Aesthetics, Desperate Housewives and Distinction

There’ve been some interesting discussions developing on the thread about Andrew Bolt’s demonisation of Desperate Housewives. If I’m reading it correctly, commenters are having difficulty agreeing to a definition of what constitutes “quality” in television, and the issue of television as commodity as opposed to artform has been forcefully argued.

This debate is an extremely interesting one, if not a new one. Since Immanuel Kant tried to lay down some rational markers for adjudicating questions of aesthetics, it’s proved very difficult for philosophers and art historians to agree on a transparent distinction between the aesthetic and the purely entertaining or moving. At the same time, critical theorists such as Theodor Adorno in The Culture Industry have bemoaned mass culture as capitalism’s circuses for the masses. In reaction to this sort of perspective, cultural studies theorists tried to destroy or deconstruct the distinction between high art and popular culture. Andrew Bolt’s well aware of the cultural studies project, and his scorn for pop TV might be part of this particular front in the culture wars.

Bolt’s column raises the political and social dimension to questions of aesthetics. A better approach than attempting to reach a universally valid standard of rational aesthetic form might be to understand cultural preferences in their social and class context, as the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu did in his classic book Distinction. Bourdieu tracked some very strong correlations between class and status and particular cultural tastes (ie professionals’ love for classical music or high opera) and argued that cultural preferences were status markers. So today you might say you like “Art House” to distinguish yourself as a particular sort of person. Andrew Norton was accused of doing something like this when he bemoaned the disappearance of the the literary best seller list. In fora like online dating sites, people send signals about their taste in this fashion to attract a compatible partner. When you meet someone for the first time in a social context, a shared interest in a particular genre or author can tell you a lot about your interlocutor – and a lot more than just their literary preferences. So, while the classic haute bourgeoisie that Bourdieu wrote about is probably a thing of the past, our cultural preferences still powerfully divide us from others in social space.

THESIS UPDATE: I’ve been bad today. Will work tonight. See you on the weekend, maybe.

So, on one level that’s easy to grasp, popular culture is a recognition of social values (and as noted in the comments thread on the earlier post, if shows like Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives didn’t give audiences what they wanted, they wouldn’t sell ads) and controversies over “family values” and threatened consumer boycotts are a regular feature of cultural politics. But there’s a more interesting politics to culture, where we try to establish our own distinction as intelligent, rational consumers of culture rather than reality tv addicts for instance. I’m extremely happy to confess that I love wallowing in reality tv, and indeed had a relationship a few years ago that grew up around Big Brother gossip and as my then girlfriend correctly predicted, we broke up when Gretel drew the final curtain. But I’d still want to defend the fact that The Sopranos is an excellent tv show compared to BB. I could do so by arguing that it has a deeper appreciation of human relationships, or comments regularly on ethical conflicts, but on the other hand, if I didn’t really like it, if I weren’t drawn to it, it still wouldn’t grab me. (And I’d argue for instance that the book of Sex and the City is a far superior piece of acerbic social commentary than the series, but maybe that’s just because Sarah-Jessica Parker annoys me endlessly).

But this doesn’t make cultural taste arbitary or purely subjective or personal. Clearly, as Bourdieu suggests, it’s a matter of social and cultural conditioning as well as personal (or ideological) preference. So the only conditioning that goes on is not just through advertising or the commodification of culture. Not everyone will agree with the statement that the Oscars are given out on commercial rather than aesthetic grounds. We also tend to erect hierarchies in acting as a craft according to medium for instance – hence Kate Beckinsale’s claim that she will do theatre and is thinking of studying medicine in response to commentary about her boobs rather than her acting in The Aviator. While I’d probably prefer to associate with someone who has Conrad or Dostoevski on their bookshelf rather than Barbara Cartland or Dan Brown, this doesn’t make me aesthetically superior or resistant to socialisation (though I also went out with someone who bathed in Gravox for her BB audition tape…). It just means that my socialisation has probably been more heavily influenced by my education and by having middle class professional parents than people from other backgrounds. Thus the supreme irony in Bolt’s animus against a very popular tv show is that he’s marking himself out (through cultural distinction) as part of the self-same elite that he claims elsewhere to despise. Or is Bolty worried that people will think he prefers trash tv to Sunday night BBC drama? Interesting…

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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C.L.
2022 years ago

What constitutes quality TV? Simple:

Sopranos
Six Feet Under
SBS World News
Parky (yes, he’s a star-fucker sometimes)
CSI (Vegas – I like Sarah)
The Apprentice (I like it anyway)
Dr Who
Rage

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

This high/low art distinction is getting more and more muddy anyway, what with the whole camp/irony thing going mainstream, as well as the fact we’ve all become much more sophisticated media consumers over the past few decades.

Basically we’ve gone in just few generations from yarning, books, several daily newspapers, the flicks and a couple of radio stations to 24 hour electronic broadcasting, narrowcasting and multicasting that covers everything from the economics of the Egyptian grain trade in 1000 BC to crush porn.

And what was a good night out was in Elizabethan or Jacobean London? Bill’s new sex comedy for young couples? An Inigo Jones masque rave for the wealthy singles, Webby’s latest splatter fest for the students or just some nice wholesome bear baiting for the whole family?

Today, how would you explain the demographics of “Kath and Kim”

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Nabs baby, you’re a genius. That’s the sexiest goddamn pitch I’ve read in literally minutes. Post-modern irony meets self-righteous indignation. Un-be-fucking-lievable What we need now is a synopsis, no an outline, maybe even a treatment. Your people and our people gotta get together, run it up the flagpole and see who salutes. Then again, maybe it’s Bolty who needs the treatment. Fucked if I know. It’d be sorted by now if the cunts hadn’t put the bean-counters in to check the expense account for coke deals on the corporate Amex. I nearly rang that Ross Turnbull and said to him “mate, I know just how you feel”. But then I saw the stupid cunt was just using it to take Bronnie to lunch. What a fuckwit. That’s the real reason why the Oz fillum industry is up the shitter, I reckon. Not enough drugs.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

“Not enough drugs.”

Clearly you don’t have a “relationship” with the “other” EP.

Vee
Vee
2022 years ago

I’ll do a CL type post

quality tv is anything that is not on the abc, sbs, or ten.

unless its Law and order or a similar show.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Darn it, I forgot to watch Dr Who tonight – Leila’s just joined the Dr!

At least Coupling’s on…

Nic White
2022 years ago

Vee, whats wrong with the TV on ABC and SBS? Im with you on the crap that is Ten though.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

Mark there’s definitely a few things to say here.
1. I have been very angry and depressed over the weekend and even did the dusting.
2. ‘The Braithwaites’ are good but even more agonising than real life.
3. Desperate Housewives is matt AND glossy and the clothes are trash and everyone is on the edge, bitching and lying etc etc etc
(I also watched most of The King and I over the weekend.)
And Parish you really ought not be swearing so much in public (what will the neighbors say?) and further more the OZ fim industry is not up the ‘shitter’ (as you so delicately phrase it) Just tonight I was watching the 7.30 Report and it said that Australian audiences are discerning and particular and THAT IS WHY Australian movies aren’t very commercially successful right now. In fact, SOME PEOPLE SAY that the best OZ movies NEVER WERE commercially successful. You see Nab,the camp/trash/irony thing that I love (especially without the irony, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, anything from Mary Kate and Ashley White Chicks etc, etc, etc) just isn’t popular here. The Aussie viewer prefers your Breaker Morant, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Somersault – relaxing movies to go to sleep by, beautiful AND MEANINGFUL too.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I mean, Bronwyn bloody Bishop. It tells you a lot about the decline and fall of the Australian ruling class, doesn’t it? They get hold of the reins of power and what’s the best they can think of to do with them? Take fucking Bronwyn Bishop to lunch! I mean, at least the fuckwit could’ve had a go at Angela. She might be a chubby-cheeked, even less intelligent version of Paris Hilton, but at least you could fuck her this side of a bottle and a half of bourbon, or a paper bag over the head (yours or hers, it doesn’t really matter). It’s like when it came out that John Major had been bonking that Edwina Currie. That’s when you knew the Tories were well and truly screwed. You can tell a lot about a ruling elite from the sins they embrace, and the ones they demonise. Which brings me back to Andrew Bolt. Come to think of it, I might stick with Bronnie and the paper bag.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Nic, come on, what about the OC? I totally, like, whatever, heart it :)

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Jen

Scandalising the neighbours now, is it? Well I’ll tell you a thing or two, my little bipolar poppet. Who is it that the lovely Rosamund seeks out when she brings over those little gifts of inedible lemons, or plastic crocodiles for the puppy? Not you, my darling. You’ve scared the bejesus out of the poor old fossil. Me, on the other hand, the soul of reassuring suburban respectability, if a bit frayed around the edges. You’re going to have to do better than that.

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

why watch tv when you’ve got the Ken and jen show live on Troppo?

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

Just crapped about on the OC on another thread here.

There’s a lot I could say about why I think it’s such a meretricious show. But someone else has said what I wanted to say about it here:
http://www.lowculture.com/archives/shallow/occentric/index.html
in a way that makes me much more envious of them than the OC world could ever make me feel.

The posts are in reverse chronological order. For the full effect, start at the bottom and work yer way up. Unlike the OC.

Ken and jen’s Albee-freestyling is much more fun. ‘Cos it happened to, with and for real people, in real time, really.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

I’m inclined to agree with you there girl – Around this time, on a Monday night, in Darwin, there’s not much on TV. So me and Parish are forced to amuse ourselves as best we can by torturing you lot with tawdry snippets of our overfed, self-indulgent, (not to mention self-satisfied) middle classabilia.
I’m not sorry. But don’t think for one moment I am not aware.

of what a pretentious prat Parish really is. Oh yes he may have a brain as big as a planet – but he PERSONIFIES the 4 Corners childhood nightmare.
Remember when you were a kid and you wanted to watch Matlock Police but your Dad had to watch 4 Corners, so you could never be one of the kids who knew cool stuff about detective sergeants at school on Tuesday? Well that’s what it is like living in close proximity to the Parish brain ….. endless fucking reruns of 4 Corners. Add red wine and what more need I say, the results, folks, speak for themselves.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

jen, no idea what the weather’s like in Darwin but here in Troppo Brisvegas it was 28 degrees outside at 7.30pm, the night-time minima are in the mid 20s and humidity seemingly 100% so for the sleepless blogoholic, there’s no better place to be when the teev fails you. Might go watch a vid, now, though…

Fyodor
2022 years ago

Do insomniac bloggers dream of electric sheep?

I managed to get home early enough the other day to see the “Leila joins the Doctor” episode. Christ that woman oozed raw sensual energy. I used to think it was because I was 12 that I found the whole leather leotard thing so profoundly disturbing, but she’s still got it. That, or I haven’t gotten over it.

On the subject of Coupling, is anyone else with me in declaring this show as having passed the “Jumped the Shark” point of no return? That Jeff-replacement Oliver is just not working out and the first 15 minutes of last night’s episode were torture. The spark has gone.

Rex
Rex
2022 years ago

I’m inclined to agree Fyodor. Apparently, according to a fan site ,Jeff makes a reappearance next episode, but hints that its not in normal form.

I think the thing that is most unfunny about this latest series is the overuse of the flashback and the dream sequence thing.

The humour of the earlier series was achieved I think by the use of everyday and banal situations. The overuse of dream sequences ruins that.

For mine the funniest moment of all was Jeff waving a door wedge and announcing to Sally that he needed to go to the bathroom and ‘declench’.

Which suggests the perfect treatment to Andrew Bolt’s problem. He need’s a bloody good ‘declench’.

Fyodor
2022 years ago

Rex,

Good points, but I think Old Rice and Monkey Nuts’ problem is that he declenches in public, whereas he really should confine himself to a “comfortable and relaxed” privy for his declenching sessions.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

Intelligence and sophistication can be a prison if they don’t allow you to watch the shows on Ten.

Seriously, I mean, fuck. Two pretty girls sitting on deckchairs by a huge pool by a huge house overlooking the Pacific talking about their banal love interests. What’s not to enjoy? Highbrow elites think they are islands entyre of themselves.

There is some really interesting pop culture stuff going on in the OC. For example Summer carried in a box of Seth’s things that had been left behind at her house. They’ve split up and she is moving on. There was a copy of “London Calling” on vinyl in there. The set dressing on the show is great. Some hip product placement – lots of iPods but also lots of turntables. Marrissa told Seth she liked to listen to the Stiff Little Fingers.

They seem to be wearing a lot of Penguin shirts aren’t they Bonds? The producers made a decision that beyond simply researching what was fashionable they would actively try to lead fashion.

It’s all so contrived and knowing this makes it more not less interesting. On Secret Life Of Us, Evan was meant to be some cutting edge hip journo guy so they dress him in a Che Guevarra T Shirt. Way to go, hip cutting edge Australian writers. eth on the OC wears a tee shirt with a picture of a bank of old Marshall speakers.

If you think reading the Russians and watching OC are mutually exclusive then your brain is failing you.

Tonight at 830. Seth who ran away from home (on his yacht) to Portland to work in a surf shop with Luke the water polo jock who left to join his father (the outed gay Lexus dealer) after his affair with his ex girlfriend’s mother became public knowledge. Ryan is back on the wrong side of the tracks looking after his pregnant girlfriend who I think has told him she has lost the baby to set him free. He goes to Seth and they agree to move back to the OC.

Fact: Sometime this series Marissa has a lesbian incident.

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

Seth in a polo shirt. five words.

“Fact: Sometime this series Marissa has a lesbian incident.”

I’ll be watching :)

will it be Summer? or Seth’s other nerdy comic book fan girl Anna? she had the official TV lesbian coded short hair (TM).

seriously, I agree with James. it’s silly, it’s a fantasy, it’s self-reflexive and self-parodying. the Melrose Place of the Naughties… and who didn’t enjoy Melrose – be honest!

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

and I’ll add, having lived in California for ten years, pretty realistic drama :) perhaps a bit like the Wildside of Newport…

yellowvinyl
2022 years ago

and Seth and Ryan are like so coded gay. totally.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

Be fair, yellow, you could argue that any pairing of males on TV is coded gay. Ryan is coded working class adolescent unable to express emotions – that is codespeak for straight as an arrow.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Jen should be given Mediawatch by a dazzled ABC Right Now!

Let yourself think about that for a moment. With Nabs as EP.

I don’t know how you people can watch commercial TV. It’s not the proggies, which are usually skilful, but the ads.

Now they ruining cable with the ads as well. I don’t think you can ever quite see the dregs of the video world on free to air. That lives in some discovery channel show fronted by some walking corpse like Eliot Ness.

I can tell you the difference between quality and crap in documentaries. Respect for the fucking truth. At least on the level of not telling your actual lies.

Another good indicator: does this show actually assume the audience is paying attention? This is a true distinction, because it tells you what the maker is thinking about the viewer. if they presume you are not, then a) vocab down to 300 words, b) no assumption that anything follows from anything and c) endless repeating of the situation. And us mob will be chewing the carpet.

This thing about popular culture v highbrow, btw, has got both SBS and the ABC in its chaotic grasp. I really don’t think they know what they are doing.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

And by the way…
My partner Susie told me the landlord finally hired a chimney sweep.

Ron came and did a beautiful job and started to talk to Susie.

“You’ve got a Munch poster.”
“Yes.”
“I reckon he’s really got something special you know. I saw his work at the gallery..”
He went on to explain that he has the contract to sweep the chimneys at government house and told her he just loves doing it because he could wander around all day just looking at the art.

It doesn’t matter what cultural background or income you’ve got. Some people just get it. It’s a helluva lot easier if you don’t have barriers like a family that doesn’t relate to art, or being too broke to buy tickets, or a lack of formal education but the good stuff is just there to be got.

Sometimes the canon promotes crap that is basically ideological, and the canon misses a lot of wonderful work, but basically the generally acknowledged works of high art have a density, a metaphorical richness, a deep consistency that shines through. Independent of class, education etc etc.

I freely admit there are forms I don’t get, and other forms I barely glimpse and would have needed a lot of practice when I was younger. But in every case, there will be a viewer sometime and somewhere who was raised in a garbage dump by junkies who believe in aliens, who will sit in front of it and be struck dumb by glory,

Sorry to go all classical on you – but I do think it is an apt story.

vee
vee
2022 years ago

Chris

sorry for the long delay, I forgot the title of this post and had trouble finding it.

I view the ABC as where all the reject shows and silly little British shows go.

SBS is okay I guess – I’d like some subtitles on the Indonesian news, etc, though