ZOiS Spotlight 9/2020 by Félix Krawatzek (4 March 2020)
How frequently a person visits art museums and discusses these visits with parents or friends shapes that person’s aesthetic preferences. Since Bourdieu disproved in his famous 1984 Distinction the Kantian idea of a pure taste for what is aesthetically beautiful, it is acknowledged that social factors condition cultural tastes. Artistic preferences thus tend to reflect a person’s upbringing—their social origin—and current position in society. People tend to appreciate art they can decipher—that is, art for which they possess the aesthetic tools to turn the combination of colours and shapes into order.
In two cross-sectional online surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019 among Russians aged 16 to 34, we wanted to understand respondents’ aesthetic preferences. We presented people with three pairs of pictures: two landscape paintings, two female portraits, and two images of male workers. In each pair, one picture was realist and the other was abstract. The subjects were asked which version they preferred, and the responses were used to construct a three-point scale.
Overall, Russian youth expressed a strong preference for realist art. Out of a total of 4,033 respondents over the two years, 2,186 preferred all three realist paintings. 1,421 liked one abstract painting, and 426 favoured more than one. Younger people, women, those living in cities like Moscow or St Petersburg, and those with no children preferred abstract art.
These aesthetic preferences underpin a person’s broader cultural orientation, which has an important bearing on social values but no systematic relationship with political values.
The survey also included questions about what young people want their socio-political community to look like. Suggested statements ranged from ‘Russian culture and history should be at the very core of the curriculum in state primary schools’ to ‘The state should require Russian firms to put in an extra effort to bring immigrants from the near abroad into the company’. The first statement is an example of several conservative national ideas of political community, while the second illustrates more multiculturalist views.
A preference among young Russians for realist art correlated strongly with support for conservative ideas of political community. Overall, three-quarters of respondents agreed that Russian culture and history should be central to primary education or that knowledge of Russian culture and history is decisive for gaining Russian citizenship. But those who preferred realist art were over 20 per cent more likely to agree with either of these two statements. Russians under 25 also tended to agree more with these conservative sentiments.
Importantly, aesthetic preferences remained crucial for views on these statements even when socio-economic indicators such as income, gender, education, or religiosity were taken into account. None of these indicators correlated systematically with views on the statements.
A preference for abstract art correlated with support for some multiculturalist statements, for instance that the Russian state should increase ethnic diversity in the workplace. Overall, around 20 per cent of young Russians agreed with that idea. But those who preferred abstract art were nearly 30 per cent more likely to support the statement.
Responses to other multiculturalist statements, for example that the children of immigrants should have the right to be taught in their native language, did not correlate with aesthetic preferences. Some socio-economic factors, however, correlated systematically with opinions on this statement. Older respondents tended to agree more, as did those with higher disposable incomes and those who were more religious.
Another noteworthy relationship exists between artistic preferences and the idea that one’s personal values are shared by others in Russia. Those who were confident that their values were shared were almost 20 per cent less likely to prefer abstract art. This effect remained highly relevant even controlling for socio-economic indicators.
As artistic preferences show a systematic relationship with social values, it might be expected that these preferences also relate to political values: it is known that these two sets of values correlate highly with one another. However, young Russians defied this expectation.
Artistic preferences did not correlate with trust in the Russian president, opinions about protest, or interest in politics. The only political dimension that related significantly to aesthetic values was trust in the Russian army. Those who preferred realist art were much more likely to trust the military. Traditionally, the army is portrayed in Russia as having defended the motherland over time, as celebrated annually in the country’s Victory Day parades. The army is therefore a symbol that conveys societal continuity and stability, a feature which people with a more realist artistic taste seemed to value.
A person’s artistic tastes reveal their deeper social and, to a lesser extent, political values. Young people might be unaware of this link, but it is remarkable how important these preferences are in providing a schema for judging society. Personal aesthetics guide decisions subconsciously and inform how a person thinks about and relates to society. The things that a person appreciates and dislikes reflect their upbringing and position in society, including factors such as education or income.
Among Russian youth, this effect is most striking when it comes to what young people want their sociocultural community to look like. This points to the long-lasting effects of cultural socialisation and social outlook and also suggests that political values are shaped at a later stage in life.
Félix Krawatzek is a political scientist and senior researcher at ZOiS.