If you think back to your college intro to anthropology course, you might remember a semi-obscure French theorist named Pierre Bourdieu. In a place with far less social mobility than America, Bourdieu was an exception: someone born with limited choices who made it to the upper echelons of French culture. In America, we’d call this the system working; for Bourdieu, it was the exception that confirmed the rule.
We think of Bourdieu, a detailed chronicler of daily life and a sort of unsung music critic, for two primary insights:
Cultural capital (how we are indexed by others) is as important, if not more important, than actual capital (wealth);
Cultural capital cannot be bought or even learned after the fact.
You inherit cultural capital through an early life osmosis Bourdieu called habitus. This explains much of the persistence of class distinction in America in spite of the relative ease of making money here. Habitus is the reason why the wealthy have terms like nouveau riche and why the creative class looks down on Wall Street types — because you can’t buy good taste.
Time was, however, that wealth dictated taste or the wealthy allowed themselves to be educated by those with a higher level of cultural capital — people like editors at respected publishing houses, theatrical production teams and, especially, curators. There was relay between creative communities and the elite — think of financiers and politicians slumming in the bohemian nightlife of Paris or downtown Manhattan in much of the 20th century. But in many ways, the curatorial class function more like cultural capital mentors and included Renaissance polymath Giorgio Vasari, 19th century connoisseurs such as Bernard Berenson and the more modern example embodied by MoMA director Alfred Barr.
The great paradox of the curator has long been that while they usually have high levels of educations and cultural clout, they are relatively poor. The trade-off is that they get to be the taste makers, to directly mold the habitus of the next generation and to conserve that which came before. A curate, historically, derives from this latter idea, of preservation and archiving. The role of the curator was, for many decades, that of gatekeeper and conservator, someone with broad and deep knowledge who could give context and maybe scholarship to those objects that they ensured were culturally and historically significant.
The role of curator has since bled into that of figurehead, fund-raiser, lighting rod, marketing strategist and gallerist. Such changes have been a long time coming, breaking down the dominance of what many argue is a subjective and power-laden white, Euro-American influence in favor of more global, populist and inclusive models. But the status of the curator is also under siege. You can scarcely open a magazine without reading about a “curated” farm-to-table restaurant or walk the streets of San Francisco or Brooklyn without stumbling into a “curated” retail experience. It seems that curating is now synonymous not with expertise, research, argumentation and preservation, but with organizing or editorializing products in an appealing way. In other words, “good taste” has migrated from the MoMA and other storehouses of high culture to the tempestuous currents of “cool” products and their purveyors, consumers and reviewers.
Curating has expanded fully into the realm of experience and consumption, and the curator is defined by taste rather than expertise. More and more, it is essential to capture or align oneself with a certain “creative,” affluent urban demographic (also known as hipsters). Just as all bacon is now “Applewood smoked” and all macro-brewed swill is “craft beer,” for many of us, everything we buy or do must be “curated.”
Perhaps inevitably, there is a recent confluence of the habitus trap, the high/low culture game and all of that terrible, terrible beer. That confluence is Jay Z. Not content to be the Michael Jordan of commercial hip hop (they share a revolving door between the field and the front office, endless PR-driven retirements and “comebacks,” and an interest in selling cotton products), Hova is making a play for cultural capital on two fronts: the old guard, as described in his track “Picasso Baby” on 2013’s Magna Carta... Holy Grail, and the new guard, by visibly “curating” the Made in America music festival, which is underwritten by Budweiser and to be held on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway in late August. This Jay Z case spells out many of the changing currents and lingering contradictions of taste and class in America.
Hip hop culture has always been aspirational. Even during the golden age from 1978 to 1993, b-boys, MCs and graffiti writers attempted to differentiate themselves from their peers and gain citywide, even international status. By the mid-1990s, however, such aspiration was more explicitly about signifiers of material wealth rather than community credibility. Such a shift was notably East Coast; recall 2Pac’s “California Love” line that the West Side wears “Chucks not Ballys,” and that other 1996 anthem, the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize,” which featured Biggie dressed like the Monopoly man and cruising around in a cigarette boat. The latter’s 1994 track “Juicy” boasted of condos in Queens, and his posthumous hit “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems” lamented the perils of a nouveau riche life.
Biggie’s impresario and producer Diddy would go on to lay down the blueprint for hip hop moguldom, rolling out his own Sean John clothing line, producing television shows, running a music label, appearing in public in Hamptons-ready suits and teaming up with the French vodka Ciroc. Indeed, what luxury item was more associated with turn of the millennium hip hop than luxury booze, from Cristal to Cognac?
In two ironic twists, such efforts to join hip hop culture with Robin Leach-worthy consumption coincided with two shifts:
The consolidation of luxury goods under international conglomerates;
The shift in the value of those signifiers — as Jay McInerney observed in 2007 — with Upper East Siders (on whom the hip hop moguls modelled themselves) searching for downtown cool rather than old money luxe.
On the whole, the success of hip hop in general, and the Diddys and Jay Zs of the world in particular, was welcome news for luxury good conglomerates and even better news for mainstream music consumers, as a formerly marginal music became the de facto mainstream. It did raise the question, however, of what happens when class signifiers can be easily bought and sold, and what happens to oppositional culture when it is absorbed into the upper echelons of American life. One might initially conclude, like Bourdieu, that traditional hierarchies of “good taste” have a lot more to do with wealth tout court than we’d like to admit and that the past two decades have shown that, in America, signifiers of taste a can be rapidly upended and appropriated. Much of what we call hipster culture relies on this instability of cultural capital and the suspicion it arouses: Perhaps actual taste is not about old money (habitus and privilege) or new money (aspirational success), but about a kind of cultivated expertise that was once the province of cultural capital mavens — curators, editors and critics, in particular. Such a de-linking of taste and money is what guaranteed the very desirability of pursuing such professions (which are and were rarely remunerative) and opened entire sub-cultures of near fanatical specificity. In Stephen Frears’s 2000 adaptation of High Fidelity, the record purveyors at Championship Vinyl may have been dirt bags, but their taste (granular-level musical knowledge) gave them superiority over damn near everyone. Perhaps it is unsurprising that from this seedbed, Pitchfork Media began its rise to prominence.
Pitchfork is perhaps unrivaled as a threat to curatorial practice. For one, it started as a soapbox for precisely the sort of amateur scholars and critics that once populated vinyl shops and coffeehouses, and who were now gaining influence in the populist byways of the Internet. It’s hard to remember that what started as an uber-blog — replete with snarky posts, haphazard rating scale and shaky cultural purchase — is now a brand empire of sorts (much like Vice Media). For another, it represented the very trend that James Murphy articulated in the LCD Soundsystem song “Losing My Edge”: that the sort of cultural cachet and underground elitism that once took years to cultivate could now easily be had by anyone with a high-speed Internet connection. While Pitchfork may be the best version of the phenomenon, it is also a synecdoche of a larger trend, in which everyone is an expert, a critic and a voice with a potential audience. It is unsurprising, then, that what is now known as the annual Pitchfork Music Festival started in 2005 as the Intonation Festival, which was “curated” — not organized, not produced, not developed — by Pitchfork.
For their part, major urban museums have gotten wise to this populist turn. Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a piece that questioned the very role of curatorial education and expertise in a landscape in which cultural consumers demanded to experience spectacle, to be entertained, to participate in the museum rather than to learn from it.
But wait, I was talking about Jay Z, right? The above helps us to understand Hova’s curious two-pronged play for cultural capital. Not content to pursue traditional hip hop moguldom, with his own records, clothing line and label, he has thrown his hat into the ring of traditional high culture.
This summer’s Magna Carta... Holy Grail, of course, features the song “Picasso Baby.” Viewed in light of Kanye West’s recent conversion to minimalism, “Picasso Baby” seem an overt and predictable step on the path of wealth-enabled upward mobility. No longer is Hova merely drinking brandy and driving Bentleys; according to the song, he now owns famous paintings by the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, his wife is a present day Mona Lisa and the Louvre and the MoMA are his playgrounds. Absent are any serious appraisals of the contemporary art landscape, and “Picasso Baby” seemed, at first blush, merely to confirm the rapper’s stratospheric wealth and unsubtle attempts to signify a social refinement to match. But then in early August, a 10-minute “performance art” video by veteran director Mark Romanek was released to promote the song. In it, Jay Z not only name-checks Marina Abramovic, but echoes the celebrated artist’s 2010 stint at the MoMA. Here, Jay is surrounded by an adoring crowd in a white cube gallery and interacting with noted artists like David Yellen, Fred Wilson and Mickalene Thomas. In the interview footage that accompanies the performance, Jay Z seems to position himself in a deeper lineage with Basquiat in the ‘80s and some of the more successful black visual artists in the world now. It’s a remarkable statement that declared the rapper’s migration into high art in two ways: the James Franco-style “it’s performance art because I say it is” method and the cred-by-association model pioneered in Basquiat’s own milieu. He’s in an art gallery surrounded by famous artists, so his work is, by extension, art (rather than a promotional video by the guy who directed Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”).
By now it’s old news that once august institutions must pander to the sort of spectacle entertainment that draws paying customers and that entertainers have a stake in playing their trade as fine art. And yet, Jay Z is not content merely to operate in the circles of contemporary art: With this year’s Made in America festival in Philadelphia, he’s able to assume the mantle of curator. When Perry Farrell assembled the Lollapalooza in 1991, no one (including Farrell) confused his project with the fine art profession of curation; after 2005’s Intonation and the subsequent deluge of “curate” as a catch-all verb for choosing things that one likes/thinks could make money, it’s no surprise that Hova might use such a festival to solidify his status not as business man, but as a cultural capital leader — and not just for hip hop audiences, but for everyone.
For its part, Made in America is a perfect globalization-era example of the power of cultural signifiers as good branding. The festival capitalizes not only on Jay Z’s astute repositioning, it also uses Philadelphia’s status as ultra-patriotic heritage site to reinforce the working-class American authenticity of the Budweiser brand. Never mind that, since 2008, Anheuser-Busch has been part of InBev, a multinational conglomerate that resulted from a Belgo-Brazilian merger. Never mind, either, that many of the acts at Made in America are the same bands that make the rounds between Bonnaroo, Osheaga and Lollapalooza year after year or that Jay Z’s early attempts to dock into the rock market were tin-eared (Linkin Park? Fall Out Boy?). The greatest irony may be that, with the exception of Jay Z’s wife (the irrefutably talented Beyoncé Knowles), most of the top-line acts aren’t even American, from Phoenix and Deadmau5 to Calvin Harris and Nero. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Made in America won’t be a very good time, only that it reflects the both the ironies of localized branding in a transnational economy and the real devaluation of the very stuff on which old fashioned cultural distinction was predicated, such as cultivated taste and the elitism of expertise gained over time through education and experience.
The upshot of all of this is that Bourdieu was both right and wrong. Cultural capital (distinction) is what many of us are really striving after, and such capital is complexly interrelated with wealth. On the other hand, in America, old cultural frontiers are quickly eroding and signifiers of prestige, training and good fortune are more and more up for grabs — all you need is a burgeoning bank account or a well-trafficked blog (or both). In other words, the American dream of class mobility is alive and well — just think twice about getting that degree in curatorial studies.
Ian Bourland is an art historian and cultural critic. He is an assistant professor at MICA in Baltimore, where he works on modernism and globalization, and writes for a range of institutions and publications.