Bourdieu & Darbel: The Love of Art

Just throwing out a couple more quotes taken from “The Love of Art” by Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbell,* first published in France in 1969. This book is essentially a report and analysis of a series of public surveys conducted at museums around Europe with the aim of understanding the audience for those institutions and addressing the perceived need to expand their reach amongst the population. The book is arguing against an assumption of innate or “natural” cultural sensitivity which can somehow be “activated,” pointing to the role of the social environment in which we grow up and length of our education in the formation of cultural receptivity which needs an equivalent input later on in life if the individual is to be acculturated (as it were). Needless to say, “class” gets heavily implicated in the receptivity (or not) of cultural material.

Cultural imperatives can only affect those who want to demonstrate their affiliation to the cultivated world by obeying the precise rules which define this affiliation. Consequently the intensification of visiting promoted by tourism is stronger the more cultivated the class, defined by a greater level of reception, and tourist travel can at most offer some additional chances of visiting to working-class individuals, who are only chance visitors most of the time. While members of the cultivated classes feel themselves called to cultural obligations which impose themselves as an essential part of their social being, members of the working class who in their practice break with the aesthetic and cultural traditions of their class (by decorating their interiors with reproductions of paintings rather than with chromo-lithographs or by listening to classical music rather than popular songs) would be called to order by their social group, who would be quick to perceive the effort to ‘cultivate themselves’ as an attempt to become bourgeois; and in fact, the cultural goodwill of the middle classes is an effect of social climbing at the same time as being an essential dimension of the aspiration to the rights (and duties) of the bourgeoisie. Because aspirations are always geared to objective chances, attainment of high culture, like the ambition to attain it, cannot be the product of a miraculous cultural conversion, but presupposes, in the real world, a change of social and economic condition. (pp.25-26)

Thus, because buying a guidebook or a catalogue presupposes a whole attitude to the work of art, formed through upbringing, the use of these sorts of handbooks which provide a programme of informed perception is above all characteristic of the most cultivated visitor, so much so that they only ever initiate those who are already initiated. (p.62)

… it can be supposed that, if the works presented are equally difficult to understand, the helplessness of the least cultivated visitors could be decreased by offering them the help they expect. To fear that written or spoken information about the works on display diverts visitors from the contemplation of the works themselves by drawing their attention to extrinsic and anecdotal matters, is to be unaware that the ideal of contemplation without words or actions is only characteristic of those who possess the immediate familiarity acquired by the imperceptible training of prolonged exposure. It is also to be unaware that interest in a work in and for itself, and indifference to the apparently additional information it can provide, defines an aesthetic attitude which, in the same way as the popular experience of beauty, is socially conditioned and in any case is never independent of the social conditions which make ‘people of taste’ possible. (p.94)

  • Bourdieu, Pierre and Darbel, Alain with Schnapper, Dominique. Translated by Beattie, Caroline and Merriman, Nick. The Love of Art : European art museums and their public. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1991.
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