150 Three Parisians and the value of art

Thoughts on Pierre Bourdieu, Souren Melikian and Krzysztof Pomian and their ideas of the nature of value in art.

Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, cultural and political critic, died on January 23rd far too young at the age of 71. We have lost one of the few thinkers who with the tools of scholarship and writing was able to change people’s minds about important issues. His death prompts these remarks.

True art, Souren Melikian has been asserting in the International Herald Tribune for as long as anyone can remember, is found only in a finite number of masterpieces. They possess intrinsic qualities that raise them above the common run of objects that pass for art. Good judges, which is to say mandarin connoisseurs like Melikian, recognize these qualities for what they are and know what they are worth. Those with less taste and knowledge can do no better than follow their lead.

Melikian cannot fathom why people continue to ignore this plain truth. On January 19th he wrote another of his exasperated articles blaming the present difficulties of the auction houses on their unwillingness to listen to his message. The number of worthwhile objects in the art market is dwindling. Since true quality can no longer be acquired, the trade is increasingly touting inferior merchandise as if it were important art. This is obviously a one-way road to extinction. The End of the Art World is Nigh.

If he had a more open mind, Melikian would have realized long ago that this attitude is based on a simple fallacy. He could have read it in the brilliant writings on art collecting by Krzysztof Pomian, professor at the École pratique des Hautes Études. Pomian has shown that quality in art is not at all wed to a specific group of objects. At any given moment, collectors place the highest value on the best items that can be had. When the sources for ancient sculptures and original paintings by Mantegna and Leonardo da Vinci dried up, around 1600, the Melikians of that age also complained that nothing worth buying was left out there. They were wrong. Collectors simply retrained their sights, on classes of objects that could be bought. Antique coins, bronzes and ceramics took the place of marble statues; Titians became as valuable as Mantegnas had once been. The way was open for the work of Rembrandt and Poussin, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol to become as valuable, in the eyes of their audiences, as the Farnese Hercules ever was.

Pomian does not include all collectibles in his analysis, as he may have done. He limits himself to the worthy objects he calls semiophores, bearers of meaning. His way of thinking can be extended to the Coke bottles, Levi 501s and baseball cards for which small fortunes are paid by collectors.

That is not the line taken by Bourdieu, professor at the Collège de France. In his books L’amour de l’art: les musées d’art européens et leur publique (1966) and La distinction: critique sociale du jugement (1979), he gave the question of value a totally different twist. It is not the objects themselves that determine what value is assigned to them, he said. It is society. The right question does not concern the qualities of masterpieces or the innate desirability of certain kinds of objects. “Instead,” he wrote, “we should ask the historical question. What is the origin of the universe – the artistic field – in the heart of which the value of the work of art is perpetually produced and reproduced, in a kind of continuous creation?”

In 1966 Bourdieu revealed that this value is class-bound. Those with more money and better education also have more cultural capital – the phrase is his. Insofar as their preferences differ from those of the lower classes, the objects they favor are valued more highly.

This made perfect sense, and people seemed pleased to hear it. The implied message was also clear. It should be the task of progressive cultural policy to narrow the gap, to provide the lower classes with more cultural capital. Bring school classes from poor neighborhoods to the museums, make the museums more lively and attractive, spread the value of art more equally among the classes of society. This gave politicians something to get their teeth into, and they did, from Georges Pompidou to Rick van der Ploeg. Art historians with a social conscience were also inspired by the message of L’amour de l’art.

And then came La distinction. In 1979 Bourdieu returned to the question of the continuous creation of value, and came up with an explanation far more disheartening than in 1966, an explanation most people did not want to hear. The possessors of cultural capital, he now found, were not about to share the wealth. The first function of aesthetic priorities is exactly to distinguish the social-economic-cultural elite from the rest of humanity. When other groups begin to admire the artists that had been at the top of the taste pyramid, the elite shifts its preferences. This is a cheap way of maintaining superiority and keeping challengers from below in their place. The new priorities need have no specific qualities at all, not even rarity value. The fact that they represent the preference of the elite is all that counts.

The thesis of La distinction has not been accepted in general terms by the field of art history or by cultural bureaucrats. Those who do seem to live by it are the outsiders and the insiders themselves. After decades of progressive cultural policy, cultural capital in France as in the Netherlands is just as unequally distributed today as it was in 1966.

© Gary Schwartz 2002. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, on 2 February 2002. Published on the Schwartzlist on 24 April 2019.


2 February 2002, or 02-02-02, was a famous date in the Netherlands since it was announced last year that Crown Prince Willem-Alexander was going to marry his gorgeous Argentine fiancée Máxima Zorreguieta on that day. I watched part of the proceedings on television this morning and can assure you that it was everything a royal wedding should be. I particularly enjoyed seeing the Reformed Willem-Alexander married to the Catholic Máxima by the Jewish burgomaster of Amsterdam, named Job Cohen no less.

Máxima’s father Jorge Zorreguieta was underminister of agriculture in the cabinet of the Argentine military dictatorship of Jorge Videla (1976-1981), a government that is held responsible for 30,000 deaths and “disappearances.” Although no one holds this against Máxima, it is controversial because it fits into a dismaying pattern of dubious House of Orange marriages. Queen Juliana and Queen Beatrix like to come across as proponents of peace, even pacifism, but this did not prevent Juliana in 1937 from marrying a member of the Reiter-SS and Beatrix in 1966 a former member of the Hitler Jugend and the Wehrmacht. The grandfather and father of the groom are good Dutchmen and fine fellows, but still. Really. I mean.

Father Zorreguieta, who out of deference to delicate Dutch feelings and political pressure stayed out of the country during the wedding, made things worse by denying that he knew what crimes his own government was up to until the trials of 1984. That Máxima repeats this completely implausible story is fine, but that Willem-Alexander does is not. In a television interview two weeks ago, he passed on with complete conviction Zorreguieta’s insistence that he knew of only three people who were missing during the Videla regime, and that all three of them had subsequently turned up alive. Concerning a report on Zorreguieta commissioned and accepted by the Dutch government, a report that casts doubt on the man’s story, Willem-Alexander said that the author was entitled to his “opinion.” Commentators in Argentina pointed out that this is the word used by defenders of the Videla regime in response to evidence presented by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and other survivors.

The first time Willem-Alexander came up with the “opinion” business (in which I imagine he will be supported by deconstructionists and other doubters of literal truth), he cited approvingly a letter to the editor of an Argentine newspaper that later turned out to have been written by Jorge Videla. When he was called on this in a television interview with Máxima at his side, he admitted he should not have said this. Máxima, whose Dutch is already quite good, leaned over in agreement and said that what he did was “een beetje dom,” a little stupid. This endeared her to me even more than her looks had already done. It immediately entered the language, complete with its gently mocking reference to Willem-Alexander.

The best thing about the marriage is that it has refueled republicanism in the Netherlands. The prospect of Willem-Alexander as king bothers even staunch Orangists. This morning on the radio a man in the street said he would like to see Orange and the Netherlands part ways as good friends on 10-10-10. If they don’t make it by then, 2013 is another good date. The monarchy will be 200 years old, and Beatrix will have been queen for 33 years. My own preference is for the reinstitution of the republic with at its head a stadholder appointed by the States General, as in the Dutch Republic. No one would expect anyone other than successive members of the House of Orange to be stadholder, but they would no longer mount the throne by right of inheritance. They could then marry whomsoever they please (this time around the Parliament had to approve of Máxima), without regard for the constitution and government of a nation.


On February 12th Loekie and I are flying to Las Vegas to visit my mother. We’ll be in New York from the 16th to the 20th, when we make for Philadelphia for the Annual Meeting of the College Art Association, from the 20th to the 23rd. On the 24th we leave for home. From 2 to 6 March we’ll be on a study trip to Moscow, from the 10th to the 13th at the fifth annual congress of CODART in Maastricht, Bruges and Antwerp, and from the 13th to the 16th at the first meeting in Europe of the Historians of Netherlandish Art, in Antwerp. Don’t be surprised if you run into me, and don’t be disappointed if I’m slow in answering mail for the next month or so.


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