Photography and the Hierarchy of Legitimacies

Positioning taste as a vehicle for exclusion (Weber 1968, Bourdieu 1984), theorists of elite culture have posited that upper class individuals view outside cultural forms as crude, vulgar or dishonorable and have created a set of circumstances where occupational prestige begets cultural ‘distinction’.  Building on Weber’s assertion that knowledge of such cultural forms as literature, etiquette and fine art act as passkeys into elite social life, music too serves as a medium through which social exclusion – the process of social selection that is based on a previously determined set of cultural criteria and is exercised by people with high levels of income, education, and occupational prestige (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977) – and symbolic exclusion – the source of those previously determined cultural criteria – find traction.

Tastes (i.e., manifested preferences) are the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference. It is no accident that, when they have to be justified, they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of other tastes.  In matters of taste more than anywhere else, all determination is negation; and tastes are perhaps first and foremost distastes….The most intolerable thing for those who regard themselves as the possessors of legitimate”highbrow” culture is the sacrilegious reuniting of tastes which taste dictates shall be separated. (Bourdieu 1984:56-57)

Throughout his work The Social Definition of Photography, Bourdieu applies this logic to the realm of photography.  Arguing on behalf of “hierarchy of legitimacies”, Bourdieu makes an attempt to equate cultural urgency with scholarly culture.



However, a quick examination of Bourdieu’s Sphere of Legitimacy, the Legitimizable, and the Arbitrary flies in the face of many of the exhibitions and collections present at today’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – an indicator of an theory that – while rooted in an intriguing truth – is arguably outdated in today’s ever-shifting society.

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 1.31.51 AM

Below I have identified 3 exhibitions (Met) where the Sphere of the Arbitrary can be called into question.

SFMoma asked the overarching question – “Is Photography Over” – via a major symposium in 2010. The symposium yielded an wide range of reactions including…

– George Baker

– Corey Keller

Overall, I believe that Bourdieu’s hierarchies were mistakenly defined by issues of access – access to tools, audiences, and training all seemingly dictated which sphere an artist could infiltrate.  The ubiquitous nature of digital technologies has thrust sculpture (3D-printing), painting (Adobe/Blender), etc online and into the hands of millions and relegated many of the “legitimate” forms increasingly arbitrary.  What does it mean to live in a world where everything is arbitrary?  Well, it means that we live, create, and experience art in a world where everything is simultaneously legitimate.

Additionally, I would argue that the rich environments indicative to modern virtual worlds and video games demonstrates a push for high brow art aesthetics amidst what I’m sure Bourdieu would consider a low brow medium.

Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) opened The Art of Video Games

Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) opened The Art of Video Games

MoMA Acquires 14 Video Games for Architecture and Design Collection

Works Cited:

Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle-Brow Art.  Stanford University Press; 1 edition (March 1, 1996).

Bourdieu P. and Passerson J.C. 1977. Reproduction in Education, society and culture. London: Sage.

Bourdieu, P. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. New York & London: Routeledge.

Weber, Max. [1968] 1978. Economy and Society. Translated by G. Roth and C. Wittich. Berke- ley, CA: University of California Press.

“Is Photography Over?” SFMoma. Symposium. April 2010.