your view, is there nonetheless some role for a capacity that is not strictly reducible to the experience afforded by such conditioning? There are, after all, people who are raised with all the advantages and opportunities money and connections can buy, and yet they may show little or no genuine interest in literature or the arts, while sometimes others with no such advantages flourish among the arts. How should we process that kind of difference among people in their engagement with art?

6. General question: In our selection from Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu points out that privileged citizens tend to favor an appreciation of the arts that comes from easy familiarity with beautiful things, and to disvalue the sort that comes from formal, scholarly erudition. This is doubtless an instance of the old aristocratic principle that it is contemptible to dirty one’s hands or mind with work—an attitude that the English dandy Beau Brummell reportedly parodied to hilarious effect when he was asked which of the lakes in the English Lake District he liked best. Instead of replying directly, Brummell turned to his valet and asked, “I say, Robinson, which lake do I prefer?” What is your own view of this dichotomy between “easy familiarity” and “scholarly erudition”? Does something like the stigma that Beau Brummell parodied hang over professional academic studies in literature and the arts? Does the manner in which aesthetic insight or knowledge is obtained affect the perceptions of it that academics themselves, or the general public, or the non-academic elite may hold? Essentially, what is the standing of academic discourse beyond the university environment? Explain.

From The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (1992)

From Part I. Three States of the Field

From Chapter 2. The Emergence of a Dualist Structure

The Particularities of Genres

1. On 1592-95 (“The progress of the literary field…”), Pierre Bourdieu analyzes “the progress of the literary field towards autonomy” (1592). What is the distinguishing feature or “mark” of this progress towards autonomy (that is, independence or self-sufficiency) with regard to the relative standing of poetry, drama, and the novel from “the economic point of view” (1593) as well as from the point of view of those making judgments within the literary field itself? In what sense is the latter point of view more complex? How does Bourdieu’s analysis of the “two principles of differentiation” (1594) that his model entails help him show the complexity of the “chiasmatic structure” (i.e., the inverse relationship) that governs the two viewpoints just mentioned?

Part III. To Understand Understanding

From Chapter 1. The Historical Genesis of the Pure Aesthetic

Analysis of Essence and Illusion of the Absolute

2. On 1595-97 (“Although it appears to itself…”), how do Bourdieu’s comments about “the eye of the nineteenth-century art-lover” (1595) gesture towards the social history he hopes will be undertaken, as is apparent from his remark on 1597 that “[q]uestions of the meaning and value of the work of art […] can only find solutions in a social history of the field”? In responding, consider what he suggests about the relationship between individual perceptions and collective institutions such as museums and schools. How, for example, does the “‘pure’ gaze” (1594) of the individual art connoisseur develop, and in what way is this individual art-lover adapted to the museum as an institution that makes its own demands on the perceptions and expectations of those who enter through its doors?

Historical Anamnesis and the Return of the Repressed

3. On 1597-99 (“What makes a work of art…”), according to Bourdieu, if we want to answer questions like “[w]hat makes a work of art a work of art?” or “[w]hat makes an artist an artist?” (1597), or if we want to know why some everyday item displayed in a museum is thereby transformed into art, how will we need to approach these questions? In other words, what kind of investigation must be carried out respecting the “genesis of the universe in which the value of the work of art is ceaselessly produced and reproduced…” (1598)? What should an investigator know about the material circumstances and actions that go towards “the constitution of the artistic field” (1599), and why is “the elaboration of a properly artistic language” (1599 middle) so important to the kind of “genetic sociology” that Bourdieu envisions?

4. On 1599-1600 (“A genetic sociology should also include…”), Bourdieu continues his discussion of the key elements and objects of the history-conscious sociology, or “genetic sociology” (1599) he considers necessary to the investigation of the art field. With regard to painters themselves, what should be learned about how their self-image and sense of dignity is formed and maintained? Moreover, what should an investigator try to learn about the consumption of art and the “production of consumers and in particular, of taste…” (1600)?

5. On 1600-02 (“Besides the fact they foster…”), Bourdieu discusses the role that museums play in the constitution of the art field (i.e., how they help determine the manner in which we come to call an object “art,” etc.). What “social rupture” (1600) does he say museums effect upon many of the objects that are displayed in the museum’s exhibition spaces? How, too, does the writing of “practical manuals” such as tourist guides as well as more theoretical material—disquisitions on art, for example, or art criticism—also play a role? Finally, how would an investigator need to reinterpret or reconfigure the philosophical tradition pertaining to art (i.e., the branch of philosophy known as “aesthetics”) with a view towards including the historical and material factors that Bourdieu has been discussing in the present excerpt?

6. General question: On 1600 (bottom, “… The museum, as it isolates…”) of our selection from The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, Pierre Bourdieu mentions how important museums are to the bestowal of the “status of the sacred” upon the works of art that reside within them. How do you think the situating of works of art or cultural artifacts in the museums to which you have been has influenced your own feelings and perceptions while you viewed them? What kind of feelings does being in a museum—the Getty Center in Los Angeles or the Huntington Library and Gardens in Pasadena, to name a few—give you?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake