9th Conference European Sociological Association

RN07 Sociology of Culture

2009-09-03 15:30:00 2009-09-03 17:00:00 Thursday, 3 September 15:30 - 17:00 Art, Theatre, Dance Building II, C4.07

Rehabilitating Discredited Culture: The Endurance of Distinction in British Comedy

Sam Friedman, University Of Edinburgh, sam@festmag.co.uk; Topic 6. Culture and Power

At the Edinburgh Festivals, which together constitute the largest arts festival in the world, the Bourdieusian homology between class and cultural taste has been particularly enduring. Traditionally showcasing only the ?high? performing arts of opera, ballet and theatre, Festival attendance has been synonymous with the upper and middle classes. However, in recent years, this arena of distinction has been disrupted. Although audiences remain predominantly drawn from the cultural elite, there has been a significant rise in the production of ?low-brow? comedy. While in 1980 there were only 14 comedy shows at the Festivals, this number had risen to 649 by 2008, more than any other art form. Following other trends in elite consumption of popular culture, the leading sociological explanation for this phenomenon is the ?cultural omnivore thesis?. This theory posits that symbolic hierarchies underpinning cultural consumption have largely collapsed and dominant groups now have expansive cultural portfolios which incorporate both high and low culture. This paper is based on preliminary research that seeks to critique the ?cultural omnivore thesis?, arguing that its quantitative bias fails to examine both the specific practice of elite culture consumers and how popular arts such as comedy may have changed over time. Traditionally denigrated in the ?academy?, British comedy has undergone a significant transformation since the 1980s ?alternative comedy? movement. New ?high art? genres of critical, intellectual and surrealist comedy now dominate the Edinburgh Festivals and have subsequently been appropriated and consecrated by dominant groups. Such elite consumers of comedy are also rarefying their consumption by transposing their distinctly ?disinterested? aesthetic style to consume comedy in a manner inaccessible to those with less cultural capital. By examining the contemporary rise of comedy, this paper therefore suggests that an updated version of Bourdieu?s distinction may still be relevant.