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Ewa Klekot


Pierre Bourdieu argues that in modern times, every aesthetic choice is a factor of social classification. His theory demonstrates that the judgment of taste is socially constructed and at the same time itself serves to establish social distance and hierarchy. In his analysis of kitsch, however, Tomaš Kulka posits that kitsch cannot come under the judgment of taste since, by its very definition, it is devoid of “artistic value”, which is the basis of any aesthetic judgment. From the structural point of view, argues Kulka, kitsch is not art at all. Since most miraculous images worshipped by Christians are quite different from those worshipped in museums, the applicability of the judgment of taste to so-called “religious art” should clearly be called into question. The article quotes examples from field research to argue that the factors deemed essential for judging religious images by people who use them in their religious practice suggest that their evaluation should be based on concepts such as the Gadamerian indistinguishability or Michael Taussig’s mimesis rather than on modern aesthetic values.

keywords: religious art, aesthetic judgment, kitsch, sociology of art


In a fairy-tale by Hans Christian Andersen The Gardener and the Manor one day the eponymous character puts in the room of his master’s residence a blue flower in a crystal vase. The flower is generally admired, and the family wonder which exotic country this unusually beautiful flower, taken by them for “the lotos of Hindostan”, comes from. The flower gives delight to all the visitors to the manor and the family offer it to a princess who is enraptured by it. The gardener’s employers set out in search of a new flower to replace the specimen offered to the princess, but they cannot find it either in the conservatory or in the flower-garden. They ask the gardener, who explains that the incredibly beautiful flower is an ordinary flower of the artichoke. His master and mistress stop liking it immediately, and even hasten to apologize to the princess for giving her something so common. The princess, however, is still enchanted with the flower and she does not mind knowing that it is a kitchen-herb. In this way the artichoke was rehabilitated also in the eyes of the gardener’s employers.

I have quoted a fragment of this well-known tale, because its message contains two very important elements of the great modern art narrative, the elements which cause the theory and practice of art in the religious context to be more or less at odds. The point of this quote is to show the function of the judgement of taste as a social classifier (the common origins of the artichoke degrade it in the eyes of the master and mistress) and the belief about its universal foundations, or the belief in the existence of some kind of absolute or universal beauty, which is the feature of an object (here a flower) regardless of who and when is looking at it and what use they make of it. (The idea of “the judgement of taste” is used here after Pierre Bourdieu in its technical sense[1]; it means a judgement of an object or action based on their artistic and aesthetic values.)

However, social anthropology has been positing for a long time that the universality of beauty is even more doubtful than the universality of human rights, and objects or actions called by us art are sometimes situated in the cultural systems so different from ours that often we are even unable to perceive the set of values used for their evaluation, not to mention understanding their meaning and place in the universe of people who are their authors; social anthropology has been seconded here for some time by the history of culture[2]. Nevertheless, the contemporary art practitioners and also a significant number of art theorists behave as if the art universe really had the shape of an imaginary museum, where the criterion of selection is the object’s artistic value. Obviously, such judgements are valid when applied to modernity and its creations; however, using the artistic set of values for the evaluation of all the other objects and activities requires a thorough justification from the anthropological standpoint – or we have to deal with appropriation, still the most favourite practice of the late modern West[3].

“The work of art through appropriation” is an expression coined by a British art anthropologist Alfred Gell, who suggested a processual approach to the work of art[4]. It means assuming that no object or activity has any inherent meaning or universally perceived features. Every object or activity is open to a practically limitless number of interpretations resulting from considering them to be the carriers of some features or meanings. Some of these meanings (features) are ascribed to them (“given”) during the production process, while other appear during the process of their use or reception. Therefore, as Gell says, we can have a work of art through intention and a work of art through appropriation, since what is considered a work of art is an object or an activity to which certain values are ascribed, called in the language of modernity “artistic values”.

When it comes to the other part of the story about the artichoke flower, namely the judgement of taste as a social classifier, it is a mechanism used with relish, though unconsciously by all the citizens of modernity. As Bourdieu’s influential observation goes, taste classifies, but it also classifies the classifier. It means that by pronouncing a judgement of taste, we place ourselves automatically in a particular place of the complicated structure of modern society. So the question “Do you like Matisse?” is not innocent at all. What if the answer were “Matisse? You mean the jazzman?” Would the person who has given it be “one of us”?

[1] P. Bourdieu, Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste,transl. R. Nice, Cambridge Mass., 1984.

[2] Cf.: C. Geertz, “Art as a Cultural System”, in: idem, Local Knowledge,London 1993.

[3] Cf. eg.: N. Dias, “Cultural Difference and Cultural Diversity: The Case of Musée du Quai Branly”, in: Museums and Difference, ed. D. Sherman, Bloomington–Indianapolis, 2006.

[4] A. Gell, Art and Agency, Oxford 1998.

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