Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Popular Aesthetic by Pierre Bourdieu

The hostility of the working class and of middle-class fractions least rich in cultural capital towards any kind of formal experimentation asserts itself both in the theater and in painting, or still more clearly, because they have less legitimacy, in photography and the cinema. In the theater as in cinema, the popular audience delights in plots that proceed logically and chronologically towards a happy end, and ‘identifies’ better with simply drawn situations and characters than with ambiguous and symbolic figures and actions or the enigmatic problems of the theater of cruelty, not to mention the suspended animation of Beckettian heroes of the bland absurdities of Pinteresque dialogue. Their reluctance or refusal springs not just from lack of familiarity but from a deep rooted demand for participation, which formal experiment systematically disappoints, especially when, refusing to offer the ‘vulgar’ attractions of the art of illusion, the theatrical fiction denounces itself, as in all forms of ‘play within a play’. Pirandello supplies the paradigm here, in plays in which the actors are unable to act and Jean Genet supplies the formula in the Prologue to The Blacks: “We shall have politeness, which you have taught us, to make communication impossible. The distance initially between us we shall increase, by our splendid gestures, our manners and our insolence, for we are also actors.” The desire to enter into the game, identifying with the characters; joys and sufferings, worrying about their fate, espousing their hopes and ideals, living their life, is based on the form of investment, a sort of deliberate ‘naivety’, ingenuousness, good-natured credulity, (‘we are here to enjoy ourselves’), which tends to accept formal experiments and specifically artistic effects only to the extent that they can be forgotten and do not get in the way of the substance of the work.

The cultural divide which associates each class of works with its public means that it is not easy to obtain working-class (‘In our surveys’) people’s first-hand judgment on formalist innovations in modern art. However, television, which brings certain performances of ‘high’ art into the home, or certain cultural institutions which briefly bring a working class public into contact with high art and sometimes avant-garde works, create what are virtually experimental situations, neither more or less artificial or unreal than those necessarily produced by any survey on legitimate culture in a working-class milieu. One then observes the confusion, sometimes almost a sort of panic mingled with revolt, that is induced by some exhibits – I am thinking of Ben’s’ heap of coal, on view at Beaubourg shortly after it opened – whose parodic intention, entirely defined in terms of an artistic field and its relatively autonomous history, is seen as a sort of aggression, an affront to common sense and sensible people. Likewise, when formal experimentation insinuates itself into their familiar entertainments (e.g., TV  with sophisticated technical effects) working class viewers protest, not only because thy do not feel the need for these fancy games, but because they sometimes understand that they derive their necessity from the logic of a field of production which excludes them precisely by these games: “’ I don’t like those cut-up things at all variety shows at all, where you see a head, then a nose, then a leg . . . First you see  singer all drawn out, three meters tall, then the next minute he’s got arms two meters long. Do you find that funny? Oh, I just don’t like it, it’s stupid, I don’t see the point of distorting things’ (a baker, Grenoble).

Formal refinement –which, in literature or the theater, leads to obscurity – is, in the eyes of the working-class public, one sign of what is sometimes felt to be a desire to keep the uninitiated at arm’s length, , or, as one respondent said about certain cultural programs on TV, to speak to other initiates ‘over the viewers heads’. It is part of the paraphernalia which always announces its sacred character – the icy solemnity of the great museums, the grandiose luxury of the opera houses and major theaters, the decor and decorum of the concert-halls. Everything takes place as if working-class audience vaguely grasped what is implied in conspicuous formality, both in art and in life, i.e. a sort of censorship of the expressive content which explodes in the expressiveness of popular language, an by the same token, a distancing, inherent in the calculated coldness of all formal exploration, a refusal to communicate concealed at the heart of communication itself, both in an art which takes back and refuses what it seems to deliver an in bourgeois politeness, whose impeccable formalism is a permanent warning against the temptation of familiarity. Conversely, popular entertainment secures the spectator’s participation in the show and collective participation in the festivity which it occasions. If circus and melodrama (which are recreated by some sporting spectacles such as wrestling and, to a lesser extent, boxing and all forms of team games, such as those which have been televised) are more ‘popular than entertainments like dancing and theatre, this is not merely because, being less formalized (compare, for example, acrobatics with dancing) and less euphemized, they offer more direct, more immediate satisfactions. It is also because through the collective festivity  they give rise to and the array of spectacular delights they offer (I am also thinking of the music-hall, light opera or the big feature film) – fabulous sets, glittering costumes, exciting music, lively action, enthusiastic actors – like all forms of the comic and especially those working through satire or parody of the ‘great’ (mimics, chansonniers etc.), they satisfy the taste for and sense of revelry, the plain speaking and hearty laughter which  liberate the social world head over heals, overturning conventions and proprieties.

Distinction; A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste [1979] ‘The Aristocracy of Culture’

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