Taste After Bourdieu: an interview with Malcolm Quinn

CCW Graduate School spoke to Malcolm Quinn, CCW Associate Dean of Research and Director of Graduate School, about the forthcoming conference that the Graduate School is hosting, Taste After Boudieau.  Quinn proposed the conference because CCW Graduate School has a commitment to promote cultural debate through the Graduate School themes of Environment, Identity, Social Engagement and Technologies. Taste After Bourdieu deals with the relationship of identity and social engagement in art and design practice and theory.

Why is CCW Graduate School hosting a conference about taste?

Many practitioners and theorists at UAL, from Elizabeth Wilson to Grayson Perry have engaged with the social dimension of art and taste, and CCW is following this with the UAL panel convenors and speakers for Taste After Bourdieu, who represent our current institutional engagement with contemporary debates on taste.  It is also the case that the publicly funded art school in England emerged from a political debate about public taste and cultural exclusion in the 1830s, so it makes sense to re-engage with those themes in 2014, at the end of a phase when the rhetoric of cultural inclusiveness and social mobility was the norm. In contrast, the current government have been described as ‘selective philistines’ (Catherine Bennett, The Observer, 2 Dec 2012) who are content for the population of Newcastle to embark on its own version of the Dark Ages, ‘while Downing Street’s connoisseurs blag £888 Wagner tickets or hanker for a Tracey Emin.’

Who was Pierre Bourdieu?

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was a French sociologist. His seminal text Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste was based on fieldwork that Bourdieu conducted in the 1960s, yet its analysis of the social formations of taste, and its central concepts of ‘cultural capital’, ‘habitus’ and ‘field’, are still influential in studies of culture and society and are now part of the lingua franca of cultural policy.  For example, the UK currently boasts an ‘Institute of Cultural Capital’ (ICC) in Liverpool dedicated to ‘debates concerning the social and economic value of cultural interventions’.

Why is Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of taste important to CCW/UAL?

Bourdieu thought that taste was a symbolic practice in the domain of culture that we use to enhance our life chances and where individual identity and social recognition is at stake. He thought that the institutions of art were crucial to the affirmation of differences between groups and social classes and in the reproduction of those differences. His work was marked by an analysis of culture ‘from the ground up’ that emphasised the importance of individual practices of cultural engagement and reception in everyday life. He claimed that institutions of art and culture such as art schools, galleries and museums divide those who feel confident in their expressions of taste from those whose upbringing and education inhibit them from using personal taste as a means of gaining social approval and recognition. Rather than seeing radical and avant-garde art as a challenge to social convention, Bourdieu saw artists as complicit with the moneyed middle classes in excluding whole sectors of the population from the game of taste and the possibility of gaining social recognition and approval.  Bourdieu opposed Theodor Adorno, who saw the individual artwork as holding out the possibility of social change through a challenge to the existing forms and conventions of art. Instead, Bourdieu claimed that the artwork and the artist are only socially legible if contained within a cross-cultural analysis of social distinctions. Bourdieu saw Marcel Duchamp as an exception that proved this rule, because Duchamp’s subversion of belief in the power of the individual artist disclosed the modus operandi of the entire field of art.

What are some of the current challenges to Bourdieu’s analysis of taste?

Bourdieu was one of the great academic ‘Mythbusters’ of the twentieth century, who wanted to demolish the myths of art and philosophical aesthetics in order to reveal the social reality of taste. This meant that art practice was both ‘out of place’ and ‘in place’ in his analysis.  Bourdieu thinks that art is ‘out of place’ because it distorts a clear view of the field of cultural practices and he thinks that it is ‘in place’ when someone like Duchamp discloses the way things really are with art and the social world. Bourdieu suggests that art and design practice is crucial to the formation of taste because taste is vital to social positioning. But perhaps art is crucial to the debate on taste because it suggests that not everything is in position. While we are obliged to negotiate social conventions of taste, we do not have to accept that these conventions tell us how things are with the world. The overwhelming power that Bourdieu accords to the role of social distinction in the game of culture can also introduce its own distortions, in which cross-cultural analysis is used to describe a game of culture built around the drive of dominant social groups to reproduce themselves. This means that your point of entry into the game of culture determines your level of engagement. In Taste After Bourdieu, our four domains of gallery, museum, street and home are there to allow for a cross-cultural account of how conventions of taste might operate across and between each domain, but they do not describe levels of cultural attainment. Student involvement is an important part of this conference and a group of CCW Graduate School students are preparing an intervention that will allow us to see new points of entry into these debates. Above all, our conference is directed to debate that will allow conventions of taste to be considered ‘after Bourdieu’ and his description of the social meaning of art and taste.

For more information about Taste After Bourdieu and booking, please visit the conference website.

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