Collective Misrecognition Indeed


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A fundamental issue faced by society is the legitimization of its authority system. Since legitimacy involves garnering acceptance, socialization is a key way through which members of society can be led to embody appropriate attitudes that are conducive to accepting the authority system. Is this what the art world vis-a-vis museums does through the economics of culture work- to harness the acceptance of symbolic value and cultural capital? Indeed it does: the art world constantly reinforces its own conception of what is “art” and by doing so, this cultural category is authoritative and powerful precisely because it is accepted by society through discursive practices. According to Bourdieu, this socialization happens covertly, through what he calls symbolic power, a power that is effective precisely because it is unrecognized, or recognized as arbitrary. Museums are a mainstay source of “high art” and serve as keepers of cultural goods to be consumed by those who disavow. In other words, museums are places where those who  pretend to be practicing something noble and soulful actually consume a product within the wider clandestine context of class struggle, rampant commodification, and power economics. Could a museum be more than just providing an archive of “art” for an audience?

The way to explore such questions is to use the concept of Collective Misrecognition. According to Bourdieu, social order is reinforced through discourses of common sense, which are– albeit solely an illusion ridden with euphemisms– maintained by society. It is important to scrutinize this vision of Bourdieusian misrecognition, because in order to fully understand the discourses that are present, the hidden power relations must be uncovered by analyzing the so-called “art” and “pureveyors of art” (read: museums and the art world) as ideological producers. Because the ideological products offered by the art world are instruments for perceiving and expressing the social world, the forming of opinions, and thereby individual thought-process, depends on the scope of available instruments of perception and expression.

The Google Art project is an amalgamation of cultural values and reinforcement of existing structures of power. As a museum this project is an easy to access interface for users to experience what is art i.e. what is deemed high culture. This is a provider of high culture because of the legitimacy that the names of famous museums, e.g. The Philips Collection, MoMa, etc. brings it. What these image of explicitly classified “artworks” would be perceived as within the context of a conventional search engine to the average consumer of visual images one can assume would be a visual given less cultural value due to its lack of prominent museum backing. In short, these art works are given so much value not because of good taste but because of ideological promulgation. We know this, and we know everyone knows this- yet we still give it value and constantly reinforce this value by default as our desires to maintain our cultural capital far outweighs our ability to see the truth. The truth is that much art in these museums are not Bohemian, not avant garde, and not completely void of economic incentive. As an archive, this project shows who the purveyors of art are: Western elites. Except for one museum from China and a gallery from Istanbul, virtually all of the collections feature in this google project are from North America, Europe, and Australia. High art is thus limited by the visial vocabulary given to the user/consumer by Western galleries and what such galleries deem as visually noble and that warrant the attention and cultural consumption by the middle classes. Again however, we know this and yet we still consume it and work within the given framework of this defined high art. By doing so however, we propagate a discourse of Western superiority and notions of good taste. Critically, by doing so, we also propagate the status quo of power relations so easily and ubiquitously.