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Cultural Capital and Classical Music: Beyond the Dollars and ‘Sense’

What if we just believed things could change?

I was recently introduced to an idea that I found fascinating: the value of a particular work of art is predicated on the collective belief in its value. The idea comes from Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist, who wrote extensively on cultural capital and how it interacts with other types of capital (e.g. economic, educational). The idea that belief plays a central role in our valuation of art is intriguing both because it is intuitively true, and because it could be a more productive way to frame the conversation around classical music’s legacy, as opposed to the more inciting “classical music is racist” rhetoric that is floating around.

The apparent stagnancy of classical music’s culture has puzzled me for a long time. On the one hand, there seems to be collective agreement that the current system isn’t great — it perpetuates a canon of old, white men at the expense of younger, more diverse voices; on the other hand, things never really seem to change. Every year, major orchestras play symphonies by Beethoven and Brahms; opera companies perform Mozart and Verdi. And every year, people flock to see these performances, while complaining that organizations always program the same few works.

Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist, anthropologist, philosopher and public intellectual
Pierre Bourdieu

What I find compelling about Bourdieu’s work is that it provides a reasonable and dynamic explanation for this trend. That is, it explains the past and offers insight for the future. To put it in a very simplified manner, Bourdieu thinks about artistic production in terms of a field where everyone’s position in that field is predicated on their particular mix of cultural, educational, and economic capital. The more capital one has, the more power they have. The idea of cultural capital is tricky, though, because it’s much less tangible than economic and educational capital, both of which can be easily quantified. The amount of cultural capital one has is largely determined by other people believing that a particular work (or artist) has value — a Picasso is worth $9.5 million, on average, because we believe that it is. Because of this, Bourdieu argues, it’s not just the artist who is important; there is a complex set of relationships between artists, agents, and audiences, with agents (which can be either people or institutions) playing a particularly important role in generating belief in the artist or works they are promoting.

Viewing the canon with this lens could be productive. Along with humanizing the mythology around these artists and works, it can also give us a way of thinking about them that might loosen their hold on our collective psyche. Instead of the story that the canon is a body of work that has stood the test of time and has risen above the riff-raff into a celebrated position, let’s consider another: the canon is a body of work that a small number of people with capital (i.e. power) liked, advocated for, and these works eventually gained the status they have now. These promoted works were assimilated into a cultural ecosystem (consisting of teachers, performers, universities, symphony orchestras, opera companies, etc.) that eventually solidified into the system and set of the norms we have today.

When it comes to assimilating more diverse voices into the system, then, a simple way to enact that change may be convincing people that this expansion is a good thing. I don’t think we need to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but keeping in mind that major works hold the status (i.e. capital) they do today because someone advocated for them in the past makes the system more pliable. Consider also that the lack of various capitals has historically been one of the implicit justifications used to exclude certain groups of people. Together, these perspectives suggest that expanding existing pathways for accessing capital would be a reasonable action going forward. In the cases of artists from the past, such as Florence Price, consistently programming them could retrospectively confer cultural capital.

This could be done in a variety of ways, although I would argue that institutions have a special role to play in this work. Historically, institutions played a considerable role in mediating the creation of belief in certain artists, often through the process of credentialing. Institutions legitimized certain artists, and artists were able to use that credential as an initial infusion of cultural capital to launch their career. (It is crucial to note that, historically, this process was carried out in a manner that intentionally excluded certain groups. It may be instructive to look back and emulate aspects of older systems; it is not instructive to blindly replicate them.) But because cultural institutions have amassed significant amounts of cultural capital over the past ~150 years, it seems fair that those institutions should play an active role in conferring capital to less established artists.

It could be interesting, for example, if arts organizations expand their artist-in-residence programs to create larger cohorts of artists. This would both provide cultural capital to more artists and provide a space for interesting collaborative musical projects. In the case of universities, affirmative action seems like an appropriate strategy. This approach would pose particular and interesting challenges for music departments because of the implicit requirement for significant early music training. There would need to be some reconciliation between admitting a student who lacked the capital to access the prerequisites while ensuring that students exiting the program have reached a level of proficiency in line with the credential.

Of course, institutions can throw their weight behind new people all they want; the cultural field includes everybody, including audiences, and lasting change will be contingent on audiences also believing that these endeavors are worthwhile. Within the confines of our current system, that generally means support through capital exchanges — being willing to exchange your economic capital (i.e. money) for an artist’s cultural capital (the experience they are providing).

Additionally, on an individual level, it may be productive to examine your own beliefs about artistic spaces. Why do I like certain composers, works, artists — was I taught, either implicitly or explicitly, that this work is “good” and view it accordingly? Or is this something I genuinely find interesting and think it is worthwhile to keep around? How much am I willing to support newer artists? Belief is intangible; you can start or stop ascribing value to something anytime you’d like.* In short, this is a complex issue, and any lasting changes will take real time and effort. But if enough people are convinced that the system is worth changing, and if they support the changes cultural institutions make to amplify newer voices, it could create worthwhile changes in classical music.

*May not apply to all things. Society probably should stay a high-value proposition.

Author: Allison Jerzak

Allison Jerzak is a classical pianist based in Madison, WI. She is a passionate advocate for increasing classical music’s approachability and relevancy. Leveraging her experiences working in tech, she hopes to bring a unique perspective that bridges the traditional approaches predominating the classical music world with a more future-oriented vision. Allison completed her B.A. in piano performance at UW-Madison and her M.M. in piano performance and pedagogy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently studying privately with Christopher Taylor, and plans to pursue a degree in historical musicology.

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