Monday, April 27, 2009

Caillebotte and distinction

I went to the Caillebotte exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and this engendered some thoughts which had already been percolating in my teaching of Bourdieu's 'Distinction" to my students at Lang. Owner of the points that arose in our discussion was Bourdieu's dissection or Sartre's self-presentation as an intellectual--that his portrayal--performance, as Judith Butler mgiht say--if himself as rejecting conventional bourgeois standards, of not fitting in, of the poignancy of his non-assimilation into the normative, was itself a struggle for a sort of comparative advantage, a seizure of a niche of distinction that would make him look special. No one is more the target of the theoretical generation of French intellectuals than Sartre, but even after taking out Bourdieu's local agenda the point is worth taking: the avant-garde was so successful precisely because it made its non-normativity normative, made conventional the embrace of the unconventional. Despite waves of postmodern irony, one still saw this in the presentation of Caillebotte. His association with the Impressionists was played up, he was made to seem an artistic rebel, even as the exhibition made clear that he was not only that. Caillebotte was not only one of France's leading painters, but its leading marine architect--in other words, builder of boats--and its leading yachtsman. It is as if Ted Turner, in the early 80s, had also been Robert Ryman and (whoever the leading American marine architect of that era was, which even I am not going to bother to find out). This is a consummate example of the late nineteenth-century yen for the artist as doer, the Jack London ideal, which is a little-noted complement to the aestheticism and experimental sexualities of that era: its coexistence wit hypermasculine, hyperengaged artists who also were figures of not only public notoriety but public action and responsibility. That, on the floor below the Caillebotte exhibition, Hernán Bas's work, consciously referring to late nineteenth-century aestheticism and decadence, and playing up its queer valences, while clearly enjoying financial and popular reward in a twenty-first--century Miami context, illustrates not just the inextricability of art and commerce but how the 'art' element is actually potentially overexaggerable for motives that if not immediately commercial are certainly strategic or positional and not 'intrinsic

So far so good for the Bourdieu model. it works well with modernist or existential aesthetics that try to assert that they have on prudential or expedient motives in mind; Bourdieu delights in goring their ox. But both the Caillebotte and Bas exhibitions also raised points that might vex Bourdieu's paradigm. If one were to choose Caillebotte over, say, Bonnard at the Met (and oddly the actual feel of the paintings, the sense of their harboring a beneficent, open, minutely observed and felt world was similar) one might do so out of a kind of deliberate cheesiness: wanting to see the more hybrid, commercial artist, wanting to see the artist whose less ascetic choice of lifestyle promised a relief from aesthetic rigor. As I said to my Lang students on Wednesday, this is the same motive that leads people to croon over pop songs from the 70s and 80s that they know are not great artistically: there is the sense of them having bene undervalued by snobs, as Caillebotte would have been by a "Greenbergian' aesthetic, and so there is a guilty pleasure in unearthing them. This coolness of the cheesy is something Bourdieu does not discuss in detail, though at times he gestures at it, as in his example of the guy who drives Rolls-Royce but takes the Metro. This up-front cheesiness seems necessarily connected to the unleashing of free-market capitalism in the West after 1980, which Bourdieu, writing from a society that was more statist and hierarchical anyway, and in a time--the 1960s and 1970s--when a mixed economy seemed a permanent given in Europe and America, seems oddly innocent of in his discourse. Our reality in the past thirty years has given another twist of the screw to Bourdieu--and this was something my students were very much aware of even as they appreciated his excavation of the latest motives of situational taste in the assertions of artistic value.

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