LECTURE—Pierre Bourdieu and Andrea Fraser—The Ethics of Museum Display

This week seems to be Pierre Bourdieu week for me – which is good, as I’ve not read anything of his before and I’m quite liking his work, with certain reservations.

Yesterday, the lecture for the Framing Art course concerned “Museums and their Audiences”, approaching the subject from both directions, the museum’s and the audience’s.

The museum’s role was presented in terms of its movement away from what our tutor, Roberto Cavallini, described as “the exhibition of artifacts to the exhibition of things”, in other words from a passive to an active principle, away from the pure display of a multitude of similar objects to the development of interactive, thematic frameworks. For this we looked at Andrea Fraser’s text “Museums Highlight: A Gallery Talk”1, presenting an institutional critique of the museum and its processes – in this case the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

For the viewer, they now become the object in their own right, the target of sociological studies of their relationship with the institution. Here Bourdieu’s text2 discusses the relationship between education and aesthetic appreciation, that the individual’s art appreciation and their appreciation of museums depends largely on early experiences:

Each individual possesses a defined and limited capacity for apprehending the ‘information’ proposed by the work, this capacity being a function of his or her overall knowledge (itself a function of education and background) . . . (Bourdieu, p. 37)

As a result, Bourdieu claims “. . . aesthetics can only be, except in certain circumstances, a dimension of the ethics (or, better, the ethos) of class.” (Bourdieu, p. 46) and concludes:

In fact, arrows, notices, guidebooks, guides or receptionists would not really make up for a lack of education, but they would proclaim, simply by existing, the right to be uninformed, the right to be there and uninformed, and the right of uninformed people to be there . . . (Bourdieu, p. 49)

1. Fraser, A. (1991). Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk. In October 57 (Summer). pp. 104–122.
2. Bourdieu, P. and Darbel, A. (1969) Cultural Works and Cultivated Disposition. In The Love of Art: European Art Museums and their public. Cambridge: Polity Press. pp. 36–50.

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