Barbarous taste? The social definition of photography by Pierre Bourdieu

This is a complicated text, which spends a lot of time developing an argument, and involves lots of subtle rewording and transformation of ideas and illuminating examples which can occasionally border on the repetitive.

The initial statement is that a relationship exists between the social use of photography, the use of photography as we know it, and the total of all possible uses of photography (Bourdieu, 1999;162). The uses of photography as we know it seems to be a subset of the total use, and this subset defines it’s social use. The corollary is that the social uses of photography defines it’s uses today. It depends which way we look at it.

Photography is seen as a model of truth and objectivity, whereas art is seen as something that allows more of the personality of the artist through. This seems to separate art and photography. But photography is not a true record of reality, so for example, it’s often in black and white, it’s visualised on a flat plane, and in a reduced size. The author believes that photography is thought of as true because of the social uses it has had- which themselves are thought real and true (Bourdieu, 1999;162)

In fact the language of photography as we know it conventionally is very similar to the language of art from the renaissance onwards, including the use of perspective. An example is given of the way it is possible for photography to make its subjects very different from how they appear to the naked eye, told via Proust;

I can think of nothing that can to so great a degree as a kiss evoke out of what we

believed to be a thing with one definite aspect the hundred other things which it may

equally well be,……



In other words, a photo can change the appearance of an object from what we thought it was into hundreds of different looking objects, by using other legitimate perspectives.

There is a big difference between the possibilities of photography and what we see as the results of ‘normal’ photography (ie. That which uses traditional laws such as perspective). If photographs move away from normality they are not accepted, are thought not understandable, or are rejected, by people in all ‘social milieux’. (Bourdieu, 1999;162). This seems to suggest that lower barbarous taste is not characteristic of the lower classes alone.

In other words, popular opinion is that photography takes a ‘precise and objective’ (real) view of the world, simply because photographers take views which they believe to make up their world (Bourdieu, 1999;163), and that in labelling photographs as real, society ‘is merely confirming itself in the tautological certainty that an image of the real which is true to its representation of objectivity is really objective’ (Bourdieu, 1999;163).

Part of why photos are felt as real is likely to be because they are taken by a relatively complex object (the camera), and the more sophisticated the object the more it is considered to automate the process of reproduction. Additionally it’s very easy to press the camera button. These characteristics make it different (and more reproductive) than painting, because painting is seen to entail difficulty and struggle. People take photos with the hope of particular outcomes, which exclude the possibility of some photos as ‘useless, perverse or bourgoise’ (Bourdieu, 1999;164); ie. they select their subject.

Certain apparent contradictions can occur with photos. For example they should be taken of views which are not ‘useless’ but it’s easy to take them (which in some way deprives them of value (because the artist struggles). These contradictions do not prevent the love of photos by the working classes (Bourdieu, 1999;165). Here the author seems to use a traditional class system-excluding middle and upper classes- is this inconsistent with barbarous taste exhibited by ‘all social milieux’ above? The working-classes are not bothered that the object is produced via a machine (compare aesthetes who are). For today’s modern sensibility, the author’s language appears quite dismissive of ‘working-class’ and ‘peasants’ throughout this text. I suspect that liberal views would necessitate a softening of his language and tone today. For the working classes photos are the most realistic, and natural, and for them ‘ the beautiful picture is only the picture of a beautiful thing,….’ (Bourdieu, 1999;165) With this comment Bourdieu widens the debate to include the nature of beauty, which will become relevant later.

The author sees photos as representing the peoples idea of aesthetic fulfilment, but asks is that because it’s simply all they want, or is it also due to the limitations of both the popular machines (presumably they are technically inferior to the rarer expensive ones), and the prohibitive photography rules which abound, spread by manufacturers, salesmen and colleagues. It’s clear (to the author at least) that all these rules combine to define an aesthetic where technical experiments and variation outside the ‘rules’ will be regarded as faults, and not progress. Other photographic aesthetics could be defined which were less restrictive (Bourdieu, 1999;165). I believe that if photography was limited like this at the time of writing, it is no longer the case in 2017, and artistic photography is now part of a mainstream art establishment.

The author now draws a good analogy between popular photography and primitive art. Primitive art was often thought naïve because of the primitive’s low technical skill levels. This is now thought of as misrepresentation, and these primitive naïve objects were produced because their simplicity was all that was needed socially, not because the people were technically deficient (Bourdieu, 1999;165).

That the limits of photography are defined by a social function is the opposite of a pure aesthetic (Bourdieu, 1999;166). Because photography is based upon the presupposition of norms, it is fulfilled in an exemplary way by the community. Ordinary people take photos which show normal things- people are face on, in the centre, standing up, apparently as we view them in the community. But in reality this posing is the opposite of natural.

Holiday pictures may seem to favour the natural pose, but often the natural is created from a cultural idea, it is staged to look natural (Bourdieu, 1999;166). Group photographs have a conventional look too, and if one wavers from it, you are admonished or criticised. In anonymous photos ‘the function of the different characters must be clearly symbolised’(Bourdieu, 1999;166), so unfamiliar people must fulfil social roles; that mum looks and acts like a mum etc. The need for a frontal pose in these photos is probably linked to it’s important social value- of honesty and respect (Bourdieu, 1999;167)                                         Peasants have a poor sense of their own bodies and they are likely to look more acceptable in posed photographs (Bourdieu, 1999;168). Here again the language is extremely perjorative, and low self-esteem is not confined to the working-class (at least not today, and probably not then). The straight on/full face photograph is stated as ‘clearly legible’ and presenting one’s own image to view. The opposite would be an image taken by someone who can’t be seen , or of someone who is not looking at the camera, which may be thought more as consisting of the theft of the subject’s image (Bourdieu, 1999;168). This is interesting in the context of historical interior paintings such as Jan Vermeer’s The Love Letter (1667-70) or Degas’s Bather (1886). Both pictures show the artist as if from an un-viewed position- through doors and curtains, or from a position high above the subject respectively. It is also interesting to note that the Egyptian civilisation adopted a different and unusual aesthetic- perhaps nearest to the Cubist style if any were volunteered. The Egyptians represented objects in various views within the same scene. The view of any object would be dictated by which view showed the greatest amount of information to the viewer. This functional approach uses ideas now commonplace in principal components analysis. For the working-classes the representation of the people in images seems to mirror their relationships in society; family ties are more important than individuals, social rules more important than outbursts of feelings, and people live in fear of being judged (Bourdieu, 1999;168).

The common man’s aesthetic is dependent on social norms, but he does not explicitly deny a purer aesthetic. He may even acknowledge a duality of norms saying ‘It s beautiful, but I d never think of taking it’(Bourdieu, 1999;169). The popular aesthetic does not recognise its own system of rules, and is in fact the opposite of Immanuel Kant’s idea of an aesthetic. But the author suggests that despite being the opposite of philosophy, it’s still possible that the common photography can be a kind of aesthetic, requiring aesthetic judgements.

A complex sentence follows; ‘the fact that the contravention of a rule may be apparent….’. It is 5 lines long and again restates that just because photographers don’t externalise their rules, it doesn’t mean that their system isn’t based on them, and obviously so (Bourdieu, 1999;169).

The question of whether common photography can be thought as an aesthetic system is now raised, and it’s a difficult paragraph to understand. More specifically the writing is so dense and broken up by so many commas and different clauses, that it’s not clear where the signposts are which enable one to follow the argument. I find it extremely difficult to unpick this sort of overlong sentence, and wonder whether it is a fair analysis and whether some texts do indeed have a reduced clarity, in favour of complexity and wordiness?

The author thinks that the popular photography has nothing to do with beauty for its own sake, but I can’t work out whether this is cited as similar or dissimilar to Kant’s view, in this convoluted paragraph. At any rate its clearly stated that there is some social conditioning in Kant’s aesthetic hypothesis (Bourdieu, 1999;169).

The philosopher Immanuel Kant, in an attempt to define aesthetic judgement separated

  1. Disinterestedness (the sole guarantee of aesthetic quality)
  2. Interest of the senses (the agreeable)
  3. Interest of reason (the good)                                                               (Bourdieu, 1999;169)

But popular culture uses terms like reason, ethics, morality, and agreeablness to judge photos, which seems to negate their aesthetic quality.

Several examples of people’s analysis of photos in these terms are given in smaller text, but it is not clear if this is from the author’s own research, or whether they are hypothetical.

In the language of Sausser’s semiotics the author states that photos seem to require the signifier to be dominated by the signified- the moral or the message. ‘Peasants’ constantly recall the ‘limit and validity of their judgements’ (Bourdieu, 1999;170) as if a photo cannot be universally pleasing, but must be addressed to specific audiences, and with different uses (Bourdieu, 1999:170). So for example if photos are put forward as universal objects this can be thought of as ‘improper’. People judge photos via genres whose limits they understand (Bourdieu, 1999;171). Once again this is the opposite of Kant’s aesthetic which demands universality. If people find classification difficult they still classify as ‘competition photo’ (would we say arty today?), and those photos deprived of genre are deprived of ritual and value (Bourdieu, 1999;172). A hierarchy of genres is described through which the likelihood of aesthetic judgement will increase by the peasant, ranging from babies (the object’s existence is valued irrespective of quality), pets, famous monuments, and landscapes (their existence may require some added aesthetic quality).

The author’s alternative view is that when any subject is subject to aesthetic experiment, and processed as a photographic object, the object is identical aesthetically whatever its subject- and quotes Descartes; that the sun is the same whichever objects it illuminates. The author states that, unlike the peasant appreciation, universal appreciation requires us to dissociate ‘the object from the picture and the picture from the object’(Bourdieu, 1999;173);or to rid ourselves of the symbology?

Most notably, colour frequently allows peasants to redeem a photo felt valueless due to a lack of clear symbology (Kant says that if taste requires an added element or emotion its barbarous). Legibility of a photograph is discussed as the ability to read the symbology within it (the text/title is also important as peasants require this to clarify the symbology too) (Bourdieu, 1999;174)

Comparing painting and photography, because the photo’s similarity with reality is obvious and assumed, it requires to have a more formulaic intention. In contrast realist painting only demand’s that the painting look like the subject.

(pleonastic = repetition of the same sense in different words… eg a free gift

There then follows a complicated discussion; that if we allow for the object to be viewed without a story or genre, then we can measure the representation of the object against the (real) object itself- ie. direct comparison is easier. Bourdieu once again concludes that the idea that photography is the most real of techniques, depends upon a misconception (and a tautology), because realistic photography is simply photography which satisfies the masses that it conforms to their view of the world. Any abstraction in the photograph is denied severely and is felt to be a mystification (Bourdieu, 1999;175).

There is a sense that barbarous taste implicitly defines a ‘good taste’, and that when peasants define their good taste it implies de facto exclusion from another idea of good taste. Peasant’s who are deprived of real aesthetic ‘good taste’ seek to judge via a set of principles related to genres.

Arts and expression have a cultural legitimacy hierarchy. When an art like photography or jazz has less cultural legitimacy, people feel freer to comment and to be individual consumers, they don’t need the canon of learning as a scaffold that sophisticated arts assume (opera, fine art etc.) (Bourdieu, 1999;176). Three different groups of activities are shown

  1. sphere of legitimacy with universal claims eg. literature/theatre
  2. sphere of legitimizable eg. photographysphere of the arbitrary- eg cookery, clothes etc.
  3. sphere of the arbitrary- eg cookery, clothes etc.

The hierarchy is made up by the set of rules and meanings which are communicated by the institutions. Elevation in hierarchy depends upon factors such as the duration for which it has been practiced (sculpture is higher than photography), and it’s link to education levels (there is still more university education on classical than popular music). Legitimacy implies an institution to set the rules (Bourdieu, 1999;177), so jazz for example (which is expressively as complicated as classical music) has less legitimacy. In order to elevate itself jazz critics may try to ‘as a sign of their pretension to cultural legitimacy, assume the learned and tedious tone of university criticism’(Bourdieu, 1999;177). In the present day areas such as Jazz, popular music and sport have achieved more cultural legitimacy through incorporation in university education (BMus Jazz, BMus Pop), and through association with more traditionally rigorous activities such as science (Batchelor of Sports science).

In this respect photography inhabits an intermediate hierarchy. Some practitioners try to legitimise it with ‘artistic’ refrences (which I would argue are now totally acceptable), whilst others stick to the vulgar. A practice in the process of legitimization imposes on itself and it’s practitioners the questions about its own legitimacy. This doesn’t mean that the rules of the more vulgar are completely disorganised and individualistic only. They are organised systematically to a degree but they are organised according to the rules of their own class and ethos, some being implicit, others implicit. Photography in this sense is an excellent example of a practice in the process of legitimization (Bourdieu, 1999;178).


Bourdieu, P. (1999) ‘The social definition of photography’ in visual culture: a reader.    Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.      p. 162-180

BLOG Questions

1.Whether or not you are totally convinced by the argument, do you see ways in which his arguments could be applied to some of the more contemporary forms of visual artistic expression – performance, video and installation art for example?

Contemporary art such as performance, video and installation can usefully be analysed within the context of Bourdieu’s ideas. Many people like contemporary art, and hail it as less elitist than traditional ‘fine art’. At least as many see it as pretentious and unfathomable. My own struggle to give modern art and contemporary art a fair appraisal is a continuous journey. My sensibilities have changed from initially, finding most contemporary art unlikeable and distant, to currently allowing myself the time, space and attitude to properly react to it. This has increased the depth and breadth of the art I appreciate.

Bourdieu considers that the relative ease of the process of photography requires it to assume both a realism (Bourdieu, 1999:164), and a story, often containing overt symbology (Bourdieu, 1999;170). Many examples of contemporary art do superficially look rather easy to execute. Take the installation My Bed (Fig 1). It looks pretty much like any unmade bed we all could leave when we go out in a hurry. However whether we appreciate it as art may depend upon whether we can see any obvious symbology here. I suspect those who love it will appreciate the social and human aspects of the work whilst those who hate it may not get past the fact that- on the surface- they could do that too. This idea may also be applied to performance art, and video (closely related to photography) which superficially may look like episodes in our own real life, involving people, or photographic images of people as we ‘know them’, and thus appear ‘easy’ to execute.

Tracey emin

Fig. 1 My bed (1998)

Much contemporary art contains ideas which are rooted in socially familiar situations and ideas. These might include birth, life, death, sleep, travel, loneliness, and heartache. These genres may allow us (Bourdieu would say the ‘peasants’) to ‘get a handle’ on how to judge these kind of works (Bourdieu, 1999;170), and accept them as art. This is the opposite of the pure aesthetic response suggested by Kant. Consider Fig 2 which shows Bill Viola’s response to birth, death, and life’s struggle. This still from a video work contains ideas which we can all understand and react to in a very personal way. The importance of these subjects are confirmed by Viola’s use of a triptych structure which was used in religious art in art of medaevil and renaissance times.

Nantes Triptych 1992 by Bill Viola born 1951

Fig 2. Nantes Tryptich (1992)

Some may dislike this work, considering the subject unfit for art. This may reflect the way modern society has an extremely uneasy relationship with death; we like to avoid it and all references to it, if at all possible.

In contrast to photographs, or more generally any art, which seems socially familiar, Bourdieu believes that art which moves away from an accepted normality is likely to be rejected by the crowd, because it lacks the social acceptability and obvious symbology/narrative that we need (Bourdieu, 1999:162).. Perhaps this may explain the artistic upset which followed the people’s reaction to the famous ‘pile of bricks’ installation in the Tate Modern in 1966 (Fig 3). The crowd could interpret this as ‘easy to do’, but the narrative is far from obvious.

equivalent V111 carl Andre 1966.jpg

Fig. 3 Equivalent VIII (1966)

Perhaps the reaction ‘it’s nice but it’s not art’ is a reflection of Bourdieu’s idea that we are constrained by the technical norms of our society, or the technical expectations we have for artistic methods (Bourdieu, 1999:165)..The Wrapped Reichstag (Fig. 4) has elements of performance art, and is a visually stunning piece. If people are reluctant to acknowledge this as art, it may be because they are used to traditional art dealing with materials in normal ways- paintings, sculpted figures etc… The idea that a meticulously planned procedure to successfully wrap a huge iconic building in a strange material, with all the technical requirements that involved, may be too strange and unfamiliar to be accepted as art.

wrapped reichstag

Fig. 4 Wrapped Reichstag (1971-1995)


2. Consider Bourdieu’s statement that “in conferring upon photography a guarantee of realism, society is merely confirming itself in the tautological certainty that an image of the real which is true to its representation of objectivity is really objective.”xiii •

It would be useful, but not sufficient to start with a definition of realism, and we can find several.

  • interest in the actual compared to the abstract
  • the tendency to view or represent things as they really are
  • In literature, that representing description of everyday life of the lower and middle classes.
  • In philosophy the idea that objects exist outside the act of our perception of them.


It is interesting that the first three definitions have similarity to how Bourdieu’s peasants view the art of photography. The fourth definition is strikingly different in nature, and seems to correspond to the additional reality, such as an art, competition or abstract photo that Bourdieu believes lies outside the peasant’s definition of real. It is also obvious that the first two definitions come dangerously close to the tautology invoked by Bourdieu’s statement, if we accept that real is synonymous with actual and as they really are.

Bourdieu’s statement seems to suggest that society simply adopts one possible aspect of real to define real ie. The aspect that they personally believe in. This suggests that the definition is tautological (it is equivalent to saying this is real, because I define it as real), and additionally that there are other possible entities that society would not consider real. In general I agree with the statement, as applied to the specifics of photography at the time of Bourdieu’s writing, although I think we now live in a society which has broadened its definition of the real in photography.

It makes sense that 1950’s society considers that the photograph is real because it was taken by a relatively complex object (the camera), which automates the process of reproduction (Bourdieu, 1999;164). This could be due to a sort of blindness to the drawbacks of a new, strange, and poorly understood technology, and a transference of special powers to it; powers to reproduce reality. This may be akin to the special powers invested in God to explain what we don’t know or understand (in science this is sometimes called the God of the gaps). However it also seems obvious that in some ways the photograph is no more real than a painting- it is often in black and white, it’s visualised on a flat plane, and in a reduced size (Bourdieu, 1999;162).

On the other hand if we acknowledge that there is some reality in the socially defined photograph-for example of a family group portrait, we must also acknowledge, as Bourdieu believes, that this reality is only one reality. Others exist because we can take photographs of other families who may be breaking ‘social rules’ such as facing away, or looking unprepared (Bourdieu, 1999;168) or even without any clothes on! And in today’s 21st C society these sort of photographs exist everywhere- for example in extemporised selfies. Additionally we can take photos which are evidently just as real, of various subjects which would have been rejected by the working classes- or simply not understood at all. These could consist of the mundane (a leaf, a football), the unrecognisable (a virus?), the abstract (photos which for example use the alternative perspectives discussed by Proust), or make use of technological advances in process (such as using an electron beam in place of white light to capture an electron microscope image of a virus), and it is still difficult to argue that they are less real than the genre picture of Bourdieu’s peasants. In the language of definition four above ( 2016), these unrecognisable or unfamiliar objects are still real because they ‘exist outside the act of our perception of them’.

Bourdieu acknowledges peasants may see genre photos as representing the peoples idea of aesthetic fulfilment either because that’s all they want, or due to their ignorance of the technological possibilities of the camera (Bourdieu, 1999;165). Both are possible, and I believe both are probable, and whilst I hold with Bourdieu’s peasant’s tautological view of photographic reality, this view does not carry any negative judgements. Indeed I am struck by the analogy with primitive art, which seems to suggest that Bourdieu believes (in a tone which seems less judgemental than some parts of the essay) that as primitive peoples used only those artistic techniques necessary for their society, so working-classes may recognise only those art objects which are necessary within their society (Bourdieu, 1999;165).


Fig. 1 Emin, T (1998). My Bed (Installation: Mattress, linens, pillows objects) at (accessed 9th March 2017)

Fig. 2 Viola, B (1992) Nantes Tryptich (Video and mixed media

duration: 29 min., 46 sec) at (accessed 9th March 2017)

Fig. 3 Andre, C (1966) Equivalent VIII (firebricks) at (accessed 9th March 2017)

Fig. 4 Christo and Jeanne-Claude (1971-1995) Wrapped Reichstag, at (accessed 9th March 2017)

References (2016) definition of realism [online at ] (accessed 9th March 2017)



Author: PhilHepArt

This site contains my BLOG for my Open College of the Art's module 'Understanding Visual Culture'. I am currently on Level 1 of the degree pathway BA Painting.

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