Bourdieu, Kant and Art

Aesthetics can be traced back to classical philosophy; both Plato and Aristotle were concerned with art as the carrier of truth and knowledge. The father of modern aesthetics, however, was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant lived in a time that saw a division between the close fit that had until existed between the God and the world; the body and the spirit; king and country. On the one hand, writers in the Age of Enlightenment acted as the founders of modern day science and rationality. On the other, those within the Romantic tradition sought a return to the realm of the emotions and individual experience.

The first part of the Critique of Pure Reason has the title ‘The Transcendental Aesthetic’. For Kant, aesthetics is not the preserve of art but actually relates to the Greek work meaning ‘sensation’ (the opposite being ‘anaesthetic’ – without sensation). By ‘transcendental’, he means ‘a priori’, or needed for experience. It is ‘sensation’ which provides the data for the faculty of imagination. For Kant, it is the form which this data takes that is most important. What is less important is what the data actually is or what it represents. What is necessary to experience objects as such, is a priori knowledge; in this case, space and time shapes form. The ‘a priori’ element in this argument points to what lies beyond sensation, and thus gives rise to experience itself rather than being an element of existence. In other words, space and time are a priori conditions of existence. Kant contrasted such imagination faculties with understanding. Understanding is a power to form concepts; it is through concepts that understanding ‘knows : for example, Substance, Quantity, Quality, Relation, Place, Time, Position, Possession, Action, Passivity. Here, Kant investigates the process and constituents of how judgments of knowledge are therefore made. However, in The Critique of Judgement (1790), he examines the power of judgement itself. It is this book that forms the core of Kant’s exploration of aesthetics as we know it.

Kant’s objective is to locate a higher form of feeling which can be said, a priori, to determine experiences of pleasure and pain. Such questions of taste cannot be based on concepts since if they were, they would not be able to ‘lay claim to other people’s assent’. Kant subsequently makes a distinction between what is beautiful and what is agreeable and pleasurable. The latter is associative and comparative, and connected with simple sensual enjoyment. However, in order for judgements of the beautiful to arise, Imagination must present data (in time and space) to Understanding. This data is not now converted via concepts, because a ‘non-cognitive’ feeling accompanies the intuition by which the data of Imagination is presented to Understanding. At this point, we connect with a perception of pleasure or displeasure which serves to define the non-cognitive feeling itself and replaces concepts. Since there are no concepts to provide form, what is presented is the power to form in itself; a consciousness without anything to be conscious of. In this sense, what arises is a ‘disinterestedness’; a contemplative judgement as opposed to a cognitive (conceptual or theoretical) judgement.

For Kant, as Hume before him, the ‘problem with aesthetics’ can be reduced to this simple question: how can judgements which are essentially subjective in that they provoke feelings for individuals also relate to commonality of assent over value?. Kant argued that a judgement can only be considered to be aesthetic when it is ‘disinterested’; that is, free from any desires, needs, or interest in the actual existence of the objects apprehended which might distort that ‘pure’ appreciation. At this point, there is nothing to differentiate one person’s aesthetic response from another’s – it is shared sensibility (sensus communis). Some objects, by nature of their form and appearance, encourage a ‘free play’ between the faculties of Imagination and Understanding. Understanding is prompted to speculate when faced by the beautiful; giving rise to both pure feeling and the pleasure of thought. Thinking has sensuality which separates Understanding from Imagination, in such a way that Understanding no longer dominates Imagination. It creates feeling rather than transforming it. In Kant’s four ‘moments’ of his analysis of the beautiful, he sets out the nature of aesthetic pleasure in judgements of taste: namely, that they should be ‘disinterested’ and give an impression of finality; and, that it should demand and comply to a universal assent, which distinguishes it from judgements of mere ‘agreeableness’. This appreciation of beauty is tied to a recognition of form and design which is independent of content. In determining beauty, for Kant, much hangs in achieving universal assent, on reaching shared aesthetic agreements.

I now want to argue against the Kantian position using the perspective of Pierre Bourdieu. In the Introduction to La Distinction, Bourdieu announced his project as offering a sociological critique of Kantian aesthetics. In effect his approach is to attack this very ‘separation’ on which it is founded:

“(to abolish) the opposition, which has been the basis of high aesthetics since Kant, between ‘taste of sense’ and the ‘taste of reflection’, and between facile pleasure, pleasure reduced to pleasure of the senses, and pure pleasure, pleasure reduced, which is predisposed to become a symbol of moral excellence and a measure of the capacity for sublimation which defines the truly human man.”

(1984a/79: 6)

What Bourdieu argued for is a much more socio-historical reading of aesthetics. For him, an aesthetic response presupposes the possibility of a non-aesthetic response and, necessarily, such responses are by nature socially differential and differentiated – some have it and some do not. In this Aesthetics is returned to the world and the social structure of societies rather than being definable in terms of a necessary philosophical logic. Bourdieu argued that the ‘pure gaze’ itself implies a break with the ordinary attitude to the world, an ethic, ‘or rather, an ethos of elective distance from the necessities of the natural and social world’ (ibid.: 5). This break is, by definition, a mark of distinction, a claim and legitimation in the name of rarity by a certain faction of society in its assertion of justified dominance. In many ways, the aesthetic disposition is more or less defined in terms of distance from the social world. The aesthete personified is therefore nothing other than an extreme form of bourgeois denial of the social world when this is pushed to its limit.

Bourdieu’s own position argues for a fundamental dichotomy in aesthetic response between the bourgeois and the working class. It is important to understand at this point that Bourdieu was not arguing that social class structure can simply be expressed in terms of this bipolar dichotomy, or even a slightly more differentiated form of this split which included factions of both these social groups together with the aristocratic and under classes. He understood that class was in fact a multifaceted and dynamically evolving structure. Nevertheless, he did argue that much of the complexity inherent in such a structure, which by obscuring it allowed it operation, was conducted in terms of a common value currency which was indeed defined in terms of opposing social classificatory forms. In this case, what is at stake is the opposition between the refined, or tasteful, and the vulgar. There is then a kind of double play where, not only is ‘rarefied taste’ opposed to ‘everyday taste’ (for example, in the way that luxury foods are the prerogative of those who presumably can afford them in contrast to everyday eating), but those common everyday objects and actions of taste are also appropriated and aestheticised. The world is then turned upside down, so to speak. It is not enough for the bourgeois aesthete to possess what others cannot. They also take possession of common objects and actions as a sign of their complete mastery over both the vulgar and the refined, therefore twice legitimating their social elevation.

At base, what we have here is a phenomenology of representation. The popular aesthetic (of the working class((sic.)) is based on an aesthetic ‘in itself’ rather than ‘for itself’. It allows for a naïve stance; the passions, feeling and emotions that ordinary people invest in life. ‘Pure’ taste, on the other hand is the opposite; it suspends ‘naïve’ involvement because it provides no place for the necessities of life themselves. Bourdieu sums up: ‘ Intellectuals could be said to believe in the representation – literature, theatre, painting – more than the things represented, whereas the people chiefly expect representations and the conventions which govern them to allow them to believe ‘naively’ in the things represented’ (ibid.). Bourdieu further argued that when it comes to art, the popular aesthetic sees it as an extension of life. Nothing should get in the way of a personal identification with it and finding unity in the emotions demanded and given. Form is here subordinated to function; the purpose art has is in affirming the naïve, sensual view, including morality and agreeableness. In contrast, the detachment and disinterestedness of the pure aesthetic gaze asserts, as Kant does, form over function and, with it, an often moral ambiguity where art can be only be taken for art’s sake.

It is possible to consider this potion two ways: ‘Consuming Art’ and ‘Making Art’.

Consuming Art

From a socio-historical view, Bourdieu’s early work showed differing patterns of museum and gallery attendance. For example, typically, very few regular museum visitors were farmers or farm labourers (only 1%), or, industrial manual workers (4%) (working classes groups); over a quarter of visitors, craft-workers (5%), clerical staff and junior executives (23%) were from middle class groups, whilst almost half of regular visitors (45%) were from upper class backgrounds. Bourdieu’s data shows that there was a similar relationship between visiting patterns and levels of education, and visiting patterns and social class. However, it was in fact education and not class origins which determined an individual’s pattern of museum attendance. He found that: ‘Museum visiting increases very strongly with increasing level of education, and is almost exclusively the domain of the cultivated classes’ (p. 14). Visiting intensifies as level of education increases. In Bourdieu’s survey, over half (55%) of visitors held at least a Baccalaureat. Only 9% of visitors had no qualifications, but three quarters of this group of visitors were children – too young to have taken any qualifications (p.15). Regular museum-goers were, on the whole, well educated.

Later work considered the aesthetic taste head on. In Distinction, sub-titled, ‘A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste’ Bourdieu shows how patters of art consumption follow social grouping and education.




“When faced with legitimate works of art, people most lacking the specific competence apply to them the perceptual schemes of their own ethos – reduction the things of art to the things of life. A bracketing of form in favour of content which is barbarism from the standpoint of the pure aesthetic:


“Thos are the hands of someone who has worked too much” (Engineer, Paris)

“Poor, unhappy old age” (Provincial teacher)

“I find it beautiful..the woman is humble” Neutralization and distancing from the social world – aestheticizing. (Paris Bourgeois – Engineer)

Making Art

Kantian aesthetics did not occur at an arbitrary point in time; but rather when socio-structural shifts (in a phenomenological sense) were altering the boundaries of what was and was not ‘thinkable’. The notion of the ‘pure gaze’ was therefore, for Bourdieu, true in as far as it goes, but only as a phenomenology of the aesthetic experience of someone who is already distant from social and economic necessity – the privileged. This development implied a certain autonomy. What Bourdieu saw in the changes of the art field during the nineteenth century was a social structural shift which created a new space for art; one which possessed a certain autonomy with regard to previous art-audience relations. Bourdieu discusses Flaubert and Manet in particular:

Flaubert in the domain of writing and Manet in painting are probably the first to have attempted to impose, at the cost of extraordinary subjective and objective difficulties, the conscious and radical affirmation of the power of the creative gaze, capable of being applied not only (through simple inversion) to base and vulgar objects…but also to insignificant objects before which the ‘creator’ is able to assert his quasi-divine power of transmutation…(This formula) lays down the autonomy of form in relation to subject matter, simultaneously assigning its fundamental norm to cultured perception.

(1993b: 265)

What Bourdieu is here describing is the separation of form and function which is a product of the autonomising of the field of artistic production. It is in that separation, that ‘art-for-art’s-sake’; that a field position analogous to the artistic process of the ‘pure gaze’, is born. There is then a mutually constituting relationship between the ‘pure gaze’ of the privileged consumer and the ‘independent creative gaze of the producer. Both implicitly assert an independence and therefore uniqueness. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the changes in social structures led to the growth in a new bourgeois class. Art up to that point had performed a social function in positioning those who consumed it, and hence those who produced it, with regard to particular social, political and moral values of traditional elites – aristocratic and religious. The new bourgeois almost ‘invented’ a new morality which set it apart from the past. In the course of these developments, artists struggled to find a means of expression which gave them independence from aesthetics of those they had previously served.

Art beyond the social.

Social and ‘Objective’ Art.

The need to have friends – a field.