Art and the Elite

Critical Inquiry 1 (1):33-46 (1974)

University teachers, as is well known, commit acts of despotism. About three years ago I committed such an act. I told my students that I would not accept papers which included the words protagonist, basic , alienation, total , dichotomy, and a few others including elite and elitist. On consideration I decided to remove the ban on the last two for it seemed to me that there was no other term that could be used to discuss what is, after all, an interesting idea.It is of course true that my students and I use the word incorrectly. An elite must surely be a chosen body. Congress, the police, the final heat of the Miss World contest, and the Bolshevik Party are elites, whereas an aristocracy or a plutocracy—unless one believes the rich and the nobility to be chosen by God—are not. Nevertheless, when we use the word elite in connection with the visual arts it is certainly related to, though not synonymous with, class. An elite is usually a group within a relatively prosperous class. The patrons of the Renaissance were, presumably, at the apex of the social system: on the other hand, the patrons of the Impressionists belonged to a comparatively humble section of the middle classes. But it will be found that an aesthetic elite does always enjoy certain advantages of wealth and leisure and education.Quentin Bell is professor of the history and theory of art, Sussex University. He has written Virginia Woolf: A Biography, Of Human Finery, Ruskin, Victorian Artists and Bloomsbury. Other contributions to Critical Inquiry are "The Art Critic and the Art Historian" , "CRITICAL RESPONSE: Notes and Exchanges" , and "Bloomsbury and 'the Vulgar Passions'"
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DOI 10.1086/447776
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