Rewriting the Rules of Art: Pierre Bourdieu’s “Manet: A Symbolic Revolution”

“Manet: A Symbolic Revolution” provides a view of a thinker at work, not a prophet.

By Ben MerrimanNovember 19, 2017

Rewriting the Rules of Art: Pierre Bourdieu’s “Manet: A Symbolic Revolution”

Manet: A Symbolic Revolution by Pierre Bourdieu. Polity. 576 pages.

SINCE HIS DEATH in 2002, Pierre Bourdieu has remained one of the most significant and commonly cited scholars in sociology. His 1979 book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste was voted the sixth-most important work of sociology of the 20th century in a poll conducted by the International Sociological Association, and he is the rare sociologist whose ideas are widely diffused in the humanities. In the English-speaking world, interest in Bourdieu remains so strong that publishers, having brought out translations of his dozens of books, have more recently turned their attention to his lectures and unfinished manuscripts.

Manet: A Symbolic Revolution is the latest collection of scholarly remnants: a compilation of lectures on the art of Édouard Manet given at the Collège de France in 1999 and 2000, to which is appended an older, unfinished monograph on the same subject, co-written with his wife Marie-Claire Bourdieu. Though he influenced many subfields of sociology, from the sociology of law to the sociology of education, Bourdieu’s presence looms particularly large in cultural sociology, where an absolute majority of current books and articles cite his work. This is so, in part, because he made such a strong case for the larger social importance of studying patterns of cultural consumption. Distinction builds a general theory of social inequality from a descriptive study of differences in individual taste: what sort of people like what sort of food, decorations, works of art, et cetera, and just as importantly, how people talk about what they like. Bourdieu argues that variations in taste, and the success of the powerful in making their personal tastes appear to be natural or objectively valid, play a role in reproducing large structures of social inequality. Bourdieu’s approach to culture makes it possible to move easily from the local world of face-to-face interactions to patterns unfolding at the national level over generations.

In later books like The Field of Cultural Production and The Rules of Art, Bourdieu turns his attention from consumption to creation, examining the social world peopled by artists and authors, producers and publishers, and critics and gallerists. Bourdieu views the art world as a space divided in many ways: not simply between those with high and low status, but between young and established artists, work that embraces tradition and work that challenges it, and work that appeals to a large paying audience and work that appeals to a small group of fellow artists who offer their social esteem. In this pair of books, he sought to explain how art became an independent world (or, in Bourdieu’s parlance, an “autonomous field”) in the first place, and how the aesthetic we know as modernism moved from a marginal position to canonical status: both processes he traces to the 19th-century Parisian demimonde.

These books say a great deal that will ring true to anybody who has spent much time in the small, gossipy, status-conscious worlds of art or literature. A cynic could take The Rules of Art, which pays particular attention to the career of Gustave Flaubert, as a handbook for getting ahead in the literary world. But many critics have found something very important missing from Bourdieu’s account of the art world: art itself. He does not approach art as a critic, and typically spends little time in careful examination of particular works of art or literature or their aesthetic qualities. His extended reading of Flaubert’s novel Sentimental Education, whose plot Bourdieu regarded as a mirror of his own theory of cultural production, stands as a notable (and in some ways troublesome) exception.

Bourdieu’s theory, when applied to people who live by and for art, may thus seem dispassionate. More seriously, absent a sustained engagement with art works themselves, his theory may appear to suggest that artistic esteem or aesthetic change is purely arbitrary or mechanical: simply one more means by which social power makes itself manifest. Bourdieu did not endorse this view, but the fact that so many readers have interpreted him this way suggests that the charges of dispassion and determinism are not trivial. A theory that seeks to explain how art gets made, assessed, and preserved should have some place in it for genuine appreciation of art, and ought to be able to make sense of the bodies of work of particular artists, not just large-scale, long-term changes in taste.

In the lectures included in Manet, Bourdieu sets himself exactly this task. He argues that Manet’s career was the catalyst for a “symbolic revolution,” a complete change in how people produced, looked at, interpreted, and valued visual art. Understanding how this transformation happened is no simple matter, because the art world Manet helped invent is the one in which we now live. “[T]here is nothing more difficult to understand than what appears to go without saying,” Bourdieu writes, “in so far as a symbolic revolution produces the very structures through which we perceive it.”

Bourdieu argues that the emergence of a distinctly modern art happened first in France, a country that was, at the time, notable for its large number of practicing artists, its robust contemporary art market, and strong connection between art and government institutions. (His effort to answer the question “Why France?” is a welcome contrast to the many researchers who simply assume that their own country’s mores are an appropriate starting point for building a universal theory. American social scientists often level this accusation at the French, while the rest of the world levels this accusation at Americans.) The lectures consider a wide range of factors that made this period one in which an aesthetic upheaval was possible: technological innovations, growth in the number of practicing artists to a level not easily managed by the French academic system, the ideological and political crisis of the Second Empire, and the earlier emergence of a body of professional critics all played some part.

The artistic world that existed before the upheaval of modernism was rigidly rule-governed. There was an established, strictly hierarchical course that successful artistic careers were meant to run during the Empire. There were also strict hierarchies about the value of different subjects and rules for depicting them. Most foreign to the modern sensibility, there were formal government institutions empowered to decide what could be exhibited, and thus, in a nearly legal sense, which paintings could even be counted as art. At one point, Bourdieu discusses a group exhibition that was shut down by French officials, not because the paintings were morally harmful, but simply because they had been judged aesthetically inferior.

The position Manet occupied in that world was unusual. His aesthetic was rebellious and his political values were far to the left, but he had little affinity with bohemia, and his personal conduct was thoroughly conventional. His general level of cultural literacy and education was unusually high for a painter of that time; he was also well schooled in the dominant academic artistic system. By his familial and educational background, Manet was connected to notable members of the commercial, artistic, literary, and political elite of Paris, and he moved in that world gracefully. And he always enjoyed the moral and financial support of his respectable, wealthy parents, which allowed him to remain artistically independent and productive during a long period of infamy.

Manet was by no means the only painter to bridle against the rules of official art. But unlike others, he embodied a combination of personal qualities, education, and social background that allowed him to break those rules thoroughly and skillfully, and in a way that would necessarily command the attention of the people who defined the artistic conversation of the period. Just as importantly, his career began at a moment when larger factors, outlined above, left France’s official artistic culture vulnerable to crisis. Manet’s revolution may well have been partly accidental. Over the course of the lectures, Bourdieu advances the view that Manet’s most controversial works — Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia (both painted in 1863) — were animated by a youthful spirit of parody, and came to mark the start of a revolutionary transformation of painting, in part, because of the consequences of the controversy they created. Rather than viewing Manet as a charismatic genius, he calls him “someone who got himself into a very strange situation, and […] then spent his life struggling with the very tools he had used to produce this problem, in order to try to solve it.”

Pursuing that solution made for an artistic life that was, in many ways, lonely. Differences in social class and education limited the mutual understanding of Manet and the Impressionists. Manet and Courbet, who are now frequently viewed as closely related figures, were antagonists in life. The radical critics who first came to Manet’s defense, Bourdieu argues, comprehended him even less than the conservatives who opposed him; it was Manet’s peculiar burden to be understood only by his enemies. And even while Manet remained infamous, imitators like Jules Bastien-Lepage grew rich by producing “a soft version of the hard revolution.” Such, in simplified terms, is Bourdieu’s explanation for the aesthetic transformation associated with Manet: a mixture of general social conditions in the France of the Second Empire, specific conditions of the Parisian art world, and Manet’s peculiar combination of skills and connections.

Bourdieu’s corpus is already so extensive, and his ideas already so embedded in sociology, that this new volume is unlikely to have much effect on his reputation or the use of his work. That is unfortunate, because the lectures in Manet provide a particularly lively approach to a topic on which Bourdieu is frequently misunderstood: how cultures change, sometimes quite rapidly and unexpectedly. Although he is often interpreted as a theorist of social reproduction, Manet offers a dynamic account of cultural change that improves on his earlier writings on cultural production.

More striking than the argument itself, perhaps, is the way it is presented and developed. The lectures on Manet are the result of a great deal of labor, and for me, their value is to be found in the fact that they often appear labored. Like any major thinker, Bourdieu has left behind theories and schemes that can be applied thoughtlessly by others (“field,” “habitus,” and “cultural capital” being among the most famous), and there are many readers who seem to believe that recourse to such formulas can solve any and all sociological problems. The self-assurance and impersonality of his finished works can make it easier to slip into these mistakes, despite their author’s repeated warnings against them. 

Manet provides a view of a thinker at work, not a prophet. At various points in the two lecture series, Bourdieu confesses frankly to feelings of anxiety and doubt about the project he has set himself. He calls attention to questions that are in principle answerable that he lacks the time or skill to answer: most notably, a reconstruction of the biographies of the body of professional critics who defined the era’s taste. He also points out important questions that cannot be answered at all: for instance, the substance of conversation in the Boulevard cafes where Manet’s reputation grew. Bourdieu often breaks off the exposition of his argument in order to pursue thought experiments, answer audience queries, and share anecdotes and witticisms. In some places, he knocks down what he has already said, obliging him to rebuild his argument from scratch.

Bourdieu had an extremely unfavorable view of the normal mode of art appreciation and criticism. “[T]here are few social objects which […] provoke as many historically determined stupidities as works of art,” he carps at one point. Yet throughout the series, he spends a great deal of time looking at and talking about Manet’s paintings, even at the simplest level of verbally describing the composition, or trying to puzzle out what it would have felt like to paint them. Storming the “fortress of received wisdom” that surrounds Manet’s work requires a naïve, direct approach, Bourdieu believes, that leaves the interpreter vulnerable “to the charge of appearing uncouth or philistine”; this is typified by a four-page speculation on “what happened on the day that [Manet] started to paint” Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. Such sustained attention to Manet’s paintings, though not conducted in the standard mode of art criticism, provides exactly what many critics regard as a missing piece in Bourdieu’s earlier accounts of art. These lectures provide the fullest example of what it would take, within Bourdieu’s theoretical scheme, to produce a truly sociological explanation of art.

Bourdieu’s performance also embodies the virtues of his subject. Painters like Manet reacted against academic art’s obsession with producing perfectly “finished” works. Such a fixation, they argued, reduced art to the planning and careful application of proven methods: a thoroughly academic enterprise of tackling only problems that are predictably soluble. Bourdieu’s unabashedly speculative lectures mirror Manet’s own insights about the value of attacking a problem boldly and without the sort of forethought that produces a neat, readymade truth. This document of Bourdieu in action, grappling with a problem he has not quite mastered, is particularly valuable for those of us reading his work in translation, in a different country, after his death. It provides not just a statement of theories, but a sense of his personality and his intellectual practices — exactly the sorts of things that must be understood, if one wishes to see, and explain, the world the way Bourdieu did.


Ben Merriman — a sociologist by training — is an assistant professor at the School of Public Affairs & Administration at the University of Kansas.

LARB Contributor

Ben Merriman — a sociologist by training — is an assistant professor at the School of Public Affairs & Administration at the University of Kansas.


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