Distinction through visual art

Silva, Elizabeth B. (2006). Distinction through visual art. Cultural Trends, Volume 15(Issue 2/3) pp. 141–158.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09548960600712942


Visual art is one of the fields where, according to Bourdieu, culture is used to reproduce the
class structure. Like other items in the cultural repertoire, paintings, as major examples of
visual art, imply social divisions in how they are engaged with by artists, critics and
audiences. Within the Bourdieusian framework, cultural engagements with paintings
are interpreted as indicators of social position, since appreciation depends on a trained
capacity in the family and the educational system, which is often inaccessible to less
powerful sections of the population. This would imply that the sorts of paintings favoured
by working-class people differ from those preferred by the middle or upper classes. More
recent studies have contested the view that a gulf exists between the art tastes of different
classes in ways that reproduce the class structure. The argument of the omnivore thesis
that distinctions between more popular and legitimate tastes have become blurred has
predominantly been based on empirical references in the field of music. This article
explores this thesis on the basis of data about visual arts in the Cultural Capital and
Social Exclusion project. While some differences continue to be connected to social
divisions of income, education and occupational groups, important similarities are
found across the board, and certain significant differences appear to relate to factors
other than social class, such as ethnicity, age and gender. It is also significant that some
people appear disconnected from and disinterested in paintings.

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