Art, privilege and distinction

Joan Miró, Golden Heaven, 1967.


Commentary on the book by José Carlos Durand

This book distinguishes itself from many other works dedicated to a similar theme because it conducts about 70 interviews with painters, merchants, journalists, editors, architects, decorators, directors and curators of museums and occupants of other positions in the Brazilian “art system”.

From a meticulous historical survey, Durand breaks down the internal logic of the fields of plastic arts and architecture in Brazil, starting from a long and well-structured chapter on the aesthetic order in the monarchical period and examining the role played by the Lyceums of Arts and Crafts and by the Fine Arts Academies in the training of specialized “manpower”. He also studies the participation of the haute bourgeoisie and the State as powerful patrons at different times, dedicating three detailed chapters to the constitution (and trajectory) of a dynamic luxury goods market in the country.

Inspired by the works of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), Durand re-discusses the bases on which the history and sociology of art are based. Citing a painter's humorous remark ("it is necessary to shake up the history of art before using it"), the author considers that, like medical and culinary recipes, "shaking" has the meaning of "revolving, giving consistency, recover density and flavor, mixing elements that some imperative force separated. Acting in a liquid medium, gravity throws the densest materials to the bottom, leaving the surface more 'pure' and crystalline, although rarefied from the properties of the medium it covers”.

The history (and sociology) of art, like any repository of erudite cultural tradition, “distinguishes epochs, highlights figures, brings together authors and works, delimits movements and trends, continuities and ruptures. Although one or another piece of research may occasionally change established classification schemes, much of what is written reassures and reinforces the current principles of periodization and classification”.

Both art history and art criticism, through their traditionally established methods, end up not exploring the funding mechanisms of the so-called society of artists. By concentrating on “trends”, going down to the analytical minutiae of the finished cultural product, carrying out detailed biographies of artists, the work of aesthetes can, in Durand’s view, “proliferate and constitute useful knowledge for the critical history of culture, without this necessarily implies knowledge of the social basis of aesthetic practices”. It is precisely at this moment that the sociology of culture enters the scene, concerned with the question of the interests in the midst of which the production, circulation and enjoyment of the cultural work take place, shifting “the traditional focus of attention, which is the work , for the author, and passes from this to the social milieu of art, accompanying the transformations suffered by it as a result of what is happening in society as a whole”.

Based on the choice of a posture that favors the “artistic environment” (and not an immanent analysis of the cultural product), Durand sought to study the relationship between art and society, seeking to understand “the autonomization of the artistic environment as a manifestation of the broader process of division of labor of domination. (…) It is this process that gives meaning to the professionalization of the artist and cultural intermediaries, allowing at the same time a more complete and generalized commodification of goods and services in the field of culture”.

In this sense, the author developed the book around three main strands. In the first, he reconstituted the history of fundamental institutions of the artistic milieu (for example, the former Academia Imperial de Belas Artes and the Lyceums of Arts and Crafts of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) during the period of the First Republic, tracing the market for portraits and mural decorations in aristocrats' mansions. In addition, it explored how the European vanguards (from impressionism to surrealism) were read or incorporated in Brazil, as well as examined the transformations that took place in the artistic environment, mainly with regard to the autonomization of the field of plastic arts, due to changes occurred in the country's economy, in the increase in the reading public and consumer of cultural goods.

The second strand accounts for the influence that the “modernist” movement had on the cultivated classes, through the dissemination of its watchword, which is the return to what is “authentically national”. This led to the revaluation of art and colonial architecture, resulting in the first measures to preserve the historic and artistic heritage, made up of churches, fortifications and other Portuguese baroque buildings from the XNUMXth, XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries. It was also observed, along with the intellectual milieu and the classes of possessions, a commercial escalation to the artistic estate of the small towns and cities of Minas Gerais, Bahia, etc., propitiating the establishment of a reasonable number of Brazilian antique dealers. From there it is possible to get “to the root of the reception conditions necessary for the operation of an art market in the broadest sense, including from popular crafts to the most indecipherable painting.

Another aspect takes into account the expansion and diversification of the luxury goods market based on the examination of the demographic growth of the middle class and the accelerated expansion of higher education, since already in the mid-1960s the female public enrolled massively in universities – from 1965 to 1980, a wave of female gallery owners emerged, which helped to suddenly expand the painting trade. Architecture was the “rich cousin” of plastic arts in Brazil in the period from Capanema to Kubitschek. A package of large orders by the government, “culminating with the Brasília program, ensured notable achievements and architects, then in a small number, were able to create their own faculties and model the teaching of architecture following the principles of Le Corbusier”.

This idyllic phase ended abruptly with the military coup of 1964. The post-1968 university policy promoted a disturbing inflation of diplomas and the labor market was unable to absorb the new contingent of graduates. “The dynamism of residential construction under the aegis of the BNH helped structure a sector of luxury housing in which the mercantile logic of the large construction companies pointed to architectural eclecticism and the aggressive sumptuousness of the architecture of engineers and decorators rather than to the 'stripped' grace of the architects' architecture, which is also sumptuous and expensive in its own way”.

Art, privilege and distinction it can sound, here and there, in an uncomfortable and disturbing way for those who think that art constitutes the last space still safe from the division of labor and the typical constraints of capitalism. Durand shows that things are not like that, that class relations penetrate the artistic milieu and, transfigured into subtle privileges, play a decisive role in the career paths of artists. Indeed, that is why, in The symbolic goods market, Bourdieu wrote that “there is no reason why science should grant the society of scholars, writers and artists the status of exception that such a society so easily grants to itself”.

*Afranio Catani, retired professor at USP and visiting professor at UFF, is one of the organizers of the Bourdieu vocabulary (Authentic).

Version with minor changes of an article published in the extinct “Caderno de Sabado” of the Jornal da Tarde on 01.04. 1989.


Jose Carlos Durand. Art, privilege and distinction: visual arts, architecture and ruling class in Brazil, 1855/1985. São Paulo: Perspectiva / EDUSP, 1989, 308 pages.


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