In other words, the way in which culture has been gained, continues in the manner of using it so a work of art would only have meaning and hold interest for someone who possesses the cultural competence or as Bourdieu suggests, ‘the code, into which it is encoded’. (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 2) He the goes on to explore the significance of taste for social reproduction and asserts that taste is not an unexplainable subjective experience. According to Bourdieu, tastes can be explained as distinctions or markers of social class. He connects cultural artefacts with culture as everyday living.
For example, whilst applying a materialist approach, Bourdieu is able to connect an individual’s taste in opera or art to his taste in food. He compares the form and aesthetics of food and art to connect an individual’s taste with both. He refers to the ‘pure gaze. ‘ For many who are driven by the need for things rather than the luxury – the importance of particular foods is that they offer quantity, are economical and offer immediate satisfaction of the senses. If we then apply this to a work of art – they would want to look at something which clearly shows a picture of what it is rather than abstract modern art.
This is where their cultural competence would be introduced. As a Marxist theorist, Bourdieu suggests that taste is socially patterned and assists social reproduction. In other words, it is not just about the individual but operates in ways to serve the interests of powerful groups in society and that antagonist groups, with differing ideas of culture are engaged in a constant struggle to gain social importance. Bourdieu is extremely deterministic in that he firmly believes that an individual’s childhood cultural experiences ultimately determine their adult cultural lives.
Finally, cultural competence or capital accrues to those who have the taste to legitimate culture. Some have suggested that Bourdieu’s argument is similar to that of Leavis. However, it could be argued that Bourdieu, unlike Leavis, has endeavoured to be more analytical about legitimate cultural capital/competence. He has distanced himself from making value judgements. Lury reasons that Bourdieu would see Leavis as part of what he called a (middle) class fraction. However, both Leavis and Bourdieu do use education as a focus of their arguments.
The former emphasises the importance of education in enabling individuals to appreciate culture whereas the latter points out that education itself utterly assumes a certain level of cultural competence and understanding. If a person does not have this then they are left feeling inadequate and lacking in ability. Therefore both would agree that education does perform a social function of social stratification. The debate roars on regarding who shapes what is legitimate culture. In recent years, critics have questioned and even rejected the notion of cultural competence.
The likes of Fiske, Ang and Geraghty have argued that audiences within modern societies are now able to make informed readings (resistant reading) of cultural texts. Many, such as Steinberg and Kincheloe have suggested that we incorporate cultural pedagogy into the curriculum in schools in order for members of society to learn to incorporate the relevant cultural competence into their consumptive practices. If we once again consider the arguments of Leavis and Bourdieu then cultural competence will remain dependent on one’s education and social background.
Yet, with the advent of digital technologies such as the internet, offering accessible online learning in its many forms – the children and audiences of the future will have the potential to be less passive and therefore more able to construct their own meanings in the process of their cultural consumption. This shift offers them the power to control their own levels of cultural competence and it could therefore be argued that this could then be seen to invalidate the arguments of both Leavis and Bourdieu.
Works referred to (in addition to the course readings) Lury, Celia (1996) Consumer Culture, Polity Press/Blackwell, Cambridge and Oxford.