Consume This! Art in the Chilean Living Room

In recent years, the influence of Pierre Bourdieu on U.S. sociology has increased substantially. Jeffery Sallaz and Jane Zavisca did an analysis of Bourdieusian concepts in major journals between 1980-2004, finding both increasing influence as well as an expansion of concepts, from cultural capital to habitus to field. Since that analysis the use of his approach seems to have only grown. However, in the area of consumption the bulk of the Bourdieusian-inspired literature has been confined to North America and Europe. There is relatively little of this work from the global South, although a few prominent exceptions come to mind, such as Douglas Holt and Tuba Ustuner’s work on Turkey. Joel Stillerman’s work is another one. This month’s blog reports on his research on Chilean consumption. Taking on the question of class based differences in art, Joel revisits early work by David Halle which was critical of Bourdieu’s analysis of art. Joel’s findings are far more supportive of Bourdieu. This research raises important questions: Does class structure consumption more in global South countries than in the global North? Is class differentiation in consumption isomorphic across countries?

What do you think of this debate? Please comment!

– Juliet Schor


Art in the Chilean Living Room By Joel Stillerman

Chilean living rooms are a fascinating site of cultural consumption, which provide an excellent case for revisiting the debate Pierre Bourdieu began about class and taste, but that still remains unresolved. My work in Chile supports Bourdieu’s (1984) identification of a class-based taste hierarchy, identifies some limitations of David Halle’s (1993) critique of Bourdieu, and questions the applicability of the “omnivore thesis” to the visual arts. I am currently developing a book on social mobility and class reproduction among middle class Chileans. I am interested in how individuals’ family, educational, and occupational backgrounds affect their choices in the fields of education, housing, home decoration, and cultural consumption. The project utilizes 68 interviews with 77 adults (both spouses participated in some interviews), photographs of 31 living rooms, and participant observation. Upper middle class individuals had college or technical educations and incomes in the 60th-90th percentiles, while lower middle class individuals had high school or technical educations and incomes in the 40th-50th percentiles of the income distribution. I have published an overview of the project (Stillerman 2010) and an analysis of school choice (Stillerman 2016). Here, I outline ongoing research on household art.

The project engages with debates on Bourdieu’s (1984) work on class and aesthetic taste. He argues that businesspersons prefer established art while artists and intellectuals favor avant garde works. Middle class individuals consume minor artworks, while working class people use everyday categories to evaluate artworks due to their lack of artistic training. Additionally, Bourdieu (1984: 267-183) notes that businesspersons purchase artwork and attend gallery exhibitions, while artists and educators accumulate artistic knowledge through museum visits or study, reflecting their different endowments of economic and cultural capital.

David Halle’s (1993) study of art in upper-middle class and working-class living rooms in the New York metro area challenges Bourdieu’s argument. He found little difference in these two groups’ artistic knowledge or tastes, and argued that wealthy families’ display of abstract and primitive art did not reflect any specialized knowledge of art. Peterson and Kern’s (1996) work on the “cultural omnivore” also challenged Bourdieu’s thesis by arguing that the boundaries between highbrow and lowbrow taste have dissolved, and today affluent omnivores consume both elite and popular music. Others extend this concept to various cultural fields.

In my work in Chile, I found clear differences between individuals hailing from bourgeois families, educators and civil servants, private sector professionals, and lower middle class adults. Those with upper class backgrounds displayed original artworks produced by family members that were consecrated Chilean painters. Their comments focused on their family ties to celebrated artists. Some visited studios of artist friends but did not attend museums or assert artistic knowledge. Miguel, a physician, remarks, “These paintings are by my relative, Samuel Román Rojas, who won the National Art Award. People who know about art recognize his work.”


Samuel Roman Rojas painting, title unknown. Photo by Joel Stillerman.

Teachers and civil servants displayed reproductions of consecrated European impressionist and modernist painters as well as renowned Latin American artists. A few own original paintings they purchased. These individuals attended museums and galleries, and identified their favorite artists. Morgana, a teacher, comments: “I like Klimt and Van Gogh a lot. I don’t care much for Velazquez – his work is too dark—or Rembrandt.   I like Picasso, Roberto Matta [Chilean surrealist painter], and Dalí. It’s not that I’m an art expert, but I follow painters that I like.”


Morgana’s Matisse reproduction. Photograph by Joel Stillerman.

Private sector professionals display art produced by family members who paint as a hobby, regional Chilean artists, or landscapes and still life paintings purchased at garage sales or fairs. They did not mention favorite artists or museum visits. A few apologized that their paintings were “not by famous artists.” Ingrid, a retail supervisor, comments, “My friends gave me these oil paintings. I used to have a lot of paintings because my ex-mother-in-law paints. However, when I separated, my ex-husband took the paintings with him.”


Ingrid’s landscape by unknown painter. Photo by Joel Stillerman.

In contrast, lower middle class individuals, who often come from working-class families, display framed magazine images or artwork they or their children produced. They made no mention of consecrated art or museums, and exhibited a DIY ethos evident in their own or their children’s work. Iván, a former teacher working for a direct sales company, comments, “I plan on repainting the walls. My daughter is helping me decorate in the meantime. She made those paintings.”


Painting by Iván’s daughter. Photo by Joel Stillerman.

These differences illustrate a hierarchy of tastes among individuals with different endowments of economic and cultural capital, as Bourdieu argued. This may reflect Chile’s aristocratic heritage that it shares with France and that distinguishes it from the U.S. Additionally, it underscores complex divisions within the middle classes that Bourdieu observed and that Halle’s study glosses because it does not disaggregate different segments of the middle classes. Finally, it suggests that visual art is one of the most exclusive fields of cultural consumption and hence may be less subject to the shift to omnivorous taste found in more diffuse fields like music (Bennett et al. 2009). In my book, I hope to determine the extent to which these taste differences among Chilean middle class families correspond to their distinct investments in the fields of education, housing, and cultural consumption.


Bennett, Tony, Mike Savage, Elizabeth Silva, Alan Warde, Modesto Gayo-Cal and David Wright. 2009. Culture, Class, Distinction. London: Routledge.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Halle, David. 1993. Inside Culture: Art and Class in the American Home. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peterson, Richard A., and Roger M. Kern. 1996. “Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore.” American Sociological Review 61, 5: 900-907.

Stillerman, Joel. 2016. “Educar a niñas y niños de clase media en Santiago: Capital cultural y segregación socioterritorial en la formación de mercados locales de educación.” EURE 42, 126 (mayo): 169-186.

Stillerman, Joel. 2010. “The Contested Spaces of Chile’s Middle Classes.” Political Power and Social Theory 21: 209-238.

Works Cited: Jeffrey J. Sallaz and Jane Zavisca, 2007 “Bourdieu in American Sociology 1980-2004,” Annual Review of Sociology 33:21–41.


Joel Stillerman is Professor of Sociology at Grand Valley State University. He is the author of The Sociology of Consumption: A Global Approach (2015, Polity) and numerous articles and chapters on consumer culture and labor activism in Chile, Latin America, and the Global South.







2 responses to “Consume This! Art in the Chilean Living Room”

  1. mears Avatar

    Super interesting about aristocratic legacies and their structuring of artistic tastes. I often wonder how sociologists of art decorate their own walls, and now I wonder if this differs from American to South American sociologists.

    1. Joel Stillerman Avatar
      Joel Stillerman

      Thanks very much for the comments. You pose an interesting question about the extent to which our practices do or do not reflect those we study and where we live; the South American sociologists I know share to some degree the tastes of the second category of individuals mentioned in the blog post but I would need to look at this more systematically.

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