Bear wrote Which worries me... because reifying a collective, knowledge- and expertise-based preference for one thing over another as a proxy for objectivity tends to lead sooner or later to formulations like Bourdieu's, in which all expressions of taste become instruments of class power. Which makes me want to puke.
Bear, if you are interested in this subject, you may want to read The Tastemakers by Russell Lynes (I think thatâ€™s how you spell his last name.) He wrote a cultural history of American taste which addresses this issue, and I think the book is fascinating. I actually had a class in undergrad about Class in America, and we particularly addressed the idea of taste and how it fundamentally intersects with class. Elitism and snobbery, to me, are the by-products of taste and class.
Lynes puts forward an argument that â€œgood tasteâ€ has a â€œtrickle downâ€ effect. Rich people and learned people typically have a symbiotic relationship. The rich depend on the learned to define for them what is rare, or special, or â€œin good taste.â€ The learned folk, who I like to refer to as the Intelligentsia (love those German) are not necessarily the folk with money, but typically are accepted by those with money, who sanction the tastefulness of the product. The product becomes popularized, because it has been invested with a value by people with money. Once a product has become popular, â€œthe massesâ€ (i.e. the middle class) typically strive to obtain the product, or products of similar nature. Often that popular (i.e. middle class) taste will trickle down in a subsequent time period to the â€œproletariatâ€ because it is popular, and so those who are less exposed, either due to lack of money or lack of study, may still find the opportunity to appreciate the product. At that point, it is no longer that rare, and typically becomes rejected by the rich/studied classes. It is interesting to note â€¦ Lynes also remarks that things in â€œbad taste,â€ often those things that once had value, but became so popular and boring that they lost their style value, may once again become â€œhigh styleâ€ by revivals of subsequent generations (an example might be Currier and Ives prints, which were middle class in their origination, became so popular that they lost any cultural significance, but have now become a studied and collectible branch of a high-style antiques trade.)
I think Lynes makes a solid argument. Take, for example, the Impressionists. 40 years ago, it was totally high style to love the Impressionist movement. Monet became so popular, the Met couldnâ€™t keep a water lilies print in stock. Now, it is completely passÃ©, and you see those prints in gas station bathrooms.
I see the world of antiques going a bit in the same direction. In the 1930â€™s the DuPonts and Rockefellers created a market by buying old furniture, as guided by scholars who found value in historical items. Since that time, the antiques market has gone from a high style, high price hobby of the rich to Antiques Roadshow. Hoarders from the wilds of Appalachia have opened â€œantiquesâ€ stores in towns all across the country. The phenomena seems to have peaked, and is in the process of losing all pretension to â€œhigh style.â€
Style and class are inextricably linked. In America no one wants to admit that a class system exists, but it does. The things that we value, that show our â€œstyleâ€ become class markers. Elitism and snobbery are part of how those class markers make their way through the various classes, and how we locate ourselves on the cultural ladder.