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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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.
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.
(for which Crow won the Eric Mitchell Prize for the best initial publication in art history from the College Art Association)
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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
- critical theory
- cultural impoverishment
- cultural rationalization