William Hogarth, The Polling (1754-1755), Sir John Soane’s Museum.
The study of the appropriation of cultural objects is historically rooted within literature, philosophy, and aesthetics (Gombrich 1984; Jauss 1982), which have significantly influenced the development of the sociology of reception (Passeron 2013). It might therefore be surprising that, in France, some of the most salient works in recent decades on the reception of cultural objects have been written by authors who—through their institutional ties as much as their other research focuses—are connected to the field of political science (Charpentier 2006; Collovald & Neveu 2004; Darras 2003; Le Grignou 2003; Mauger, Poliak, Pudal 1999). This interest that the sociology of culture shares with political sociology is certainly at least partly driven by inquiries shared by these two specialities into the role of the media in understanding the spread of political ideas (Lazarsfeld & Katz 1955) and in characterizing relationships to culture (Hoggart 1970). However, there is another factor contributing to this unexpected proximity: the crossover that has taken place in France between the sociology of culture and political sociology. Indeed, analysis of voting behaviour constitutes a branch of political sociology that has benefited from the input of the sociology of culture—in this case, from the study of art gallery participation1. One of its central concepts, political competence2, was developed by Pierre Bourdieu (1979, 1984) and Daniel Gaxie (1978) using the model of artistic competence (Bourdieu & Darbel 1990).
While the sociology of art has inspired that of political behaviour, the reverse has almost never occurred. In this article, I propose several strands through which to reimport the recent results of work in political science into the sociology of artistic consumption. With this aim, I concentrate on the practice of visiting art galleries. One development deserves particular attention from sociologists of art: the redefinition of the distance between the two poles of the scale of political competence. Recent work on relationships to politics among the working class and elites has tended, on the one hand, to reveal the multiplicity of resources of the former, and on the other hand to undermine the scope of competence of the latter. Therefore, what differentiates these poles is the degree of specificity of their competence as well as their status-linked competence—that is to say, their sense of legitimacy in terms of taking the floor. To what extent do these results apply to attitudes towards art? Material gleaned from an ethnographic study on the reception of an artwork provides indications in support of its transferability. After a brief return to the concept of competence, I will shed light on three factors supporting the comparison between these research specialities: the role of legitimacy in expressing views; the diversity of modes of production of artistic opinion, in particular from non-specific resources; and the normative effects of the figure of the expert.
The considerations presented in this article are based on a PhD thesis (Coavoux 2016). The thesis was built around a case study: the reception of Nicolas Poussin’s painting The Flight into Egypt (1657). This painting is housed by the Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon (Lyon Museum of Fine Arts) and represents a biblical episode—the exile of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus having been warned by an angel of the massacre of infants ordered by King Herod. I use three main forms of empirical material in this article: systematic observations of types of attention given to the painting by visitors to the gallery; fifty-six interviews conducted at the gallery with visitors who had stopped to look at the painting; and eighteen biographical interviews carried out outside the gallery on visitors’ backgrounds. Observations centre on visitor behaviour, which I strive to describe precisely: body language; movements; and interactions (Coavoux 2014). Among other things, this enabled me to record many spontaneous and varied instances of artistic reception. The first series of interviews was conducted with visitors immediately after leaving the room where Poussin’s painting is displayed. The interviews focus on reactions to the painting and allow me to assess the artistic knowledge and socio-demographic characteristics of the people observed in order to correlate them with a visit type. Finally, the biographical interviews conducted outside the gallery give a more detailed description of visitors’ backgrounds to compensate for the limitations of the interviews conducted inside—in particular their brevity on account of a lack of time available on the part of these interviewees.
In the spirit of this dossier, I have sought to identify some of the conditions that enable the confrontation with other research specialities. In the absence of a systematic inquiry into what sociologists of culture read, I am only able to give a loose outline here, that runs the risk of biographical illusion, to understand how I might take an interest in political sociology within my domain of art galleries.
The team in which I prepared my thesis, the Dispositions, pouvoirs, cultures, socialisations (Disposition, Power, Culture, and Socialization) axis of the Centre Max Weber (Lyon), welcomes researchers who share a common approach—the study of socialization—rather than a research subject, even though the majority of work that is carried out there is on culture. This configuration promotes a certain eclecticism in terms of theoretical and empirical readings. The fact that I directed this eclecticism towards political sociology is primarily a result of the fact that this was the first branch of social science that I studied when taking my diploma at the Institut d’études politiques. Then, when beginning my thesis, Andréa Insergueix and I led a reading workshop dedicated to work on culture and attitudes towards politics among the working class. I made the explicit link between artistic and political competence in this workshop when political scientists in the workshop responded to my proposal to read The Love of Art with texts by Daniel Gaxie.
In The Love of Art, co-authored in 1966 with Alain Darbel, and then in two articles (Bourdieu & Darbel 1990, Bourdieu 1968, 1971) for which the content and wording are very close to the fourth chapter, “Cultural Works and Cultivated Disposition,” of this book, Pierre Bourdieu develops a model with the aim of explaining both social disparities in art gallery participation rates and disparities in the perception of works of art.
Artistic competence can be defined as the ability to have a “specifically aesthetic” perception of a work of art, that is to say to consider a work “as signifier meaning nothing other than itself” (Bourdieu & Darbel 1990: 40) and not as an everyday object. Here Bourdieu and Darbel are using Erwin Panofsky’s definition of aesthetic perception, according to which “aesthetic intention” is what “makes” a work (Bourdieu 1971:46). Thus people are competent if they have “adequate experience” of works of art (Bourdieu 1968: § 2.1.3.). This notion of experience corresponds to the “iconological” understanding of the “intrinsic meaning” of works that Erwin Panofsky defines (1939: 7). It also implies the ability to place the perceived work among other existing works—that is, within the history of art (Bourdieu & Darbel 1990).
Yet, as the authors of The Love of Art note, artistic competence varies in proportion to qualifications. Artistic competence is a specifically artistic variation of a more general disposition towards cultured reading that is particularly developed with regard to literature. More specifically, for Bourdieu and Darbel, school creates “a transferable disposition to admire academically established works of art”—an activity that is perceived as a “duty to admire and like [these] works,” as well as an “equally generalized and transferable aptitude for classification by artist, genre, school, or period” (Bourdieu & Darbel 1990: 62). But this academic learning is “necessarily the second stage of tuition” (Bourdieu & Darbel 1990: 66). Its effectiveness depends on the support of prior experience in the family. Regarding the capacity to categorize works and place them within a general history, artistic competence can indeed only develop by means of comparison and confrontation between works. It is early familiarity with rankings that are in force—with series of works that have been categorized, and thus with the art gallery, the ultimate space in which such rankings operate—that enables artistic competence to develop. School therefore intensifies, formalizes, and anchors dispositions that are first produced in the family through early visits to cultural facilities.
The Love of Art proposes a link between the macrosociological study of inequality in access to art galleries as described above and a microsociological study of forms of appropriation of works. Certainly, the data used by Bourdieu and Darbel, which come from questionnaire-based surveys, primarily support the first of these pieces of analysis. However, the concept of artistic competence is what leads to the connection between the two levels by offering the explanatory mechanism for the lack of parity in participation rates. Later work on art gallery participation has divided the two issues into: 1) quantitative surveys of visitors to measure the lack of parity in attendance; 2) reception surveys to study methods of appropriation. The first set measures visitors’ social characteristics and emphasizes disparity at the level of cultural capital, which is almost always measured solely by academic qualifications (DiMaggio & Mukthar 2004; Donnat 1993; Fyfe 2004; Heikkilä & Rahkonen 2011), but presents few cases of concrete modes of the appropriation of works (Passeron & Pedler 1991 is a notable exception). The second set focuses on horizontal variations between these forms of appropriation and therefore tends to level differences in competence (Saurier 2008; Hanquinet 2014). In these works, profiles or individual styles of reception are considered to be disconnected from any social groupings.
How then is the link formed between artistic and political competence? The competence of citizens is an old concern of political science that was revived, according to Blondiaux (2007), in the immediate post-war period. It is based on the observation that there is strong inequality in degree of political engagement and knowledge in democratic regimes that claim the equality of citizens. The sociology of political behaviour highlights inequality in terms of interest in politics, ability to carry out political activity, and ability to be heard. These aspects vary according to degree of academic qualification, social status group, gender, and many other socio-demographic properties. Equality of rights does not equal actual equality (Lehingue 2011). In Distinction, Bourdieu relates such inequality to differences in socialization between social classes. In this regard, disparities in political competence are simply a particular case of the disparities in lifestyle that are produced and reproduced by habitus, and thereby linked to cultural inequality (Bourdieu 1973; Bourdieu 1984: 417-419). After Bourdieu, Daniel Gaxie also proposed a theory of political competence in his book Le Cens caché (1978):
Those who do not possess a concept of the very general division between Romanesque and Gothic or figurative and abstract find themselves completely ill-equipped to appreciate architectural or pictorial meanings that they are confronted with and tend to take refuge in indifference. Similarly, the decryption of meaning of political events and, henceforth, the interest that may be accorded to them supposes understanding of a principle of political classification of which the left-right divide is an example. This is owing to the fact that the existence of schemes of classification—even very general ones—such as the division between left and right, helps to organize perceptions. (Gaxie 1978: 75)
Therefore for Daniel Gaxie, cultural practices are also a clear model for reflection on political behaviour.
Artistic or political competence is first and foremost an ability to orient oneself within a symbolic space, which accordingly implies knowledge of this space. This dimension appears to be predominant in studies of political competence (Perrineau 1985; Offerlé & Favre 2002), in particular in the English-language literature (Kuklinski & Quirk 2001). Such studies have thus been criticized for limiting themselves to recording citizens’ political knowledge, which we can refer to as cognitive competence (Perrineau 1985; Blondiaux 2007). Such practices are also common in work on relationships to art, for example in developmental psychology, where understanding art is related to the ability to produce intellectual discourse (Parsons 1987). But the concept of competence includes other dimensions—which are those that have been highlighted in contemporary work on the subject.
Indeed, neither Distinction nor Le Cens caché confines itself to associating disparities in levels of political knowledge with disparities in levels of educational or cultural capital. The two works also stress linguistic and status-linked dimensions. The linguistic dimension can be defined as mastery of the specialist vocabulary of the domain, as well as, in more general terms, all of the “skills required to express oneself in the public space” (Talpin 2010: 95). This dimension is closely linked to the ability to perceive the object as artistic or political, and thus constitutes a specific competence—mastery of a “grammar of public life” (Berger 2008: 192). For example, mastery of political vocabulary determines the ability to publicly produce a “personal” opinion in response to an issue that is recognized as political. However, we must not oversimplify this aspect, since linguistic competence employed in political practice is also a general skill. An understanding of political issues that is not accompanied, for example, by the ability to see the more general relevance of a local problem, has less chance of success (Lolive 1997; Talpin 2003). Similarly, the “first stage of truly aesthetic competence is defined by mastery of a stock of words which permit differences to be named and to be constituted by naming” (Bourdieu & Darbel 1991: 65).
But another dimension of competence that is relatively independent of the cognitive dimension can be identified, which is helpful since it is a source of fairly considerable inequalities. For Bourdieu, political competence is “inseparable from a more or less strong feeling of being competent, in the full sense of the word—that is, socially recognized as entitled to deal with political affairs, to express an opinion about them or even modify their course” (Bourdieu 1984: 399). This feeling can be referred to as status competence. It can be relatively disconnected from cognitive competence. Wilfried Lignier and Julie Pagis have recently shown that upper-middle-class children with an equal, very weak level of competence on account of their age can nevertheless feel more entitled to talk about politics than working-class children (2017: 249). Political scientists tend to accredit members of the upper class with a strong familiarity with politics, even if their actual knowledge of the political field may be weak, as Éric Agrikoliansky (2014) points out regarding the bourgeoisie of Paris’s sixteenth arrondissement. Regarding relationships to art, Bourdieu notes the extent to which self-assurance—status competence—helps to fill gaps in cognitive competence and, sometimes, overthrow hierarchies:
The Parisian or even provincial primary teacher, who can beat the small employer, the provincial doctor or the Parisian antique dealer in the tests of pure knowledge, is likely to appear incomparably inferior to them in all the situations which demand self-assurance or flair, or even the bluff which can cover lacunae, rather than the prudence, discretion and awareness of limits that are associated with scholastic acquisition. (Bourdieu 1984: 91)
Yet work on politics presents status incompetence as the first barrier to the practice (Weill 2012). In particular, incompetence leads to self-exclusion from political activity. This is equally the case regarding artistic matters. It is one of the reasons behind low attendance at art galleries (Vaughan 2001). But it also affects those who do visit art galleries, in the first place on account of the discomfort experienced within such an intimidating place (Hood 1994). There are therefore many people who, despite visiting galleries—in some cases frequently—do not feel able to talk about them. This is most clearly revealed in the reasons given for refusing to be interviewed. One man of around 50 remained for several minutes before The Flight into Egypt listening to the audioguide. When I asked him on his way out of the room for an interview he refused, offering several arguments in a confused manner. He believed that he was not the right person to speak to (“I’m not a very good...”) because, having listened to the audioguide, he would simply repeat it (“I’m not going to say anything, you’ll get nothing from me”—meaning nothing original). Indeed, he claimed not to be familiar enough with such places (“Well, I don’t go to galleries every day...”) that he was still learning (“I’m learning, you see, I’m learning, forming my ideas... not even critical ones, you see”). Discomfort is produced here first of all by the fact of an interviewer dominating the interview relationship. The ethnographer was regarded as being associated with the gallery institution and to the sphere of competence—as confirmed by the many requests I received from the interviewees for an “explanation” of the painting. However, this visitor’s discomfort cannot be fully explained by the interview situation. We find these arguments repeated in the words of other respondents. Those who agreed to be interviewed expressed the same fears: people claimed that they were not yet competent—they had come here to become competent—and that they were too dependent on the information provided by the gallery—they thought they would just repeat what they had read or heard, and that this was not appropriate behaviour. In this sense, refusal is paradigmatic of a lack of status competence, which can be seen to a lesser extent in the reactions of other interviewees. However, this situation concerns members of the public, and not simply people who are excluded from cultural establishments, although it is becoming less frequent as familiarity with galleries increases.
But people affected by this status incompetence do not all lack artistic competence in the cognitive sense of the term. A 33-year-old woman gave the same warnings before agreeing to be interviewed: she had read the exhibition guide relating to the painting and feared she would simply repeat what she had read. During the interview, she replied carefully, qualifying each of her responses: “In fact I’m not fantastically cultured;” “My knowledge of all that is fairly practical;” “If you’d asked me the question at another time I’d have said ...” She thus constantly stresses that her opinion is poorly substantiated. However, her responses, like her profile, attest to formal knowledge that corresponds to a faire level of competence, although she may not be an expert. She is a qualified tourist guide—the training for which included studying the history of art—and she works in tourism. She comes to the museum regularly, is familiar with the iconography of the painting, employs specific vocabulary (“drapé”—folds of fabric—“composition,” etc.), and offers an interpretation of the work (“sacrifice”). On balance, knowing what to say in a conversation about art is not enough to produce adequate behaviour owing to a lack of legitimacy to speak. We could attribute this gap between cognitive competence and a feeling of entitlement to the intermediate social position of the interviewee, to her sex, and to the fact that her competence is school-based.
These situations of discomfort linked to the feeling of not being able to speak about art even when an individual has specific competence in the subject contrast with the confidence displayed by members of economic fractions of the upper class. They are under-represented in my sample: of fifty-six people interviewed, we can associate five with this social category, which is certainly more than the three working-class respondents, but far fewer than the sixteen teachers and museum professionals, or the eleven engineers and doctors. Members of the intellectual fractions of the upper class still present their practice as insufficient; however, male business leaders whom I met at the gallery claimed, rather, to visit galleries regularly. Yet the declared frequency of visits in the two categories (more than five a year) is similar, and far above the average for the French population (Donnat 2009). While the interviewee cited above who had studied history of art almost excused herself for not having enough formal knowledge, another—a hotel owner in a tourist region—emphasized his self-taught knowledge in response to the same question about his artistic training:
“– None at all. No, but I’m interested because I find in it feelings, emotions, things that affect me... On every level. […] This is something I’ve acquired gradually over the years.”
The concept of “entitlement,” which for Daniel Gaxie (2007) refers specifically to status competence, highlights the interview situation of the reception survey at the gallery. In fact, work carried out since the 1980s on appropriation of artworks has rarely taken the effects of the interview situation on what interviewees say into account. It sometimes uses heavy experimental schema, putting the interviewees in artificial visit situations (Tröndle et al. 2012; Dufresne-Tassé et al. 2002; Kawashima & Gottesdiener 1998). Beyond this methodological challenge, assessing artistic consumers’ entitlement and the relative decoupling of this from cognitive competence invites an orientation of work on artistic consumption towards the process of the production of this incompetence (Lahire 2015).
How are political opinions formed? Inquiries into stances taken by citizens emphasize the various shortcuts employed when forming opinions. They show, on the one hand, that the principles that forge opinions are not necessarily political and, on the other hand, that these opinions are frequently reproduced rather than produced—that is to say taken from professionals in politics rather than created from scratch (Gaxie 2013).
Is it possible to transfer these results to the stances of ordinary consumers of art? In investigating the material garnered in my study from this angle, I identified similar phenomena: the plurality of meanings of abstention; the way in which non-artistic resources can offset the weakness of domain-specific resources; the effects of these resources on the appropriation of works; and even the existence of ways of delegating opinion formation.
One of the first issues that the model of political competence sought to address was that of political participation: how to explain abstention and non-responses in opinion polls (Bourdieu 1979; Gaxie 1978; Michelat & Simon 1985). A lack of specific competence constitutes a credible response. However, the association between competence and participation is complex. First, abstention can be viewed positively as a political view in its own right when no other option seems satisfactory (Schwartz 1991)—in this way, the absence of practice stems from a form of competence. Conversely, participation may be driven by factors other than competence, particularly when they are experienced as obligations independent of individual capacities, which is at least partly the case for voting. Thus, for Gaxie, “the vote has become, although in a variable way, an internal obligation that is instilled and periodically reactivated through vague forms of mediation that we still know little about—school, the family, interactions within circles of acquaintance, the media, and historically accumulated political work—are undoubtedly essential elements” (Gaxie 1993: 84; see also Offerlé 1993). In some respects, the “duty to respond” (Gaxie 1990: 103) to survey questions that contributes to the production of artefactual “opinions” (Bourdieu 1979) is an extension of this duty to vote.
The same is true of the relationship between artistic competence and art gallery attendance. Certain forms of “abstention” or non-visit constitute a way of asserting competence, such as when art lovers refuse to visit temporary exhibitions because of their artificial and commercial nature. Since the birth of the institution of the museum or art gallery there has also been an elitist tradition of criticism that, in the name of pure aesthetic experience, refuses this means of spreading art (Maleuvre 1999). The gallery is considered to be a place of the decontextualization of art that true art lovers must avoid. This is ultimately a very old elitist criticism of the gallery’s accessibility—its openness to a wide public: the gallery is for some an over-popular space to suit the masses, and the exhibition an over-commercial format (for example, Baudrillard 1982).
By definition, the gallery visitors that I interviewed do not express such radical criticism. Yet we find among the most competent an attitude that is more distanced from the institution that is close to this cultivated abstention. Thus a history PhD student with an art history degree who is a regular gallery attendee does not go to exhibitions except to see a “subject [...], issue [...], or painter that I love.” In her view, “they are art shows and that pisses me off: it’s like business.” As well as the popularity and commercial nature of the exhibitions she refers to, her refusal is anchored in a relationship of intimate knowledge of galleries: “I like the stability, and knowing that I can see a piece that I’ve seen again.” The rejection of exhibitions is a form of competent abstention that is also seen among visitors who are the most endowed in terms of specific resources.
Conversely, like the vote, gallery attendance is a practice that, for some members of the middle and upper classes—and in particular of their intellectual fractions—falls within the concept of “internal obligation” described by Gaxie, since it is linked to social status and self-image. Bourdieu calls this phenomenon “attribution by status” (Bourdieu 1984: 23): the mere fact of membership in this social world encourages adoption of its assumed practices. The language of duty sometimes occurs in interviews with visitors. Cultural goodwill thus manifests itself in the fact that the tendency towards participation takes the form of an obligation, a “fun ethic” (Bourdieu 1984: 365) rather than desire: “I have friends who go to art galleries on a whim; but in my case I... I tell myself I should, but I don’t really do it” (woman, 58, homemaker, qualified teacher, husband is a senior technician in the cultural sector). In certain contexts, especially that of holidays, visits to museums are perceived as mandatory: for my respondents, “doing a city” means visiting the principle monuments beginning with its major museums, and this obligation is applied even to cities that are not cultural capitals: “We [my children and I] have done Perpignan, Arles, so in this regard [...] it’s very enjoyable, isn’t it?” (woman, 44, history and geography teacher). The analogy with electoral duty thus invites us to link cultural practices not only to passion and interests, but also to a sense of obligation.
To counter the miserabilism sometimes associated with too literal a reading of the political competence model, a renewal of the research (Blondiaux 2007) has led to a more inclusive definition of political resources. Popular practices have long been defined negatively, through the absence of specific resources (Grignon & Passeron 1989). But “low” levels of competence can take many forms. There is a range of forms of practical competence that can be seen as political, which are successfully employed in the political field (Schwartz 1991; Joignant 2007). Among the working class, participation in social facilities may produce interactional competence, as well as critical capabilities, which are likely to be transferred to other areas and which, above all, inform relationships to politics (Siblot et al. 2015: 243). Similarly, personal experience can be a basis for political competence (Barbot 1995). Concerning art, in the absence of a mastery of the established ways of thinking about art history and criticism, other forms of competence from various domains may be used. To some extent, the working-class pragmatic-ethical relationship to works identified by Pierre Bourdieu (1984) remains a resource for adopting a type of behaviour at an art gallery, even though this would be devalued behaviour in terms of cultural legitimacy.
My sample contains very few members of the working class (three people out of fifty-six), thus reflecting the public of the Musée des Beaux Arts de Lyon (1% blue-collar workers, 8% low qualification administrative and service employees, according to the latest figures available—Mironer 2001: 103). A retired carpenter (man 70, without qualifications), after first employing the obligatory qualifying statements that in no way distinguish him from other visitors (“Ok [I’ll answer your question], but I’m not an art connoisseur”), adopts a practical tone. He first of all comments on the technique of the painting, which he calls a drawing, demonstrating his lack of mastery of the specific vocabulary, and about which he marvels at the longevity (“It’s a drawing from when? 1600, 1700? It’s really old... And I wonder how... what type of paint they had then to get colours like that... I find that quite surprising.”) He draws a parallel between his questions about colour and his knowledge of pigments used in pottery, which is manufactured in the region where he lives. He also draws on religious knowledge, which enables him to identify the scene immediately as the “flight into Egypt.” Other visitors are unable to identify the scene as easily: some who have less extensive religious knowledge look for Moses in the painting because of its title, associating Egypt in the Bible only with the Book of Exodus, and not with this brief passage from the Gospel of Matthew. This man’s reaction mobilizes non-specific competence, which is devalued within the spectrum of artistic competence, but which all the same enables a form of minimal reception. Practical and religious registers enable the respondent to at least speak about the painting, to take part in a conversation—just as religion may constitute an “ideology [...] of substitution,” assisting in the formation of a political standpoint in the absence of specific competence (Déloye 2007: 784).
Some works carried out in the domain of politics put disparities in cognitive competence into perspective. Differences in the ability to articulate political discourse by employing specific terms and in the capacity to base an opinion on universal rules are particularly noticeable between social classes (Boltanski, Schiltz, & Darré 1984); however, political stances of members of the working class and those of members of the upper class can operate in a similar manner. By comparing the political reasoning of citizens from different backgrounds, Daniel Gaxie thus shows how political stances are closely linked to everyday and professional experience in both the working class and the upper class, despite pronounced differences in terms of articulation of speech, entitlement, and sense of legitimacy (Gaxie 2007). He refers to the case of a magistrate: certainly, her political opinions appear much more developed than those of working-class respondents, but Gaxie shows her reliance on practical considerations, voicing opinions on specific issues related to her profession. Her standpoints do not differ in nature from those of working-class respondents.
Similarly, some competent understandings of art may be strongly anchored in daily experience or a particular area of expertise that do not fall within the intellectual knowledge attached to artistic competence. One visitor (a retired doctor) thus explains that she had stopped before the painting “because I might3 have a painting by Nicolas Poussin at my house,” and continues to talk during the interview only about the resemblances between the two paintings. Here, the (bourgeois) experience of the family collection provides insight with which to talk about the painting, despite the absence of any further knowledge—for example, her knowledge of the painter is poor: she claims he “always signed his work with a picture of his own face”, altough there is no proof.
A 60-year-old dealer in antique art (painting, sculpture, old furniture, ceramics, etc.), married to a doctor, is a particularly apt example of a professional relationship to art that gives every impression of legitimate artistic competence, but which differs from this considerably. She states her opinion of the painting, which is negative, with much greater self-assurance than displayed by the average visitor. Her status competence can be read in the confidence with which she defends her position—which consists of criticizing the status of Poussin, whom she considers to be overrated—by means of a very quick generalization from painting to painter. If this is not an “extraordinary painting,” it is because Poussin is not an exceptional painter: “I don’t see what he has over others,” she says, citing several other painters (Tiepolo, Stella, etc.); “I don’t think he [Poussin] is any greater [...] than Fragonard. Or than Boucher, for that matter. I’ve seen Boucher close up and I find his work superb.” This overrating of Poussin is a product, in her view, of the fact that specialists concentrate on classical painters rather than innovators: “In my opinion, Poussin is the archetypal classical painter, and I say for goodness’ sake, what has he done for painting?” Art historians, on the other hand, tend to consider him rather as an innovative painter who was frequently imitated in the seventeenth century. This opinion of the painting has little legitimacy in that it goes against the current of expert opinion. Yet it takes the form of an authorized opinion in terms of content—the comparison between painters (the cognitive dimension)—vocabulary (the linguistic dimension), and confidence (the dimension of status). However, we observe in this speech that Poussin is primarily compared with painters who are usually considered to be less important. Apart from those already cited, from Tiepolo to Boucher—names that are important in art history, but far from prominent—the visitor offers other more surprising comparisons, in particular with local artists—those she deals in, such as this painter who “is not catalogued anywhere, and for this exact reason has little value. But in my opinion he’s a great painter, and a great colourist, too”—she explains that his work is worth more than that of another, better-known local painter. Her stance must be linked to the fact that her artistic competence is built around her professional expertise as an antique dealer, which does not consist so much in appreciating great artists as in identifying those whose work is undervalued and thus likely to be purchased at a low price and resold for more. Her judgement of the painting is based less on the quality of Poussin’s work than on the market value: he is not an undervalued painter, and so he is less interesting than artists who are little known and promising. Just as for the members of the upper class studied by political scientists (Agrikoliansky 2014; Gaxie 2007), we are dealing here with professional competence associated with a form of status competence that leads to general conclusions being drawn, but which is no less grounded in personal expertise. Although this professional competence gives access to the art world, this access is based on heteronomous—economic—principles, and this form of competence accordingly differs from the independent and legitimate competence of art lovers.
The figure of the perfectly informed citizen that is sometimes still at the centre of some visions of democracy is faced with the cost involved in accessing information. Political scientists have highlighted some of the strategies employed by citizens to reduce these costs. These include “delegating” to an institution or political parties. Political opinions are less often produced than reproduced via the circulation of the opinions of political professionals (Gaxie 2013). Similarly, opinions about art are not original productions by art gallery publics. The information cost is even greater since artistic information is harder to find than political.
In the case of the pictorial arts, the institutions that are likely to provide this information are media or academic art critics, as well as the galleries themselves. Since my study focused on a single work and its reception in the context of the gallery, critics were hardly mentioned by respondents. Work on journalistic criticism tends to show that it is used to reduce uncertainty surrounding the quality of a work, and that its usage increases the more legitimate the object consumed (Shrum 1991). In the case of the Poussin painting, critical discourse was largely modelled on the authorized discourse as presented by the gallery. This was distributed mainly via the press pack that had been provided when the painting was acquired—whole paragraphs of which were reproduced by the media, except for some specialist titles covering fine art news (Coavoux 2016b: chap. 7). In this sense, the press delegated the formation of its own opinions to institutional specialists.
It also becomes apparent that visiting art galleries plays a specific and key role in this production of artistic opinion: certain devices—posters, audioguides, maps of the gallery offering pre-established guided tours, the information provided by the guides employed by the museum, the exhibition brochure relating to Poussin’s painting, etc.—make a coherent set of interpretations available for public use. Such devices serve as a guide, helping visitors to identify the most significant works (Coavoux 2016a); they are also remarkably consistent, highlighting the same details in the painting and giving the same interpretation (Coavoux 2018). This is not, of course, surprising for the audioguide and the brochure, which were made at the same time using material collected for the exhibition organized in conjunction with the painting’s acquisition (Dubois-Brinkmann & Laveissière 2010), but the guides draw on the same source for the text of their speech.
Visitors often make use of the information in the brochure during conversations before the painting. They may thus describe a detail located in the top-right corner of the painting as a “watching vulture,” or by saying: “Look, an eagle is eating a snake. The snake represents evil.” In these cases, the first visitor has not read the guide, which devotes an information box to this detail; unlike the second, who uses the terms employed there. In the interviews, the interpretations of the brochure are taken up without reference to where they have come from. They are presented not as an interpretation, but as the true meaning of the painting. One respondent (a retired computer scientist with a post-graduate qualification) states that he was struck most by the “direction they [the figures] are looking in”—a theme strongly highlighted in the printed guide:
Visitor: – Whereas Jesus... I think he’s looking back, too. Here.
Interviewer: – And in your opinion is there a meaning to this?
Visitor: – Well, if you look back it’s usually out of fear. So here, if we look at the direction of his head, it’s over there. And then basically he’s... looking at the land. He’s... Not submissive, but... He’s accepting... No matter what direction he’s taken in, he’ll follow.
Here the visitor is paraphrasing the authorized interpretation of the painting: Mary is looking back at the past (she regrets leaving her country). Jesus is looking at us—the viewer—to engage us. Joseph is looking at the angel, and is subject to divine will. And the donkey is looking at the path. There is even greater reliance on institutional expertise for publics with a low level artistic competence, as in this case.
The main difference between delegating to a political party and delegating to an art institution lies in the breadth of what is on offer: the market for political opinions is vast; the market for artistic opinions is much narrower. In response to a given work, except in rare cases, the number of opinions available is generally very low. Confronted with a work, visitors usually seek the “right” interpretation, that is to say the authorized one, rather than one in accordance with their beliefs. Regarding Poussin’s painting, one visitor (an architecture student, 22) whom I asked as he left the room to describe the work he had just seen, responded in the following way:
“– I’ll tell you what I learnt today, as I’m from Lyon so I know the painting well, but what I’ve retained this time is the division between what they call the present, and so the future. The ancient column that shows the structured side of the past—we know what’s there.”
Like the previous respondent, he has taken this interpretation from the brochure. The figures are walking towards the right-hand side of the painting. On the left, a landscape in the distance shows the country they are leaving behind, which is covered by cloud. On the right, a rock blocks the view since they do not know where they are going, but the sky is blue. For the visitor, this is not an opinion, but validated knowledge of something he has “learnt.”
This limitation may appear to negate the merits of the analogy with political behaviour. As far as art is concerned, except in the case of professionals of artistic judgement, it is less a matter of positioning oneself within a space of possible opinions as acquiring knowledge that is considered to be established. However, the analogy is pertinent because the action model that the notion of delegation is opposed to is the same in politics as it is in art. In politics, this concept helps to show how citizens adapt to the expectations of the figure of a voter who has perfect information. In art, it is linked to the requirement, particularly in contemporary art teaching, to react to artworks personally—to have one’s own opinion. Delegating opinion to the institution of the art gallery provides a method of coping with this, and drawing attention to this is a reminder of the practical difficulty in producing one’s own interpretations.
Studies of knowledge of the political world tend to lament its weakness: on average, citizens may be ill-equipped to participate in democratic life, which can be damaging for the latter (for example, Converse 1964). This idea, defended by certain political scientists, is especially common outside the academic community. Similar to other alarmist observations, such as the concept of the supposed low levels of children’s reading (Baudelot, Cartier, Détrez 1999), we can use the perpetuation of the practice as a counter argument: and yet they vote. And yet art gallery publics, although they may be disappointed, frustrated, or intimidated by some of their experiences, and despite moments of incomprehension, continue to visit—just like those of subsidized theatres (Pasquier 2012) or contemporary music (Menger 1986), who, although sometimes unsettled by what is on offer at cultural establishments, continue to visit them. This calls us to question the image conveyed by the competence model: if the practices persist in spite of the weakness of competence, it is possible that the scale they are measured against is too demanding.
Indeed, the concept of competence is modelled on the figure of the expert. In many respects, to be competent in politics means adopting political scientists’ and politicians’ relationship to politics (Joignant 2004; Blondiaux 2007). Similarly, artistic competence primarily denotes the practice of art historians, curators, critics, and other experts in the art world. Bourdieu defines this based on the interpretation of art historian Erwin Panofsky (Bourdieu 1971), and references to the “experts” are consistent in empirical works on the aesthetic experience (for example Csíkszentmihályi & Robinson 1990). The concept thus requires ordinary practices to be measured against those of experts. This brings certain problems, on the one hand, because this figure of expertise is difficult to determine (at any one time, several claimants to the legitimate form of knowledge coexist: political scientists clash with journalists just as collectors clash with art historians regarding their relationship to their subject of expertise); and on the other hand, because concentrating on the most legitimate practices means we ignore the variety of real practices (Grignon & Passeron 1989).
And yet the comparison between ordinary and expert practices is still important, if only because this comparison is often made by the actors themselves. The belief that there is a “right way” of doing things is widespread. Daniel Gaxie thus reports the comments of an interviewee, the daughter of a labourer and the wife of a doctor, who mentions her socialization to politics as an adult: “I wanted to learn [about politics] like we learn to write” (Gaxie 2002: 152). Likewise, competence appears to be a major concern for the people I interviewed. Exceptions are rare; they only affect those who have a sense of entitlement, which is usually not specific to art, such as some company leaders in the sample. Others speak in interview about both the work and their own ability to interpret it. I demonstrated above the hesitations of visitors whose level of competence is low to medium—fears that fuel an exclusion based on status. However, this also concerns those who are most competent. A retired curator of a medium-sized provincial gallery to whom I spoke when she was visiting the Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon as a tourist and who, unlike most visitors, spoke confidently and at length without relying on the various information resources available, still specifies that she is not an expert on the period, and limits her judgement to the expertise of her colleagues. An art history student at the prestigious École du Louvre, whose responses make use of academic knowledge of Poussin, his work, and the era, still prefers to state that this knowledge is incomplete, and that it “just” comes from a course on the subject. I am not alone in wishing to understand disparities in competence between publics: this is a concern I share with them.
The awareness demonstrated by visitors of the adequacy of their experience and knowledge compared with an ideal model is underlined by the analogy with political behaviour and the duty of electoral participation. This allows us to describe not only inequalities between methods of appropriating art, but also the experience of the—sometimes fierce—confrontation with the norms of aesthetic experience. The feeling of incompetence is real and widespread and deserves to be taken seriously by sociologists of gallery publics. From this perspective, an argument that can be raised against the competence model is that the figure it describes is only ever embodied by a very small minority of experts. Members of the upper class cannot be equated with this figure en masse (Lambert 2004). Within the intellectual professions, only a minority of individuals have a legitimate relationship to the gallery, such as literature graduates, art professionals who have studied specialist subjects, and art lovers with an individual and long-term interest (Schnapper 1974); as for the others, their practices resemble those of the middle class (Passeron & Pedler 1991).
Although the restricted competence model only describes the true experience of some—history of art professionals, teachers, curators, and critics—it continues for many others to function like a horizon to reach: it is the standard against which ordinary experience is measured. While the “non-professional receivers—even the most cultivated among them—are never little ‘Erwin Panofskies’” (Lahire 2009: 9), the figure of the art historian nevertheless remains a model for adequate aesthetic experience. The competence model is a tool for the imposition of cultural legitimacy that functions by giving each individual the means to form an opinion. Therefore it scarcely matters that the exact make-up of the figure of the art historian remains hazy and sometimes even contradictory—visitors say they aspire to both an expert relationship and to a pure, innocent gaze, devoid of any external knowledge. The contradiction between the two cultural models does not prevent them from coexisting and being used, alternately, by the same person (Swidler 2003).
The history of work on political behaviour and work on cultural practices has shared a common period. The links between the two research specialities have since been thinly stretched, even though political scientists still make regular forays into the reception of cultural goods. In the 1970s, the two spheres of activity were dealt with by employing the same model: the vote and cultural consumption constituted two commensurable activities that posed similar practical problems for their actors. It is worth reactivating this analogy today. In this article, I have proposed a reading of the empirical results of a study on art gallery visits with reference to recent work on politics. The two domains remain comparable and very close mainly because cultural capital is the prime determinant of both political and artistic practices. These two activities also demonstrate a significant gap between standards and actual practices—a gap that tends to increase the chances of status incompetence. Finally, in both cases, it is important to go beyond the specific competences of the domain in question and understand the way in which individuals use a variety of resources to form an opinion or at least to participate in political or artistic practices and conversations.
Political scientists have pointed out the limitations of the concept of competence, but they have done so in view of amending rather than abandoning it. These limitations apply just as much to artistic competence. For example, political competence is difficult to completely separate from other components of cultural capital (Déloye 2007), and is difficult to objectify (Gaxie 2001). The term “competence” itself can seem legitimist, promoting an elitist form of relationship to politics that is far removed from real relationships. And, worse, the “language of political competence is a likely source of ‘antidemocratic’ commentary or analysis” (Joignant 2004: 170) that could be used to justify a technocratic government in the name of the incompetence of citizens. Against such a perspective, the most recent work on the one hand emphasizes the diversity of relationships to politics that lead to a competence far removed from the dominant model, and on the other puts the gaps between social classes into perspective from the top, showing the extent to which supposedly competent groups benefit above all from the credit given to their sense of legitimacy.
The analogy between political and artistic competence also has its limitations. The biggest lies in the respective places of the political and artistic fields in the field of power. The resources to which political competence gives access are of far greater value than those that can be accessed via artistic practices. Visiting an art gallery is certainly a status-related issue, at least for the intellectual fractions of the middle and upper classes, but the sanctions, or the lack of benefits that can affect an individual who does not visit are much less than those that befall someone excluded from the political field. Abstention weakens the political representation of dominated social groups, status incompetence results in social benefits not being sought, and inequalities in relationships to politics intensify social inequalities.
A second limitation, which arises out of the first, concerns the institutions that guarantee these forms of competence. Indeed, political behaviour is much more tightly controlled than artistic behaviour. The institutions in which the former is carried out and reproduced—national and local representation and decision-making bodies, political parties, administrations, etc.—have direct control and influence over the population. By contrast, artistic competence is only vaguely reliant on school—where there is little fine art teaching (Darras 1996)—and art galleries only have limited power: they affect a limited portion of the population over which they do not have the means to impose powerful control.
The comparison made in this article argues, beyond the case at hand and its limitations, for the sociology of culture to be reintegrated as far as possible into the sociology of lifestyles—that is to say in line with the original ambition of Distinction (Bourdieu 1984). If the link between the study of cultural practices and that of political practices has weakened, this is without doubt at least partly a result of sociology’s increasing specialization, which is a scientific change common to many disciplines; but the move towards autonomy of the study of a sphere of social activity can pose problems. The analogy established here is not coincidental: the two phenomena lend themselves to the same analysis because they share the same mechanisms. Artistic legitimacy is not constructed independently of other forms of legitimacy (Lahire 2015).