Culture Capitals

This edition of ART PAPERS considers agents and centers of “cultural capital,” defined in the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) as a nonmonetary asset that promotes an individual’s social mobility in a stratified society. In Bourdieu’s critique there are three forms of cultural capital, one derived from “institutionalized” factors such as level of education, another from “embodied” qualities such as manner of speech, and the last from “objectified” sources such as a luxury handbag. All three are part of the arsenal with which the ruling classes maintain their status: individuals already in power control all the cultural capital because they determine the value (“high” or “low”) of artistic production. Yet a luxury loft or a degree from a prestigious institution have only a fixed value relative to such embodied assets as an individual’s social media personality or a sense of “style” that transcends designer labels—and in the post-digital world, the cultural advantage of these intangible qualities is limitless in potential. This variance creates possible points of access and mobility, because embodied cultural capital is not as strictly tied to money as its other forms are—and because it makes room for popular culture alongside the canon of “high” art. By the nature of their profession, artists are among those people who are inherently rich in such embodied cultural capital, regardless of their educational background or income; this condition of agility endows creatives with an unusual social mobility that routinely puts struggling artists in the same room as billionaires at such events as Art Basel Miami Beach. Outside of the party scene, inborn cultural capital also gives artists a unique power: they are called and equipped to question and disrupt the strata of society, in ways that can impact society.

Today, cultural capital is recognized as a hot commodity, and there are creative agencies devoted to producing and selling it—particularly to cities, where groups such as culturalcapital have made a business of bringing cultural capital to urban development. A city with an abundance of cultural capital is called a “culture capital,” a status determined by factors including historical contribution to artistic or literary movements, volume and prestige of local museums and universities, and the visible consideration of art and design in its infrastructural and commercial offerings. (Does the city have public sculpture? Does it have a Richard Meier building?) Old world cultural capitals are rich in these institutional and objectified assets; new or aspiring cultural destinations are not. Yet as we explore here in our “Vienna v. Vegas” dossier, no matter how many museums a city has, its hard-to-grasp embodied qualities—its “charm” and “energy”—are what will either attract or repel the capital-rich individuals and entities that a modern metropolis needs to grow.

Many cities seeking to raise their global economic mobility swiftly and cheaply begin by embracing their cultural specificities—which is what Austin was up to when it famously implored everyone to keep the city “weird.” Similar campaigns emerged across North America as part of cities’ bids to attract Amazon’s second corporate headquarters (H2Q); Atlanta is on the short list, an achievement that has made discourse about planning for and investing in culture particularly urgent in ART PAPERS’ hometown, and in our office. Meanwhile out west, Zappos, an Amazon subsidiary, has already tasked itself with bringing cultural capital to Downtown Las Vegas, where the company is just one voice in an ongoing discussion about how energize—and in some circles, how to “elevate”—Sin City’s art scene.

Yet if embodied cultural capital requires fewer institutional and material investments, it is also the hardest to fabricate or to synthesize. And if it “takes money to make money,” as the Hollywood-capitalist adage goes, perhaps it takes culture to make culture—just as you need active “starter” to make probiotic foods. What follows from this bacterial analogy is that cities seeking cultural capital must focus not simply on the spontaneous manifestation and deployment of culture but instead on the creation of the conditions in which it might authentically survive and thrive—so that when a (bioactive) culture is introduced, it will combine with its environment to grow into a unique, flourishing, and sustainable thing. That culture could come from a centuries-old strain, but it doesn’t have to; even the finest cultural import would curdle in the wrong Petri dish, just as the most dazzling public artwork would vanish on an unsuitable corner. Artists and arts professionals know the cultural biome of their cities better than any developer: where would you invest that capital?

Victoria Camblin