Passing without distinction: on taste, class and quizzes

Last month, ABC online published ‘Good taste, bad taste? What your habits reveal about social class’, a quiz that invited readers to respond to questions about their reading, TV-watching and music-listening habits. Respondents’ answers could (allegedly) be used to identify which class, age group and education level their tastes matched them with.

The quiz is based on a larger research project, the Australian Culture Fields project (ACF), which recently asked a sample of around 1,000 Australians about their tastes in music, television and books, in addition to information about their education and occupation. The idea being tested is simple enough: one’s tastes in art, music, film, literature, television and so on is largely a function of class (sometimes age, sometimes gender). These tastes are reproduced through a cycle of inheritance. If one is from a well-off background, the theory goes, one is more likely to be inoculated with highbrow tastes, and this well-off background also means one is more likely to get into university and further develop their highbrow tastes.

If this is all sounding reminiscent of the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, that is because it is. The leader of the Australian Culture Fields project, Tony Bennett, wrote the 2010 introduction to the Routledge Classics edition of Bourdieu’s seminal text Distinction. The central argument of Distinction was that cultural tastes – whether you like modernist art and talk shows or avoid art and watch slapsticks – is determined by class and education. It appears the results of the ACF have largely enforced Bourdieu’s original thesis: the results suggest that reading Jane Austen and Haruki Murakami pushes you towards the middle and upper classes, while reading Stephen King aligns you with the Aussie battler.

This idea of distinction seems intuitive. Class affects the kind of education you can get; the kind of education you get affects your time to develop, explore or obtain certain aesthetic sensibilities. It is easy to suggest examples that seem true: opera audiences are filled with the well-dressed and snobbish, while beaten-down utes can blast AC/DC. These examples of who can appreciate what expand out from literature and music into anything that can be subsumed under the category ‘taste’: TV, art, food, etc, etc.

Contrast, however, these graspable but fictional scenes, with a more real one. In the introduction to his book Fear of Music, David Stubbs paints a picture of the Tate Modern art gallery in London.

The Tate Modern, very probably the UK’s leading tourist destination, is packed, with practically every demographic, every continent, represented. Do a 360 swivel and they are all there. In the café seats overlooking the Turbine Hall, a pensioner munches diffidently on a damp sandwich. Slumped against the far wall are a couple of down and outs, clutching warm tins of lager, taking in the human traffic. To and fro pass old Americans, young Europeans, huddles of women, single men, families with infants in buggies, retired couples, foreign students and excited school kids.

David Stubbs’ assertion is that people of all stripes get contemporary art. Bourdieu’s assertion is that middle- to upper-class people are at the mercy of forces of cultural reproduction that allow them to ‘get’ contemporary art. Another contrast: the Bordieuian analysis of the ACF suggests something like 35% of Australians have never been to an art gallery. Yet, according to the 2015 Arts Nation Survey, more Australians attend art galleries than football stadiums on a yearly basis.

These suggest two very different conceptions of the relationship the masses have to art. How are we to think through this? Perhaps we can understand the public demand for art, the demand Stubbs points to, as related to a universal capacity: an ability present in all human beings to appreciate or acknowledge the beautiful. This comes close to the gist of Immanuel Kant’s Third Critique, The Critique of Judgement, which Bourdieu was seeking to refute in his book Distinction.

This attempted rebuttal sees Bourdieu fit nicely into a broad piece of intellectual history: in French thought of the 1960s and 1970s, there was a distinct turn against the old narratives of universalism and humanism, narratives often inspired by the work of Kant. Bourdieu strides into this battle to show that the universalism of Kantian aesthetics merely masks bourgeoise ideology. So far, so good.

However, in seeking to displace Kantian aesthetics, Bourdieu lends credence to the notion that the art of the latte-sipping elites can only ever be the art of the latte-sipping elites. This notion, which has in part been reinforced by the results of the ACF project, presents us with a political problem. The results of the ACF project, if allowed to stand on their own and go unchallenged, have the potential to deteriorate the situation of the arts in Australia. The results of the ACF project are, at best, poorly timed.

In October 2016, Alison Croggon published an essay in The Monthly about the state of arts funding under the Coalition, ‘Culture Crisis’. In it, she writes about the neutered state of arts funding in Australia, and the crisis point we are reaching. Crucially, she also notes the Coalition’s view of arts:

For all the right-wing rhetoric against latte-sipping elites, the grinding down of the marginalised and poor and the attacks on our cultural institutions are profoundly connected. They are two faces of the same ideology. These policies reflect an attitude that sees culture and knowledge as the sole province of the privileged, the servants of the powerful.

Interestingly, the policies of the Coalition reflect the analysis of the ACF project and Bourdieu. While the Coalition starts with the idea of culture as the province of the privileged, the ACF project shows this idea to be the empirical reality. If this is the case, it is not implausible to imagine a future where the coalition use the results of the ACF to strengthen their arguments for further defunding of the arts – that is, if these institutions do not represent or serve the vast majority of Australians, why should the government fund them?

One of the things that makes this future seem more likely is the fact the analysis of Bourdieu and the ACF is capable of absorbing objection – of reassigning dissent as either affirmation (Bourdieu) or trivial (the ACF project). While the Bourdieuian analysis seems, prima facie, on the side of the class struggle and the oppressed, its methodology and logic always lead us back to the sociologist as king, someone who stands as the sole lantern bearer lighting the way through the murky world of ideology and obscure rituals.

This is the analysis proffered by Jacques Rancière, and it is useful to keep it on hand when thinking about the results of the ACF project. For Rancière, Bourdieu assumes his position of mastery through becoming the ‘eternal denouncer of a system endowed with the ability to conceal itself from its agents for all eternity’. Consider, as an example, the fact that we know many working-class children will be excluded from tertiary education (though, in an era of mass education, perhaps this is not as clear as it once was). Rancière frames the Bourdieuian logic of this issue as composed of two steps:

  1. Children from the popular [that is, working] classes are excluded from the universities because they are unaware of the true reasons why they are excluded.
  2. Misunderstanding of the real reasons why they are excluded is a structural effect produced by the very existence of the system that excludes them.

This is simply to say that ‘they are excluded because they do not know why they are excluded; and they do not know why they are excluded because they are excluded’. The Bourdieuian system of analysis relies on the importance of the sociologist, the one who can see the oppression that stops others from seeing their own oppression.

The realm of taste and aesthetics functions no differently. For Bourdieu, it is the case not just that class aligns with taste, but that class determines one’s ability to experience art. This is a crucial point. In the introduction to Distinction, he writes: ‘a work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded.’ Given this, what would Bourdieu say to a member of the popular classes who confronts him and says that he loves the arts or classical music? Simply that they have fooled themselves, that they do not truly understand, or not in the way the code encoded in the artwork requires. This is an example of what Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut have called the terrorism of Bourdieu’s work: it absorbs all disagreement, like the psychoanalyst suggesting all resistance and refutation is simply confirmation.

The claims of the ACF may not be as hemmed in as the claims of their master. However, this element of cutting off all disagreement exists in a different form, under the heading of probability. Bennett himself is keen to admit the probabilistic nature of the ACF’s results: ‘we can’t predict exactly what any individual will like or not like. What we can do is predict the strong likelihood that tastes and social positions will stitch together.’

This provides convenient cover; the ACF need not reject or deny the member of the working class who suggests they love Monet but detest Real Housewives of Sydney. Rather they can relegate them to the wastelands of statistical anomaly. Only when one has collected as much data as the ACF project will they be able to refute them.

So let’s say one goes and collects the data necessary to refute the result of ACF project – but the results replicate themselves and the answers emerge the same as before. This would be because the methodology used by both Bourdieu and the ACF project is deeply flawed. The ACF project might say theirs is an empirical methodology, that they are simply examining the world as it is, thus revealing the class origins of taste, and the methods of reproduction that forever keep the working class from the world of art. It is similar to how the sociologist reaches their conclusions – they interrogate the survey, the interview, the opinion poll. They ask if one likes classic music or rock’n’roll, Jane Austen or Stephen King, Game of Thrones or QandA.

It is here that Rancière inveighs: these questions do not test sensibilities or taste; they test knowledge. Discussing the example of music in his book The Philosopher and his Poor, Rancière writes

In transforming the test of musical taste into a test of knowledge the sociologist has solved the problem without even tackling it. He has tested the ability to answer a test on the history of music, which is, in the last instance, the ability to judge the meaning of an inquiry and answer accordingly. A typical examination situation where, of course, students from the university obtain the best grades.

It is odd to test music not by making people listen to it, but by asking them questions on it. To test literary appreciation by asking which authors one knows, not the reading of them. The art I know is indeed informed by my position in society, my education and so on. However, my ability to appreciate art – my sensibilities – may precede any place position I hold. The ACF project has merely tested whether the working class (however this is defined) know the names and signifiers of highbrow taste, not if they appreciate or enjoy them.

At the end of Teju Cole’s Open City, the half Nigerian, half German narrator, Julius, is attending a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in New York City. He notes how white and middle-aged the audience is. Whilst standing in the bathroom queue he gets looks that make him feel like ‘Ota Benga, the Mbuti man who was put on display in the Monkey House at The Bronx Zoo in 1906’. Yet despite the whiteness of the audience, of those who know Mahler, Julius concludes, ‘But Mahler’s music is not white, or black, not old or young’.

Likewise, we should say – in opposition to the ACF project – that Stephen King’s writing is not working class, nor Murakami’s middle class. Peter Sculthorpe’s music is not for the upper class. Despite how uncomfortable the working class may or may not feel within the walls of defunded art galleries, this has no bearing on if Pollock and Rothko are upper-class nonsense, or if noisy graffiti represents the limits of cultural appreciation of workers.

Art, from the written word to the painted landscape, is open to all, at least in principle. The results of the ACF reflect conservative ideas because they do not offer a revolutionary analysis, but rather one that reinforces that status quo. Their analysis bends so close to the Coalition’s beliefs on art because it does not test the sensibilities of all, but the knowledge of the few, which has always been the Coalition’s province.


Image: Opera goers / flickr

Duncan Stuart

Duncan Stuart is an Australian writer living in New York City. His writings have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Overland, Demos Journal and The Cleveland Review of Books. Find him on twitter @DuncanAStuart.

More by Duncan Stuart ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Isn’t that the whole point though? It is not about the working class being able to understand or appreciate certain types of art but that if they do not even get the opportunity to be exposed to it, how do they even know if they like or dislike it? And that in itself is limiting and something I see as a problem in a lot of areas of art… the communication it is sending is often to people who already know, understand or are open to the message.

    1. There are of course financial barriers to certain art forms – but where are these people in Australia who are not ‘being exposed to’ art or culture? You could argue it is the poor and disenfranchised, but I would argue it is not ‘the working class’ more generally (that is, the masses, whether you mean that in a sociological or a Marxist sense).

      There is no transparency in how class is being defined in this research, but the definitions seem kind of self-serving – i.e. middle-class people go to galleries, so if you go to galleries, you’re middle class (as Duncan rightly points out above).

      I would also draw your attention to the obvious lack of very popular cultural forms in that quiz – specifically games, comics and films. I also found the quiz incredibly racist (what, for instance, is ‘urban music’?)

      Personally, the reason I find this debate so ridiculous is that in an era of mass education and globalisation, cultural interests are not preserved, isolated or strictly cultivated in the same ways as they once were (for instance, I was raised by a single mother, who left school very early, in a housing commission unit in Heyfield, Churchill, Cranbourne and so forth, and yet grew up loving classical music and classical literature; imagine what interests children today discover.)

      I am of the opinion that the contemporary discourse pathologises class as an *identity*, rather than looking at discrimination as systemic and economic (so ‘working class’ becomes a permanent or psychiatric condition, not a way of governance and profit that control the lives of the vast majority of the world’s population).

      1. Thanks for the reply. I suppose I do not quite know enough about it to really full grasp the concept. I was coming from the point of thinking that I don’t think (and from what I can gather the people around me) were exposed to much of what is considered ‘higbrow’ in the study, until I decided to go to university, and most of the people around me did not decide to do that. Which made me wonder about it.

  2. Top notch article and comments. I’ve heard the ACF’s Tony Bennett assert that middle class people may commonly consume stereotypical working class culture like reality tv, but that they often engage with it in different ways; that is, with a higher degree of irony or shame. Hmmm. Any thoughts?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.