I recently re-read Pierre Bourdieu’s influential essay “The Field of Cultural Production.” Just before, I had spent 36 hours in Pacoima (a northeast LA neighborhood) consulting on an arts incubator project there. The latter helped me to understand – and understand the limitations of – the former.
Bourdieu is a French sociologist and philosopher (I am neither) who developed a theory of the “field of cultural production” based on the positions and dispositions of the actors (or agents) who are the producers, consumers, and gatekeepers of culture. He applied his theoretical constructs of “the field” and “the habitus” well beyond the artistic and cultural realm, often writing about power relationships and social positioning in societies writ large. According to Bourdieu, the artistic field is contained within the field of power, in a dominated position in that field (at its negative pole) which is itself situated at the dominant (+) pole of the field of class relations, as illustrated below.
This seems true when discussing artistic agents who are actually in a dominant class position, where the field of cultural production is situated within the field of power, as are the actors in the French literary field that Bourdieu studied in the development of his theory. Within that field, cultural capital and economic capital are literally polar: the poet creating “art for arts sake” for little or no audience is at the opposite end of the field from the bourgeois dramatist producing boulevard theatre for a mass audience. I find this polarity to be, quite literally, two-dimensional and therefore limiting (more on that later), but reproduce Bourdieu’s diagram here:
However, what happens when cultural production is not in that dominant position in the field of power? This seems to be the situation in Pacoima, where an amazing 20-year-old grass roots economic justice organization, Pacoima Beautiful, is working with the LA Department of Cultural Affairs to create an incubator for its local arts and culture and the artists who live and work there. I was privileged to be part of a panel convened by Urban Land Institute-LA to advise Pacoima Beautiful on the launch of the incubator program. Neither Pacoima Beautiful, nor its native culture producers, from muralists whose work created an open-air museum to folklorico dancers to the poets supported by Tia Chucha Press, fit neatly into Bourdieu’s field of cultural production. The field of cultural production in Pacoima sits largely outside the field of cultural production of greater LA, which, if we include LA’s extensive media industry, extends significantly closer toward the positive pole of the field of power and is further separated from Pacoima in Bourdieu’s field of class relations. The small overlap on the field map below represents Sony Pictures, a potential partner in a youth workforce development initiative in the arts incubator.
Bourdieu’s theory suggests that there is a constant movement of agents in the field from position to position across it, but it is not clear that an entire field, like the field of cultural production of a culturally rich but economically distressed community like Pacoima can move, at least not solely through the work of its own agents. And when it moves, in part through the actions of an organization like Urban Land Institute or the planners, developers, and investors who are ULI’s members or others, how do the very real people working in that field, the people we interviewed in order to make our recommendations, keep from falling off of it in the throes of gentrification? If an article in today’s LA Times is an indication, they will need to start answering that question now.