2.1 As John Fekete (1988: i) suggests, ‘[q]uestions of value matter … we live, breathe, and excrete values. No aspect of human life is unrelated to values, valuations, and validations’. However, in the twenty-first century, perhaps more so than at any time before, trying to justify the grounds for our judgement is by no means straightforward. This is because taste hierarchies have lost their veneer of inevitability. Just as anti-essentialist arguments have revealed the ‘naturalness’ of constructs such as gender, race and sexuality to be historical and contingent, sociologists (among others) have performed a ‘discrowning’ of official hierarchies in the arts thus revealing them to be arbitrary (Bennett 2005). For example, Pierre Bourdieu (1984) has argued that objects which are considered to represent the highest achievements of culture (sometimes referred to as ‘high culture’) are merely those that have been given the stamp of approval by the powerful. It is therefore more accurate to say that they represent legitimate rather than high culture. Bourdieu has also provided the most influential critique of the Kantian notion of aesthetic universalism. In his Critique of Judgment (Kant 2005), Immanuel Kant put forward the argument that aesthetic judgments are formulated by means of disinterested reflection, meaning that the works of art are contemplated for their own sake rather than because they serve some ulterior purpose. Kant proceeded to argue that whereas corporeal tastes are subjective, it is possible for aesthetic judgements regarding the beautiful to lay claim to universality. Bourdieu (2000: 73) considers this Kantian notion of aesthetic universalism, the idea that there is a transcendental sensibility open to everyone, to be a scholastic fallacy. Disinterested or pure aesthetic judgement is based on two conditions: the first is the emergence of a field of cultural production that has, over a long period, established its autonomy, meaning that it obeys its own laws and is thus – in its most autonomous regions – freed from economic and political constraints. The second condition is the development of an aesthetic disposition. This is a way of viewing the world that is learned and is not something transcendent (as Kant would have it). It is a disposition that is the product of one’s education and family upbringing. As a child from a privileged family grows up, distanced from economic necessity for a prolonged period of life, s/he insensibly ‘develops the capacity to consider in and for themselves, as form rather than function, not only the works designated for such apprehension [such as works of art]… but everything in the world’ (Bourdieu 1984: 3) .
2.2 Bourdieu’s critique is illuminating but it also poses a problem. How do we evaluate culture if our evaluations are merely expressions of our habitus and if prized cultural objects are only prized because they have been consecrated by prestigious societal groups? In short, we are left at an evaluative impasse. There are, of course, two easy ways out of this impasse. The first is cultural relativism, which, comparable to moral relativism, would mean to refrain from making value-judgements; to declare it impossible to say whether something is desirable or undesirable, good or bad, interesting or banal. There have been some currents within postmodernist writing that have been expressive of this; which have, as Jeffrey Weeks (1993: 192) observes, offered a celebration of valuelessness in the romantic garb of consumerist amorality and nihilism. However, as Austin Harrington (2008: 108) makes clear, not only is cultural relativism unwelcome but it is not actually possible in practice:
If it were not possible to discriminate differences of aesthetic value in individual cultural objects, there would be no rational basis for aesthetic judgement. If no individual cultural object could be judged as being higher or lower in aesthetic value than another, there would be no basis for use of positive predicates in ordinary language such as “elegant”, “brilliant”, “inspiring”, in distinction to the negative predicates such as “mediocre”, “dull”, “average”. It would follow from this that any person could produce any object which no other person could criticise, or even praise.
2.3 A second way out of the evaluative impasse is to leave matters of judgment to the market. This would mean that cultural objects are ranked in terms of what they are worth, or in terms of how many units they sell. In short, this means that cultural objects are judged by entirely quantitative means, in accordance with the logic of the money economy. Georg Simmel (1997: 251) argued over 100 years ago that as a result of its ubiquity in our everyday transactions we have come to mistakenly view money as an end in itself rather than a means. This is because money is perceived as all that is necessary ‘like the magic key in a fairy tale, in order to attain all the joys of life’ (Simmel 1997: 252). However, to reduce matters cultural to this logic means, as Simmel (1997: 250-1) argued, ‘getting stuck in the labyrinth of means and thereby forgetting the ultimate goal’. As a consequence we ‘speed past the specific value of things, which cannot be expressed in terms of money’, and, to put it more crudely, we valorise cultural objects simply because they are worth a lot of money and fail to observe the qualities of things that command little attention in the marketplace. For example, we might consider the music created by a busker to be valueless, precisely because it has been played out in the theatre of the penniless: the street, and at best, we might view the musician as an unrealised product, marketable or otherwise. There is, of course, a further option, which is to ignore matters of aesthetic value, and I have documented elsewhere a number of reasons why scholars working in sociology and related disciplines have done so (Stewart 2012). Primary among these reasons is the fear of elitism. Sociology has excelled in bringing culture down to earth and explaining the social conditions that enable a particular aesthetic to emerge (Inglis 2005). In doing so, it has stripped taste hierarchies of their sense of inevitability. There is, as consequence, a concern that by engaging anew with aesthetic value, they will contribute to the construction of new hierarchies. Aesthetics has long been considered something outside the domain of sociology or social theory, and as Eduardo de la Fuente (2008: 344) comments, it is something that has been treated with suspicion, something that is irrational and/or entirely individualistic. Many sociologists ‘have sought to store questions of value in a strategic “black box”‘ and ‘the challenge remains to address these questions’ (Harrington 2004: 39).
2.4 So, if there are no universal, timeless aesthetic values, and if we consider cultural relativism and the logic of the market to be unappealing, where do we turn for evaluative criteria? Let us look at some alternative evaluative approaches from scholars working in sociology and related disciplines that have emerged in recent years. Harrington (2004) makes the important point that with the legitimacy of taste hierarchies undermined, there need be no a priori discrimination in favour of fine art over other cultural forms. Indeed, scholars working in cultural studies have sought to find ways of evaluating popular cultural forms such as television dramas (Geraghty 2003) and popular music (Frith 1996). Harrington therefore proposes that in evaluating culture we give parity of esteem to various categories of cultural production. This means, for example, that there is no need to form a basis of comparison between a pop song and a piano sonata, between a video game and a poem, between a type of cuisine and a style of dancing. To assign a ‘high’ or ‘low’ category is not defensible. What is important, however, is that it is possible to compare individual cultural objects within these categories of cultural production. This approach does, however, throw up several problems, not least because categories of cultural production are by no means hermetically sealed or separated by dividing walls, and there is much crossover between them. This notwithstanding, with imagination, the construction of comparative categories is possible.
2.5 Harrington also puts forward the argument that social theory has a role in mediating between value distantiation and value affirmation. The former is based on a qualified adherence to Max Weber’s notion of value-freedom in the social sciences. For Weber (2011: 11), this meant that ‘the investigator and teacher should keep unconditionally separate the establishment of empirical facts … and his own practical evaluations’. Value affirmative approaches are rooted in liberal-humanistic scholarship which tends to privilege formal aesthetic evaluation at the expense of social, political and economic considerations (Harrington 2004: 40). An example of a value-neutral approach can be found in institutional theories of art (Dickie 1974). From this perspective, that which we consider to be an object of ‘art’ is distinguishable from other objects not because of some special aura it might have but because it has been given status by an institution with a certain degree of cultural authority. Value-neutral approaches tend to strip art and the artistic process of its mystery, and so, for example, Howard Becker (1982: xi) invites us to ‘[t]hink of all the activities that must be carried out for any work of art to appear as it finally does’. Becker draws attention to the social organizational aspect of art rather than to its aesthetics, and his approach to aesthetic value involves a shift in focus away from the properties of a cultural object towards an examination of the ways in which consensus regarding the value of cultural objects is created by participants in the art world. Similarly, in Bourdieu’s (1987, 1993, 1996) model of the field of cultural production, the value and meaning of an artwork is generated out of the struggle in the field which involves all participants, each with varying degrees of power at their disposal to confer legitimacy. This struggle involves
all who have ties with art, who live for art and, to varying degrees, from it, and who confront each other in struggles where the imposition of not only a world view but also a vision of the artworld is at stake, and who, through these struggles, participate in the production of the value of the artist and of art (Bourdieu 1987: 205).
2.6 So, value is not simply created out of an individual’s interaction with a particular cultural object but is created out of structural relations, out of struggle, and even if all participants in the cultural field – from agents to costume directors to stage managers to curators to critics to artists – have some stake in the struggle, those with the most resources at their disposal are in a better position to confer legitimacy on a cultural object. Bourdieu’s approach enables us to view the genesis of the cultural field across time and to historicise our ways of thinking about matters of value. Exactly what is valued and by whom it is valued changes over time, and as the cultural field has, over time, gained autonomy from forms of patronage, it has developed its own institutions and each period in the history of the cultural field corresponds to a particular aesthetic disposition, a way of understanding and appreciating culture (Bourdieu 1987).