One of the main themes French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu grapples with in his large ouevre is how advanced industrial and post-industrial societies produce, reinforce, and justify a social elite. His book The State Nobility argues that the grand ecoles and universities in France not only train the elite who run and enjoy the greatest spoils of society, but create a funneling system that uses enough meritocratic means of distinction to lend justification and legitimatization to this class. His book preceding The State Nobility, and the focus of my article annotation, is entitled Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. The subtitle of this book tips you off explicitly to what's under attack: The Kantian model of the notion of taste being universally accessible to any rational mind provided it positions itself to appreciate beauty within a state of disinterestedness. Bourdieu instead defines taste as a product of history reproduced by education, used to distinguish a society‘s elite from the rest of the masses and tautologically provide proof of its superiority. Bourdieu uses his training in sociology to illustrate how this works, actually studying who has access to artistic education and who does not, and what position these people occupy within society with statistical analysis. Bourdieu plays the empiricist to Kant's disinterested philosopher deducing notions of taste within his own mind, pointing to how a society-dependent concept like aesthetic taste is inextricably tied to the realities of a class-based industrial society and its means of reproducing itself.
For Bourdieu, "good taste" is the product of an expensive education from elite, stratification-reinforcing institutions, and is indicative of a familiarity with the story of art history and the ability to recognize allusions and advancements within that history. This taste is closely related to educational capital and to social origin. "Tasteful" works in this tradition are non-sensical to someone who has not learned this code, and betray a philistine's inferiority to the world of high art, which is nested within the elite power structure, proving the person unworthy of joining its ranks and justifying his/her low social position.
Comparing Bourdieu's class-based analysis of taste--so backed up with sociological data--with other Marxist writings on culture and media is illuminating. Consider Clement Greenberg's distinction between kitsch and avant-garde. Greenberg's paradoxically Marxist and elitist distinction between the two, so contemptuous of kitsch and so full of arguments for the blessings and virtue of high culture, look like a rationalization of the subjugation of the masses by an elite, a logic inherent even in his most Marxist writings (perhaps better-termed Marxist-Leninist).
Perhaps the point at which Bourdieu's analysis can most readily be attacked is in the prestige value high culture now wields within society. Distinction was written in 1979 using surveys given out in the country France in 1963 and 1967-68 as its data set. Particularly in the United States, the world's greatest proponent and engine of consumerism, the marriage of high culture with social and economic power could be argued as not being as tightly braided as it was in France in the 1960s. Appreciation of high culture is now often perceived as a practice explicitly at odds with those with socioeconomic power, as moans about the pittance granted to the NEA by the government and the very fact that high art must be subsidized and protected from the market in the first place attest. Telling someone you're majoring in Art History or English in a university will get you a sympathetic nod and advice about bolstering your food service resume. As high culture has retreated further and further into the academy, driven at its heels by the whips of mass culture, the tendency for the children of economic elites to develop a refined appreciation of artificial high culture may have waned--although the propagation of high culture in elite universities suggests this is not entirely so. (Incidently, Greenberg himself pointed out how even the elites in a capitalist society must work (amassing more capital, as opposed to the aristocrat, whose income is assured), and lose the leisure time and inclination to develop an appreciation for high culture, and perhaps in this he gets his posthumous revenge on Bourdieu). The inescapable, easy pleasures of mass culture have eroded the desire to do the hard work necessary to acquire an appreciation of high culture even in the elite classes designated by Bourdieu as its patron and protector. Bourdieu's book about France specifically also means it does not grapple with that certain strain of populism that runs through American society that any person with tendencies to appreciate art as opposed to commerce can attest. In American society, high culture is often equated with anti-democratic, aristocratic values. The French in particular are often caricatured for their snootiness and pretension. The book is about France, and although many of its concepts and ideas can be applied to the rest of the industrialized world, there are differences and particularities in France that resist this universalization.
Finally, in the "new media" promised by the computer, which subsume all other media within its binary code, as detailed by Kittler and Manovich, and hinted at by Marshall McCluhan's conception of the "global village", and in the media models of the socializing, homogenizing powers of mass media in Enzenberger and Baudrillard, questions of "high" vs. "low" culture lose primacy to the study of totalizing effects of mass media on society and its implications. High vs. low content is not a particularly meaningful distinction in a world where "the message is the medium." Mass media itself, irresistible, inescapable, and a new level of reality all humans in the industrialized world have to deal with, enact changes at a much deeper structural and transformative level than the actual content of this media in these theories.