It seems that major modern philosophers at 70s and 80s had a same issue – social contexts of something dominant, e.g. Foucault talked about social context of prison and punishment, and so did Said about social context of orientalism. Pierre Bourdieu did the same in his book “Distinction – A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste”.
Bourdieu argues that even our judgment of taste is not free from social context. We think we know what is culturally noble, but it is just the reflection of power of social classes, according to Bourdieu. He reckons that the definition of cultural nobility is the product of a struggle between groups differing in their ideas of culture and of the legitimate relation to culture and to works of art. In his definition, social class is more than the “class” that Marx mentioned long before. The classes are defined based on education, origin of birth, jobs, income, social status, etc.
The logic is understandable. All social classes follow their incentive structures, and try to glorify cultures which are close to them. For instance, aristocrats in Japan may want to emphasize the ascendancy of traditional arts, because in this way they can keep their cultural dominance in the society.
What is interesting in his argument is that he gathered as many data as possible to prove his idea. For example, Bourdieu made survey to see how the cultural preferences differ among social class and made “preference distribution” of cultural products. According to this distribution, “Well-Tempered Clavier” is less popular among manual workers, domestic servants, shopkeepers, and the other people with low-paying jobs (approx. less than 3% of people preferred), but more popular among secondary teachers and higher-education teachers (more than 30%). His book is full of this kind of facts showing certain relationship between social class and tastes.
Artists may disagree with the idea. However, even though the pure intention of artists is that of a producer who aims to be autonomous, they are following the old hierarchy of doing and saying – the interpretations superimposed a posteriori on his work.
The concept that Bourdieu argued doesn’t sound new, but what is conspicuous in his work is the solid facts to prove his argument. His works show that even sociological argument can be proved through facts and numbers, and tell us that we should not abandon ourselves to despair that somewhat vague concepts cannot be measured.
Pierre Bourdieu, “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste”, Harvard University Press; Reprint edition, 1987/10/15