Habermas and art: Beyond distinction

Abstract

Sociological studies of the effects of the high arts have largely drawn from Pierre Bourdieu, who argued that the high arts have the undemocratic effect of shoring up existing socio-economic inequalities. In this article, I use the work of Jürgen Habermas to shed light on the potentially positive role that art museums can play in a democratic society, using the 1990 ‘High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture’ exhibit held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a case study. Habermas’s work reveals that art museums are in a unique position to encourage debates that can contribute to replenishing the lifeworld. The ‘High and Low’ exhibit elicited a far-ranging public discussion about the role of art and art museums in a democratic society, provoked by the questions: which cultural products deserve the most esteem in our democratic society and why? While Habermas has been of interest to the discipline of sociology mainly for his work concerning the public sphere, he can also be useful for understanding art and culture, providing the conceptual tools to understand the unique place of the high arts in modern culture and to perceive how they can make a singular contribution to modern society.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Habermas also provides a rather different definition of postmodernism in his ‘Modernity versus Postmodernity’, published in New German Critique in 1981. He characterizes it here as a neoconservative movement that seeks to keep science, morality and art in the hands of experts, separate from the lifeworld of the everyday individual. The theorists he describes as the ‘Young Conservatives’ in this article, namely, Foucault and Derrida, actually more closely approach how postmodernism is understood by the critics dealt with in this article, in the sense of questioning the established narratives and categories of modernism.

  2. 2.

    The exhibit was co-curated with Adam Gopnick, but media attention focused on Varnedoe as new chief curator to signal the direction MoMA would take with regard to contemporary art. In this article, I will also focus on Varnedoe.

  3. 3.

    This Supplementary Appendix is available online at http://www.palgrave-journals.com/ajcs.

  4. 4.

    (for which Crow won the Eric Mitchell Prize for the best initial publication in art history from the College Art Association)

  5. 5.

    ‘[Aesthetic criticism] is a variation of a form of argumentation in which the adequacy of value standards, the vocabulary of our evaluative language generally, is made thematic … . In this context reasons have the peculiar function of bringing us to see a work or performance in such a way that it can be perceived as an authentic expression of an exemplary experience, in general as the embodiment of a claim to authenticity. A work validated through aesthetic experience can then in turn take the place of an argument and promote the acceptance of precisely those standards according to which it counts as an authentic work’ (italics his) Habermas, 1984, p. 20).

  6. 6.

    See http://momaps1.org/exhibitions/

  7. 7.

    Bourdieu recanted on the central thesis of Distinction, conceding that Kant’s idea of the beautiful as pure pleasure is not merely an illusion of the bourgeois class, but a (theoretical) possibility for every person (1998, p. 135).

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Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Rafael Narváez, Vanessa Fernandez-Greene and Mustafa Emirbayer for their comments on earlier drafts of this article. I am also grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful questions and suggestions.

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Coleman, K. Habermas and art: Beyond distinction. Am J Cult Sociol 4, 157–195 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1057/ajcs.2015.15

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Keywords

  • art
  • Habermas
  • museums
  • critical theory
  • cultural impoverishment
  • cultural rationalization