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Who are we to judge?

October 2, 2020
“File:John Torode and Gregg Wallace Masterchef Live 2010.jpg” by Richard Gillin from St Albans, UK is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I always wanted to be a reviewer, but I don’t really like to sit in judgement. Just consider Gregg Wallace, about whom more later.

Why do people read reviews? The answer, via Pierre Bourdieu, may be this: so they can gain cultural capital, a form of currency by which the dominant classes manage to confirm and consolidate their class position.

I had always assumed that galleries were benign places, that free admission levelled the social playing field. But come to think of it, the working classes don’t visit in huge, huge numbers; I haven’t carried out a survey, but I have read up a bit and they don’t, or at least they didn’t.

Bourdieu did carry out a survey, in the 1960s, in France, for his book The Love of Art (1969). Elsewhere, in Distinction (1984), the sociologist names the revealing quality of ‘habitus’: visible in dress, body language, accent and behaviour. Upbringing and schooling are evident in disposition and deportment.

Though many artists are working class, the wider audience appears to be middle class. Can we say that?

After visiting my first dozen shows I began to think of myself as a natural art lover. Embarrassing really, because the fact of the matter remains that my parents and teachers first encouraged me to visit exhibitions.

According to Bourdieu schools are no more innocent than museums and galleries. These institutions are all in service of the system and operate at various levels to consolidate many different class positions.

Which brings me to Gregg Wallace.

Wallace is a British television presenter who critiques cookery on a reality television show called Masterchef. Unlike me, he left school at 15 and went to work in a greengrocer’s warehouse. Soon working on a stall, he went into the grocery business , and success led to a presenting gig on Radio 4 show all about vegetables. His Masterchef role as a gastronome has made him a regular fixture on BBC screens since 2005.

Now I confess to chuckling at Gregg Wallace in my time – at the comic idea he lacked the refinement for his role as gourmet. All taste expresses class, and it appears from Distinction that the taste for various foods is even more fundamental than the taste for paintings. So the flak which Wallace draws from some quarters is an attempt to maintain the status quo: how dare a common grocer from Peckham pronounce on important matters of taste.

Gregg, if you’re reading, keep up the good work. It can be seen now that one man’s meat is another man’s painting, sculpture, performance piece or film.

3 Comments

  • Reply Jay Clifton October 3, 2020 at 9:42 am

    A lot of ideas on culture and class addressed in an admirably breezy style! I have often thought there is potentially an artistry to almost any occupation– my mother, for instance, approached a lot of things, from presenting bric a brac for sale to writing a shopping list – – with care and artistry I rarely show. She left school at 15 to become a hairdressers apprentice. She became known as an artist with scissors, too. In Italy, I often see touches of artistry in many everyday things. Though there is obviously a difference between a painting by Goya and perfectly presented vegetable stall, one human attribute is the same– pride in one’s work, and a belief that one can contribute a liitle beauty or surprise to the world, however small. That is something that critical orthodoxy, with its subtle (even subconscious) class distinctions, frequently fails to recognize, though for artists, of course it is part of their subject matter.

    • Reply Mark October 3, 2020 at 2:37 pm

      Thanks Jay. As you say, the term artist is fairly elastic. In these times, when few can make it along to galleries and museums, the set up of the local greengrocers might well assuage the need to see a few paintings. Though of course, there is more to contemporary art than presentation and aesthetics. I hadn’t realised your mum was a hairdresser. Is that where you get your tonsorial panache!?

      • Reply Jay Clifton October 3, 2020 at 6:03 pm

        Mark, the panache now is with a limited canvas, so to speak, however there are, fortunately, other ways for the bird of lesser plumage to attract a mate, such as the words “I know an excellent pizzeria”…

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