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Manet: A Symbolic Revolution Pierre Bourdieu.

Manet: A Symbolic Revolution Pierre Bourdieu

Translated by Peter Collier and Margaret Rigaud-Drayton

Cambridge/New York: Polity Press, 2017. 576 pages, 42 b&w and 42 color illustrations $45.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-509-50009-3

Manet: A Symbolic Revolution is a posthumously published work, leaving open the question of how, and whether, Bourdieu would have wanted the work to appear had he lived until 2013, the year of its publication in French. (The English translation, by Peter Collier and Margaret Rigaud-Drayton, was published in 2017). The book is compiled of Bourdieu's lectures given at the College de France in 1999 and 2000, with a small section of an unfinished manuscript by Bourdieu and his former wife, Marie-Claire, coming at the end of the lectures. The tome is substantial, exceeding five hundred pages, and dense, bearing the circular and sometimes digressional nature of lectures written to be, and delivered as, public speech.

The reward of the book is its serious engagement with creating a science of art history, including a re-engagement with the concept of aesthetics. Bourdieu repeatedly separates himself from art historians, whom he gently and ironically mocks as a group of people too refined and polished to accept the work of sociologists (63, 169). But this separation is also profound. In Manet: A Symbolic Revolution, Bourdieu argues that art historical methods are often corrupt, proceeding along the lines of analogy and inhabiting the space of the cultic (203). For Bourdieu, art historians analyze a work of art by comparing it to other earlier and contemporary works: the more comparisons, the more successful the art historian. Bourdieu especially criticizes Michael Fried--whose voluminous knowledge he mockingly praises--for writing art theory as analogy (63-72). This is exactly Fried's procedure, no more so than in the magisterial Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, wherein Fried's entire argument for the import of photography is its re-rehearsal of painting. For Bourdieu this type of art history is a cultic phenomenon creating and accruing around the sacred space that art holds in the disenchanted post-Enlightenment West (164). This argument strongly echoes his work in Distinction: that art history holds in place not a clear-sighted vision of art but rather deploys symbolic violence to prevent those without rarefied degrees, educations, pedigrees, from believing they can engage with the sacred text of art. Instead, Bourdieu argues for a science of art history, one based on quantitative data about art's reception and reception history. For Bourdieu, what is factually true of a work of art is the social reception it encounters.

Here then is a crux of A Symbolic Revolution. Having determined that the reception of Manet's work is what we have as a way of factually understanding the meaning of the work, Bourdieu develops a theory of aesthetics that absorbs rather than stands in contrast to the argument that art has no meaning outside the social parameters of its reception. He states that the artist is a "habitus in a social field"--and so whatever revolution Manet sets off, whatever symbolic bomb is his oeuvre of paintings, Bourdieu will not attribute it to Manet's inborn genius nor to precursor works, per se (61). Instead, as Bourdieu develops the argument of a "dispositional aesthetics," Manet in his paintings is drawn to replicate the dictums of his upper-class status even as he rebels against many of the dictates of Salon academic painting.

Bourdieu's theorization of the aesthetics of disposition is convincing. Manet never specifically intended to create revolutionary art, but he was disposed to create art that expressed precisely his class at that juncture in history. Rather than Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe deriving from Marcantonio Raimondi's engraving of Raphael's lost work, The Judgment of Paris, it emerges from the habitus of Eduoard Manet expressed through the social field of his time and society (322). The habitus of the painter is his class status abrading and rubbing up against epistemological breaks happening around him in the historical period and place he inhabits.

Manet's habitus expresses the paradox of being of the dominant class and also perceiving seismic social shifts that his class does not entirely control. Manet paints the "Modern" because he does not respect generic boundaries. But this putative disrespect Bourdieu encounters as a working of habitus, not a radical bent of the painter. The painter appears disrespectful of academic and Salon rules but he is not in fact disrespectful because he is of the dominant class and therefore considers the resetting of rules to be his domain--it is not something he thinks about, it is his habitus, what he does. And yet, it is the very absorption of his present-day, those forces that will disturb the juncture of class and capital (financial capital), that makes Manet's work revolutionary. He presents his world--its prostitutes, cafes, singers, bars, and couture--with the exact politeness that Bourdieu ascribes to the upper classes, that is, a habit of merging the profane and the sacred in the voice of the utterly polite upper class.

Bourdieu's concept of habitus is crucial to his theory of the aesthetics of disposition. He is arguing that rather than the work itself containing its own aesthetic, the artist's social habitus, or disposition, creates the meaning of the work in precise conversation with the social world, or field, the artist inhabits as he is creating the oeuvre. Bourdieu is at pains to distinguish his theory of aesthetics of disposition from Barthes' and Foucault's theories of the "death" or uselessness of the artist/author in favor of the meaning of the viewer/reader. Whereas Barthes and Foucault--according to Bourdieu--make the case that only the viewer and only the reader contain the experience and therefore meaning of the work of art (Barthes' theory of the punctum is the high-water mark of this line of thinking), Bourdieu is not positing that the work of art has meaning only as the viewer receives it. Instead, his attention is on the nexus of the artist as a habitus in a social field and the viewer also as a habitus in a social field. The work of art emerges through these abrasions of the habitus (the social self as tendency) and the field (the social field made of multiple forces of habitus). Hence, Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe and Olympia acted like symbolic bombs that instigated indignation and outrage because in them he discreetly expresses the indiscreet, instating and violating the class status he is born to uphold.

But does this amount to a theory of aesthetics in anything but name? The subversive sexual content present in some of Manet's notorious works--Olympia, Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe, and also The Railway, and The Street Singer--was scandalous because it mixed high and low, demythologizing female nudity and the sociosexual uses of the female body. While it does seem relevant to note that this ability to depict the raw and the cooked in one plane of exactingly gorgeous painting could emerge from Manet's class status--his habitus--grinding against the epochal changes of the culture and economy of his era, does that observation amount to aesthetics, an analytical approach to a mode of perception? It seems to me that Bourdieu, in his concept of "aesthetics of disposition," reprises one of the most fundamental structures of Kantian aesthetics: purposive purposelessness (333-34). For the argument of Bourdieu's aesthetics of disposition is that the effect of the work is both intentional and unintentional, emerging from that place where the artist intends and cannot know the fullness of his intent. This is the very logic of purposive purposelessness. Kant attributes this quality to the work of art, or the scene-object viewed, whereas Bourdieu attributes it to the artist. Purposive purposelessness and dispositional aesthetics converge with the idea that the aesthetic experience emerges from a ground of liminality, intent that partakes of blindness. And yet Bourdieu is mistrustful of Maurice Blanchot's mystical work on this topic. Bourdieu lambastes theories of art that allow the function of the sacred to uncritically accrue around art (207). Can there be aesthetic theory when the meaning of art is held to be the friction between the artist's habitus and the social field/s into which the work emerges?

Manet's Le Suicide presents a test case: the work suggests that Manet's suffering, because of vitriolic attack on his oeuvre, causes him to be empathetic to the position of a Parisian dandy who has no desire to continue to live. In the painting, the man is presented in drab contemporary surroundings. Just as sex is blatantly, bluntly put forward in Dejeuner and Olympia, here death and despair are not masked with myth or history. This is Manet's symbolic revolution, unmasking tropes that make covert the vulnerability of the body in time. Likewise, Bourdieu attempts a parallel revolution: he wants an art history that does not mask the blunt force of the work by placing it in the cultic discourse of precursor text, iconological readings, and so on. One may say that, for Bourdieu, Manet is the painter who paints Emile Durkheim's Paris--the Paris of the study of suicide, done coldly and accurately, an ur-text for all sociology. Manet's revolution is Bourdieu's recasting of Durkheim's (1897) Le Suicide, giving a broader cultural space to the father of sociology's work.

But does Manet: A Symbolic Revolution bring us closer to understanding Manet's paintings? Bourdieu's detailed readings of the cultural and intellectual vorticies from which Manet emerges are invaluable. He is especially enlightening on the cross-currents between Zola, Mallarme, and Manet. His close reading of Mallarme's writing on Manet is itself worth the price of the book. And yet even as one breathes with relief the clean air of art historical discussion that does not bog itself down in layer on layer of referential or, as Bourdieu limns it, analogical interpretation of the work, one longs for a deeper engagement with the visual artifacts themselves: the paintings. For Bourdieu the painting as such cannot be written.

The work is its active place in culture. It is precisely this "open door" that Bourdieu wants us to break through: that is, to understand that what we see when we see Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe is the cultural space of scandal, the naked sexually available woman matter-of-factly positioned between two men who possess her in some undefined, mannerless, and inarguable way. We do not see the scandal because it is Manet's intent to shock us, but because the meaning of the painting is the shift in imagination and culture that Manet's work at once perceives and sets off. The matter-of-factness of Manet's presentation of sexuality in culture is a perfect illustration of Bourdieu's theory of habitus: it cuts the man to fit the cloth. In Manet's scandalous painting, men are dressed, woman not. The habitus of sexual domination is revealed by presenting men as cultured, women as merely another accouterment they obtain.

It is the bluntness of the statement, all fetching gazes aside, that makes Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe painfully accurate and therefore scandalous. The scandal persists because--Bourdieu argues--we are still in the world created by this painting. The symbolic revolution of the naked woman not cloaked by myth and clothed men not decorated by history has become the habitus of our social world, in the West, produced by the nineteenth-century that Manet's work shaped.

The role that habitus plays in understanding art depends on specificity, thick description of the artist's practice in his world. However, the world at the time of artist's work is exactly what Bourdieu does not mean by the concept of habitus. The habitus is the contents of the artist's personal library, as it were--all that he reads, takes into himself, makes part of his culturation of self--not the books available to him, generally, socially. Manet's habitus is the library of the mind's eye: Bourdieu makes clear that Manet studied the history of painting extensively, through travel. His mind's eye was a library of earlier images, earlier paradigms and approaches to the problem of representation. Manet's gesture of parody, then, is sincere; he draws from the habitus of himself, which is the mind's eye suffused with memory of the images of other, earlier paintings (328-33).

The paradoxical potency and given-ness of the shift in art and culture effected by Manet's work is the point of Bourdieu's exploration, the open door through which he must make his way. Manet's work creates the Modern because it takes the secularization of art to a place of no return. Art is no longer created for purposes of actual worship (in the West). Instead, art has become the sacred space of the profane.

The plane of the painting is changed by Manet, becoming flat and abrupt. This is photographic, in the sense that "figures cut" out and placed in an image replicate the new (in the 1860s) technique of composite photography, photographs created from multiple negatives (207). Photography influences Manet in this way that Bourdieu might have discussed in A Symbolic Revolution. Henry Peach Robinson's works of composite photographs, photographs cobbled together from multiple negatives, that began garnering attention in the 1850s, have a clear relationship to Manet's impropriety of inserting nude and incongruent figures into the lovely bucolic scene of Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe. Compare Dejeuner to Robinson's A Holiday in the Wood: though the latter is topically mild and trite, it shares the jarring sense of figures incongruously inserted into the picture, and in a way that does not hold natural scale. If Manet was not aware of Robinson (who was well known), he could not have failed to have been aware of Gustave Le Gray, who also created photographs using multiple negatives, photographs that jar the image plane with incongruities. The "middle brow" art of photography violates painting on a grand scale in Manet's scandalous work.

But Bourdieu cannot make this assessment because he refutes, more than anything else in this book on Manet, the art historical process of discussing precursor images as a useful process by which to approach art. This process is not erroneous (analogies of course do exist), it is just not scientific, according to Bourdieu. And yet, surely Bourdieu might have more fully encountered photography's impact on the social field in which Manet's habitus worked by allowing that despite his dislike of art history's iconological, analogical, approaches, images slip the rubric of the social field precisely because of their capacity to be symbolic bombs, to convey more than the sum of their parts. But this is a small cavil that if anything shows the brilliant usefulness of Bourdieu's work on Manet. He pulls us away from the knee-jerk tropes of art historical writing, the cultic patina of the layered discussion of the hallowed work of art. By insisting on the value of seeking what is probably impossible--a science of art history--Bourdieu creates new pathways toward understanding the enormous power of the image in culture.

Claire Raymond

The University of Virginia


(1.) Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

(2.) A short section (337-50) offers individual interpretations of paintings, but these lack the depth and breadth that Bourdieu's analysis of dispositional aesthetics has carried throughout the book. One could say that a 500-page book that contains 13 pages of intensive interpretation of individual works has made clear its priorities.

(3.) Pierre Bourdieu, Photography: A Middle Brow Art (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1996).
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Author:Raymond, Claire
Publication:Art Inquiries
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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