2003 NEMLA
Aesthetics and Politics II:
Social/Aesthetic Order

Mary V. Marchand
Goucher College

The Aristocracy of Finer Senses: Bourdieu's Rules of Art, the Ideology of Gifts, and the Politics of Aesthetic Perception

In "The Dehumanization of Art," Jose Ortega y Gasset characterizes taste as the definitive social agent, separating "from the shapeless mass of the many two castes of men," compelling the average citizen to realize he is just this, the average citizen, "a creature incapable of receiving the sacrament of art," and allowing aristocrats to "recognize themselves and one another in the grayness of the multitude." One of Bourdieu's most important insights into the operations of class is that the gifts of nature's aristocrats and their naturally distinguished practices are in fact expressions of privileged conditions of existence. While the ideology of gifts holds that nature has distributed them randomly--to anyone not everyone--this apparently random allocation effectively obscures their unequal class distribution. "A 'gift,'" he argues, "is nothing other than the feel of the game socially constituted by early immersion in the game, that class racism turns into a nature" (In Other Words 109).

This talk explores the ideology of gifts as it relates to questions of taste in the work of conservative writers like Edith Wharton. Wharton expounds on this theory in her 1903 essay "The Vice of Reading." Only six years before, she had delivered a lecture to Newport's teachers advocating furnishing schoolrooms with the best artistic reproductions as the means for teaching students to love and reverence beauty. In this later essay, these very attempts at education are belittled. Cultural missionary work flies in the face of the reality that there are "born readers" and "mechanical readers," and nature decides which side a person falls on: "The gift of reading is no exception to the rule that all natural gifts need to be cultivated by practice and discipline; but unless the innate aptitude exist the training will be wasted." The essay goes on to contrast the lives of the "happy few," and their easy, playful, unself-conscious relation to culture, to the labored, awkward efforts of the unlucky majority.

In the aristocracy of the finer senses and their distinctive and distinguishing responsiveness to culture, conservative writers introduce differences in "nature" that are inextricably linked to those with a legitimate (inherited) place in the social order. These are not necessarily differences in depth of knowledge--indeed, Bourdieu maintains that the ease and self-confidence of the early learner can exist amid relative ignorance--but differences in how this relation to culture was acquired that "live on" in the apparently instinctive feel for the game. By only recognizing as legitimate the relation to culture that manifests by its grace and facility that it was acquired under the oldest and rarest conditions, Wharton sought to lay down differences in nature that would give an inflexible rigor to the social order.

This ideology of gifts offers a striking example of what Bourdieu calls "misrecognition." Against cruder theories of class domination, Bourdieu holds that class relations would not be able to function as relations of exploitation without the "enchanted perception that apprehends the social world as a natural world." This claim to aristocracy on the basis of an aesthetic disposition is the least likely to be challenged because its connection with the rarest material conditions have every chance of passing unnoticed. The most classifying privilege thus has the privilege of appearing to be the most natural.