Bourdieu, Legitimacy and Photography

By | September 15, 2017

I can’t resist another brief word on Bourdieu and photography. His Photography: A Middle-brow Art concentrates mainly on those who take photographs, according to what social and psychological patterns, with what predictability, and why. But he pauses to consider how photography – that is, French photography in the early 1960s – fares in the extant ‘hierarchy of legitimacies’. And that is my focus here.

‘ … in a given socoiety at a given moment, not all cultural meanings, theatrical presentations, sporting events, recitals of songs, poetry or chamber music, operettas or operas, are equivalent in dignity and value, and they do not all call for the same approach with the same urgency. In other words, the various systems of expression, from theatre to television, are objectively organized accordng to a hierarchy independent of individual opinions, which defines ‘cultural legitimacy’ and its gradations. Faced with meanings situated outside the sphere of legitimate culture, consumers feel they have the right to remain pure consumers and judge freely; on the other hand, within the field of conscrated culture, they feel measured according to objective norms, and forced to adopt a dedicated, ceremonial and ritualized attitude.’

For Bourdieu, photography – and jazz, my other principal ‘artistic interest – do not naturally give rise to the ‘attitude of dedication’ which is ‘common coin when one is dealing with works of scholarly culture.

Bourdieu distinguishes between three spheres as follows:

  • Sphere of legitimacy; with universal claims; incorporating music, painting and sculpture, and literature and theatre; with ‘legitimate authorities of legitimation’ (university, academies).
  • Sphere of legitimizable; incorporating cinema; photography, jazz and chansons; with competing authorities of legitimation, claiming legitimacy (critics, clubs).
  • Sphere of the arbitrary; with relation to legitimacy (or sphere of segmentary labour); incorporating clothes and cosmetics, decoration and furniture, cookery, plus other ‘everyday aesthetic choices’ such as sporting occasions; with non-legiitmate authorities of legitimation (fashion designers, advertising etc).

1-3 is characterized by Bourdieu as a move from fully consecrated to arbitrary taste (though I have elsewhere celebrated precisely the subversive force and potential of ‘black, American’ jazz). So for Bourdieu photography (and jazz) sit in the middle. They still do I guess, whatever their enthusiasts might contend, and notwithstanding the ‘postmodernization’, or relativization, of culture in post-1970s financial captialism.

In part two of Bourdieu’s book, Chamboredon takes up the issue of legitimacy, emphasizing its social nature. ‘Photographic virtuosos do not only wish to legitimate a non-recognised activity, as jazz or cinema criics seek to do; they also attempt, by transforming a technology used for other ends into an artistic medium, to deny the social definition of the uses and possibilities of photography.’ Claims for added legitimacy tend to be forms of self-defence. However, such claims are also typically oriented to specific (reference) groups, since photography occurs in a variety of (stratified) social contexts. ‘The concern for legitimacy and the issue of aesthetic freedom … originate in and through the relationship to a group. While the concern for creative freedom, determined by the relationship with the camera, exists among all photographers, it takes different forms according to the relationship which photographers have to those groups that define the set of meaningful subjects for them.’

I would only append a comment about the subversive potential of semi- or non-legitimized ‘arts’, which is that there is likely an inverse relation between full – one might say ‘elite’ – legitimacy and effectiveness as a medium for cultural resistance and change.


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