Jim Lewis has a piece on Slate about the photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue, who is famous for candid shots of fashionable French people in the early 1900s. The stock story about Lartigue was that he “achieved late-life fame as one of the first masters of the medium, an unschooled amateur who achieved genius entirely by naive instinct.” But there’s plenty of evidence that, in fact, this is rubbish:

His father was a camera buff, and the son was given every possible advantage: the newest equipment, lots of leisure time, and a thorough education in the ways of the medium. Moreover, it was an era when amateur photography was all the rage, when magazines and books were full of instruction, debate, and example.

Still, Lartigue presented his work as the innocent expression of a wonderstruck boy amateur, and MoMA was happy to promote it as such.

I recently came across a nice discussion of this phenomenon in Alan Bennett’s superb Writing Home. Here is Bennett writing in his diary for March 15th 1980:

Finish a draft of my piece for the Larkin Festschrift, Larkin at Sixty. Parts of it I like and are what I want to say, but I detect a note of Uriah Heep-like self-abasement, which could be taken to denote (and maybe does denote) arrogance. I seem always to be saying ‘What am I doing here I’m not a literary person at all.’ Apropos of this I have just ordered a copy of a book I saw reviewed, a translation of Ernest Kris and Otto Kurtz’s Legend, Myth and Magic in the Image of the Artist, the main point of which is that there is a tradition, in which the artists themselves conspire, of making a painter’s beginnings humbler and less sophisticated than in fact they were. The public liked to believe an artist had no training, that he astonished his elders, who picked out his skill when he was in lowly or unlikely circumstances. This has always been the case, and K. and K. demonstrate it from many periods. I suspect this is also true of literature. My contribution to the Larkin book discusses his poem ‘I Remember, I Remember’, in which he recalls what elsewhere he called the ‘forgotten boredom’ of his childhood and Coventry ‘where my childhood was unspent.’ He is trying to appear an artist without a past. And so am I in my piece, claiming I had little reading and no literary appreciation until I was in my thirties.

It’s an old story. Not even the Son of God himself was above indulging in it a little. It is closely tied to the desire for authenticity (the wish, that is, both to project and experience it). We want to present our tastes, abilities, and achievements as the unforced outcome of our natural talents because this is one of the main means through which we legitimize our social identity and, in the process, stay ahead of the competition. But really, and particularly in the case of good taste and our “feel” for what works and what doesn’t, a good proportion of this is a sort of resource. It’s cultural capital. To put it in overly-strategic terms, there are competitions in life where the best way to win is to pretend you’re not participating, while still managing to convey the impression that if you were in such a competition you would happen to be comfortably in the lead.

The degree to which this sort of thing is a conscious strategy or an ingrained disposition is an ongoing question in social theory. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu spent much of his career circling round the problem. He was fascinated by the often conveniently natural fit between people’s backgrounds and their tastes and ambitions. His theory of practice tries to get a grip on the fit between people’s class position and their disposition to speak or act in particular ways, to develop some tastes rather than others, to think they’re “cut out” for some jobs rather than others, to not even consider some options as possibilities. Bourdieu’s concept for how this feels to individuals is a slippery one. It’s the “habitus”. This one’s “feel for the game” or “sense of the rules” that you carry around with you. It emerges from your experience, and it helps structure your actions. Loic Wacquant provides a good, compact discussion of the idea in this encyclopedia article:

Because it is both structured (by past social milieus) and structuring (of present representations and actions), habitus operates as the “unchosen principle of all choices” guiding actions that assume the systematic character of strategies even as they are not the result of strategic intention and are objectively “orchestrated without being the product of the organizing activity of a conductor”

If the style of Francophone social theory is a little much for you—and Bourdieu’s style is enough to give anyone a migraine after a while, frankly, though he would probably say that both his prose and your headache can be traced to differences in the habitus of French and Anglo-American academic cultures—then consider this comment from a later part of Bennett’s Writing Home, which makes the same point:

There is a passage in [Namier’s] England in the Age of the American Revolution …: ‘A man’s status in English society has always depended primarily on his own consciousness … Whatever is apt to raise a man’s self-consciousness—be it birth, rank, wealth, intellect, daring or achievements—will add to his stature; but it has to be translated into the truest expression of his sub-conscious self-valuation: uncontending ease, the unbought grace of life.’

It’s the process of generating the apparently “unbought grace of life” that concerns Bourdieu, and that Jim Lewis is rightly suspicious of in his discussion of how Lartique got to be such a good photographer. Transparent efforts to acquire, display, and demand deference to one’s learning tend to fail. No-one likes a try-hard. Better to put it to work in a disguised way and allow it to express itself that way. Best of all, acquire these things gradually and then “forget” they were so acquired. Then all this cultivation becomes a natural expression of one’s authentic inner self and talents: uncontending ease, which of course puts others at their ease, too, and helps things go your way.

In Bourdieu’s picture, this process mostly happens during the long period of formal education. It takes money and, above all, time. These are resources which not everyone has in equal measure. One kind of capital, the straightforward monetary kind, is slowly converted into another, the cultural kind. Education gives you credentials, certainly (in Bourdieu’s terminology, this is the “institutionalized” form of cultural capital takes). But, more importantly, it also gives you embodied cultural capital that you express without needing to show people your college diplima. In the best cases, your habitus lets you comfortably fit into an already-structured social world, one that in the limit case smoothly meshes with your talents and skills in a seemingly natural, spontaneous, effortless manner. The artist without a past—the person whose knowledge and training has disappeared into his habitus so completely that they appears entirely self-made—is just an extreme form of this process. Of course on the other side, and of equal interest to Bourdieu, are the times when things do not mesh, and you are left feeling out of place or awkward, knowing (and feeling) that you don’t really belong in a particular situation.

The tricky part about the concept of habitus is that it can become a little too useful, especially when it’s used to explain how things always turn out badly for some kinds of people. It can be a sort of upside-down just-so story, where things are always orchestrated to turn out badly for people who don’t deserve that to happen. But there’s also something very right about the insight that the organization of the outside world, with all its unequally-distributed resources and often obscure rules, gets inside people in a way that makes life go more smoothly for some than for others, and that tends to encourage us to see our experiences as manifestations of a natural order (and our actions as expressions of natural talent or innate goodness), rather than as a kind of side-benefit of lucking in to the right background. In this way, Bourdieu’s analysis of the forms of capital and its role in social reproduction can be seen as an effort to theorize the increasingly common concept of “privilege”.