Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The Pitmen Painters and Cultural Capital

September 13, 2009 · 7 Comments

I am very sorry that I am constantly bugging about anthropology, but I think the field has very interesting things to say about class, and it can help to understand class in London.

After seeing The Pitmen Painters at the National Theatre, a play I enjoyed very much although I could not understand some of the things the actors were saying, I thought how important cultural capital is. Cultural capital is the knowledge that most of us in the course have, because we attend a college, but that so many people do not have. Knowledge is capital, because it can take us places beyond our imagination and change us in many ways without us realizing it. The problem is that most of the times, the elite or canon will decide which kind of knowledge is valuable. Why is it important to know about Van Gogh, and not other painters? Why is there a way to speak proper English? Why do we have to behave a certain way in a museum, or in a restaurant?  Because someone decides what “proper culture is”, and as we saw very well reflected in the play, many people do not have this “proper culture” or cultural capital. The pitmen painters, did not have cultural capital, because after all, they were pitmen. Nobody ever taught them how to appreciate art because they never needed that knowledge to work at the mines. What is heartbreaking about the play, is to see that in the end, the pitmen are so alienated by their condition, that they cannot pursue what might have been their true nature as artists. After all, is any of us born to work in a mine? 

This thought made me think on how lucky we are that we have the cultural capital needed to understand the museums which we visit, to appreciate the classical music at the BBC proms, to know have connections through Dickinson, that allow us to have a talk with a top executive at Barclays. And yes, how lucky we are that we do not have to work in a mine.

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7 responses so far ↓

  •   russella // Sep 13th 2009 at 16:53

    I think you might be using cultural capital in too restricted of a definition. I was under the impression that a person with cultural capital is anyone socially or intellecually savvy to his surroundings, who can use this status to his advantage in place of other forms of capital. A great example of this may be “In Search of Respect” by Philippe Bourgois, where he explains the immense importance of cultural capital in El Barrio. I may be simply misunderstanding what you’re saying, but I would argue that the pitman had immense cultural capital. By saying they did not have proper cultural, you are simply slipping into the mindset of what proper culture is. Cultural capital is relative to the paradigm.

  •   mertnofa // Sep 13th 2009 at 18:11

    Fortunately, I have read Bourgois’s ethnography some years ago. It is a book I enjoyed very much, and particularly the concept he takes from Pierre Bourdieu is very relevant in his analysis of the Puertorricans living in East Harlem. Regarding the concept of cultural capital, may I disagree with you? In Bourgois’s analysis, it is very clear how both Primo and Ray, the main characters of this ethnographic research, LACK cultural capital. Allow me to remember you of two examples to make myself more clear. In the introduction, Bourgois gives the example of how many obstacles Ray had to face because he couldn’t understand the bureaucratic rules in order to set up a “legal” company, and being illiterate was a very clear example of the “lack of cultural capital”. The immense knowledge he had of Spanish and the values associated to Puerto Rican culture had no value in mainstream society, because the “proper values” or “proper culture” , is defined by powerful groups in society. This central idea in Bourdieu’s work is that the ruling class in any society is the one which decides the ranking of symbols (what constitutes good taste in art, for example). So, someone who does know the codes for decent behaviour, “proper” speech, good taste and so on, has a surplus of symbolic or cultural capital. Difference in taste express “objective class differences”. For example, Bourgois shows how Candy, for the interview “dresses tacky” and clearly does not share the dominant codes. Bourdieu shows that knowledge of these values is strongly correlated with education and class background, and argues that the very definition of “good taste”, (as in the examples given by Bourgois) is a manifestation of power which confirms and strengthens rank differences, as well as giving a certain prestige in itself.
    I think you either misinterpreted my point, or the concept of cultural capital.

  •   mertnofa // Sep 13th 2009 at 18:22

    And I beg your pardon, but when you say that cultural capital is relative to the paradigm, to which paradigm are you referring to? The Structure of Scientific Revolution by Thomas Khhn? If we are talking of paradigm as “surroundings”, then it is obvious that what surrounded the pitmen, was an English society strongly divided by class, a structure in which they found themselves at the bottom.
    I recommend you read a book called “Distinction” (1984) by Pierre Bourdieu, where he develops how cultural concepts of good and bad taste express and contribute to the maintenance of particular symbolic power relations.

  •   russella // Sep 14th 2009 at 05:08

    Andrew Russell shut down in not one but two posts. It would appear as though I have mixed up cultural capital and street culture, which I would argue has a similar– although different social class– meaning.
    You bring up Bourdieu but if I remember correctly he says that cultural captial is knowledge, skills or advantages that can bring higher status in society to a person. If I recall that was from ‘The forms of capital.’ I don’t have the exact quote, but judging by your thorough responce I imagine you do. With this definition in mind, and I am taking this quite liberally I admit, it would seem plausible that each socio-economic class had its own cultural capital and that our understanding of cultural capital comes from knowledge and skills which are important to us.

    Anthropologically speaking, it seems quite hypocritical of a community who prides itself on cultural relativity to use a word such as cultural capital with a fixed societal norm involved. By its very name, it seems as though it would refer to capital reflecting off of one’s culture. But alas, anthropologists, a silly bunch indeed.

    I have read the structure of scientific revolution by Thomas Kuhn, and indeed was using his interpretation of the word paradigm(although not in the hard science mindframe); I was refering to the idea of a set of rules and customs which people abide by within a society.

    Semantics asside, it would seem I have insulted you in some way, which I am dreadfully sorry for; I don’t want you to feel as if I doubted the legitimacy of your post, I was simply questioning whether a looser definition could be used, which it appears is not conceivable. Nevertheless, you bring up several points which I don’t agree with at the moment:

    Van Gogh was not given cultural capital by the upper class but rather in a general societal acceptance and appraisal for his work’s beauty. I would argue that you put Starry Night in front of anyone, poor or rich, and they will appreciate it– no cultural capital necessary. They may have starkly different reactions to it due to their personal story, but I imagine the feelings of awe and confusion would be quite similar. Furthermore, I would argue that the people of Ashington had distinct ways of eating and speaking which they considered correct, which were quite distinct from the upper classes mannerisms. The play was about class struggle and therefore made glarring attempts to show the desire of the lower class to have what the upper class had. However, the play also demonstrated the immense pride the Ashington Group had for their people, miners and the lower class in general, which leads me to believe they did not feel entirely(key word, i admit they did want to view art as the upper class did) as if the upper class had created the correct culture.

  •   mertnofa // Sep 14th 2009 at 21:13

    Not insulted at all, in fact there are few things that I enjoy more than discussing these topics and I appreciate that you want to discuss them. However, let me start by clarifying that “street culture” and “cultural capital” are not similar concepts but that, street culture develops as a resistance to higher culture, or what is considered cultural capital. What is sad, is that “street culture” ends up being self-destructive for the lower class, just like we saw that Oliver semi-destructs himself when not accepting the money.
    I certainly agree that what “proper culture” is, is determined by the paradigm, that is, the burgeois paradigm. The paradigm is determined by the dominant group or Gramsci’s hegemony.
    I do not agree with you that we live in a “community that prides itself of being cultural relativist”, but instead, sadly, people are NOT generally cultural relativist. It was the field of anthropology that, starting with Malinowsky, claimed that to understand that “complex thing” that is culture, we must study it under relativism.
    Finally, I am sure that what is considered to be beautiful has to do only with class values. Universal beauty of art is a risky concept….We may just think of a few examples to see that it is not a simple matter: Why African art was not appreciated in its full complexity before Picasso an other twentieth century artists began to appreciate it? Why some of the greatest works of art in history were so controversial when created? And If you refer specifically to Van Gogh, please let me remind you that his work was only appreciated after his death; and even today the work of renown artists such as Damian Hirst are so strongly rejected by the greater audience. Art of the past and present requires the institutional acceptance before it is legitimized by the public. And this is connected again to how power is connected with symbols, and that the ruling class in any society is the class which decides the ranking of symbols.
    (Distinction 1979) “…the cultural needs are created by education: our study demonstrates that all cultural practices (museum vistis, attendance at concerts, exhibitions, talks, etc) and preferences within literature, painting or music are closely connected with the level of education (which is measured as academic title or number of years at educational institutions) and social origins”

    I feel rather embarrased to tell you that I saw the painting Starry Night at the MOMA, and it didn’t do anything for me. I just say that I like it because I have the cultural capital to know that Van Gogh is kind of a big deal!

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