Contemporary Social Theory: Willis and Bourdieu
Social class can be manifested through various means and activities such as clothes, favorite sports, language, children's names, tastes in food, art, and books. One of the most distinctive markers of social class has been consumption, in general, and cultural consumption, in particular. Individual opinions on art pieces, music, dance, and sculpture could be a trustworthy indication of people's background and upbringing. In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu argues that lifestyle is an outright manifestation of one's social class and taste acts as an indicator of innate class distinctions. However, Paul Willis in Common Culture contrasts the idea of the exclusiveness of art for upper classes and suggests that consumerism made art more approachable for working classes. Although both authors agree that appreciating art is a learned skill and class continues to limit the accessibility to some art forms, Willis argues that through symbolic action, such art manifestations as images, films, songs, the language, and texts make art approachable and understandable for the working class and all other classes that used to be excluded from cultural consumption.
How It Works
Bourdieu argues that, in modern society, people's taste is formed under economic conditions and, as a result, upper classes develop the taste of luxury whereas working classes develop the taste of necessity (Bourdieu, 1984: 175). The process of acquiring taste goes unnoticed and oftentimes people believe that taste is innate and speaks about an individual's social class better than any words, believing that individuals deserve the social class in which they are born. Bourdieu explains this as follows: Through taste, an agent has what he likes because he likes what he has, that is, the properties actually given to him in the distributions and legitimately assigns to him in the classifications (Bourdieu, 1984: 175). It means that people's choices in everything, including art, are determined by the circumstances of their life and income. In some cases, they simply cannot afford anything else. This limitation of choice is eventually internalized and justified and people accept it as their choice as to if they choose something because they really like it and not because they have never known anything else. As for cultural consumption, Bourdieu says that upper-class people have the practices designated by their rarity as distinguished whereas the working class has a tendency to the practices socially identified as vulgar because they are both easy and common (Bourdieu, 1984: 176). However, Bourdieu points out that those in the middle who have money but lack cultural education look pretentious, because of the manifest discrepancy between ambition and possibilities (Bourdieu, 1984: 176). Thus, upper classes demonstrate that the most valuable manifestation of art should be something difficult to attain and, therefore, artists should have long periods of education and the audience should be taught how to accept art. Here it should be added that social class does not necessarily mean financial stability, even though it is important. The class of nouveaux riches clearly demonstrates that taste and manners cannot be bought. In this regard, Willis has a similar viewpoint. He agrees that The taste for art is learned (Willis, 1990: 2). As art is opposite to other forms of life, generally called non-art, it requires certain promotion and explanation to common people of how to consume it. Therefore, the consumption of art depends on how much individuals know about it. However, Willis points out that modernity annuls the high status of art. Whereas artists or artisans could have referred to their work as holy and dignified by labor, the industrial revolution changed the approach to art as well. Thus, modernity made art more approachable for people. Modern art finds inspiration in everyday life and the working-class is an immediate representative of it. That is why the theorist says, For the working class this is a victory. Certain freedoms, and especially cultural ones, are felt and produce change individually (Willis, 1990: 17). It does not mean that social class division is overcome but it is obvious that people of any class have enough freedom to generate and consume art. Art became more accessible and people of any status can try to have it in their homes in the form of copies, posters, and images. However, Willis remarks that, consequently, the working class is exploited even more because now it participates more in consumption and cultural consumption is expanded on its leisure, presentation, and culture (Willis, 1990: 18). People of any class learned to express their individuality through cultural consumption. According to Willis, consumption of any kind allows people creative and cultural production. No longer does the creative sphere belong to its higher manifestations such as verses and paintings. People can exercise their artistry and creative streak through decorating their houses, choosing clothes, making up dishes, which is meaningful and creative on their personal levels. Furthermore, even though class and manners cannot be bought, the age of the Internet clearly changed it because numerous things can be learned online and money is not necessary in this case.
Thus, both Bourdieu and Willis agree that taste can be a marker of class and it requires special training because people are not born with innate taste. Similarly, both authors say that social class divides people in their taste. While the upper class likes ballet and opera because they are conditioned to love it, the working class is content with easier and more common forms of art such as cartoons, caricature, and dance. However, Willis argues that modernity made art more accessible to common people because they are included in cultural consumption, yet it does not cancel the division of social classes. Therefore, the concepts of cultural consumption and social class clearly relate to each other.