Impressionists room in the National Gallery of London

“This is where all the famous paintings are.” People gather in the main Impressionists room in the National Gallery of London, photographing themselves in front of one of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous work, Sunflowers, but mostly ignoring his other equally celebrated artwork, Chair, and completely missing the artists who influenced him such as Pissarro.

This selfie enthusiasm is new; the Gallery only started allowing photos in August 2014 – and very reluctantly. The Wire reported the dismay of art critics at the time:

“I have to say, a bit of my soul died each time someone photographed a piece or even worse, took a selfie without actually looking at it with their own two eyes.” (Art History Newsletter)
“The last bastion of quiet contemplation is now to become selfie central, where noisy clicking smartphones and intense flashlights will prevail over any ‘eccentrics’ who want actually to look at art. The gallery used to be a haven where looking at pictures was prioritised. Now it will all be about taking your own pictures.” (Michael Savage, author of the Grumpy Art Historian blog)

 

Sociology of Distinction

“There are some British people who are cool [Mick Jagger, for example], and then there are people like me who seem to be made of tweed.”

In an interview with Craig Ferguson, Stephen Fry talks about class in England and how punk changed notions of what Bourdieu calls “distinction”. That is, different classes reinforce social norms and social order through their activities and interests.

People generally tend to think of their individual preferences for music, fashion or their manner of speaking as a sign of their personality or family upbringing. Bourdieu shows that the things and ideas we like actually represent the aesthetics of our class. Working class “distinctions” not only set this group apart from upper class groups, their activities are often set up in opposition to other classes.

Popular culture nowadays might seem to transcend class, but in essence, our tastes still reflect social hierarchies.

To an outsider, Stephen Fry might represent the quintessential British culture, but as Fry actually notes, growing up in 1970s, he embodied all the aspects of British culture that the general public hated: he was highly educated, he liked Latin poetry, and he dresses in tweed. In summary, his personal aesthetic or distinction represented upper class British culture.

I thought that I was from a generation that was born at least 20 years too late. That maybe if I’d been born in the 50s, when wearing a tweed jacket and smoking a pike and talking about Catullus and Ovid was somehow acceptable and you were admired for it. Whereas I felt that I was born into a post-punk era in which the idea of even speaking in sentences that didn’t break up at the end and go “sort of”, and “like” and “oh I wonder”. Just having an articulate voice was in itself was an offence. It was like rubbing people’s faces in the dirt. And I was hated for it.

In contrast, Scotland-born Craig Ferguson embodies the opposite distinction: his casual style, self-effacing humour, his swearing and dishevelled presentation evokes his working class background, which he often references directly. Ferguson, who has often discussed his affinity to the British punk movement (he was once in a band), talks about how he disliked Fry precisely for all the things he stood for: well-spoken, widely-read, affluent charm.

The exchange is a lovely example of how Bourdieu uses distinction to analyse class systems. Fry also discusses his addiction and psychological definitions of being bi polar.