The visual arts in the home of Chinese middle-class: occupational status groups, abstract art, and self-presentation


(1.Department of Sociology, Northwestern University)

【Abstract】Using surveys, interviews and ethnographic data, this paper examines emerging Chinese middle-class families’ presentation of art in their home in addition to their reception and consumption of abstract art. The author argues that class attributes (i. e., income and education) cannot predict the differences in art consumption among the Chinese middle class. Regarding ownership of abstract art in the home, symbolic boundaries exist between occupational status groups. These boundaries distinguish between two traditionally perceived groups: those with high cultural capital (personnel in culture, education, and art industries) and those with lower cultural capital (personnel in manufacturing and service industries). However, consuming abstract art is not necessarily a signal of one’s class status, nor does it function as a “legitimate” taste. Middle-class consumers instead emphasize that interacting with abstract art in the home creates the imaginative capability to wander and connects one’s own life experiences. This finding joins a growing literature in the “new sociology of art” that emphasizes the aesthetic properties and materiality of art and taste in action, which further undermines Bourdieu’s cultural capital theory that sees taste as a static social symbol. Lastly, even for upper-and upper-middle classes, their consumption of abstract art is often exaggerated, as there is a big gap between liking abstract art and owning abstract art. This reveals the different self-presentations of the emerging Chinese middle classes in public and private spaces, indicating their impression management and the conflicting self.

【Keywords】 cultural capital; middle class; arts consumption; status group; material culture;


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    [1]. ① According to McKinsey’s definition, the disposable income of middle-class families is between RMB 60,000 and RMB 229,000. At the same purchasing power, it is equivalent to the range between the average income of Italy and that of Brazil. This group spends less than 50% on daily necessities, and its consumption behaviors and habits are different from those of other classes.

    [2]. ① Gartman (Gartman, 1991) questioned Bourdieu’s data and theory. In addition, in addition to being familiar with high culture, in order to enter the ruling classes in the United States and France, other cultural characteristics (such as moral and social characteristics) may be as important as knowledge of high art (Lamont & Lareau, 1988; Lamont, 1992).

    [3]. ① Thanks for the insights of anonymous reviewers.

    [4]. ① It is calculated according to the actual disposable income of urban households in 2010,

    [5]. ② This study classifies “wealthy” people into the category of the middle class, and they are in the process of transition from the upper middle class to the upper class. Since this transition is still in progress, the concept itself is mutable. For political or other practical reasons, most urban residents in China tend to identify themselves with the working class (Chen, 2002: 410), while the rich consider themselves as the middle class rather than “bourgeois” or “petty bourgeoisie” (Wei, 2007). Scholars have also studied this phenomenon of downward shifting subjective class identity (Liu, 2007).

    [6]. ③ It is controversial to regard cultural participation as an explanatory variable, because the variable of “capital symbol” is closer to the content of the dependent variable, which may lead to endogenous problems. The high correlation between theater consumption and the possession of abstract art may lie in the homology of these two kinds of behaviors, that is, the recognition of Western aesthetic conventions. Even so, the author still included cultural participation in the analysis, pondering that there may be different considerations of art consumption on public and private occasions (Halle, 1993; Goffman, 1959), and the underlying motives of these two types of behavior are likely to be inconsistent. Some scholars have emphasized the personal orientation of cultural consumption, that is, the motive to consume for one’s own physical and mental needs, rather than the traditional sense of other-oriented consumption (Tsai, 2005; Zhu, 2013b). In private space, the relationship between the subject and the art object is more likely to be amplified.

    [7]. ① There is no obvious difference in the total number of artworks among all levels of household disposable income, which is not included in the main text due to the limitation of length.

    [8]. ① Thanks for the insights of anonymous reviewers.

    [9]. ① It is worth mentioning that Li (2001) distinguished taste from activity.

    [10]. ① Descriptive statistics based on educational background and household disposable income level show similar results, that is there is no significant difference between groups, but they are not included in the text due to the limitation of length.

    [11]. ① According to the heads of various art organizations, new Chinese paintings have become a very popular art category among middle-class clients since 2010. They are called “new” because they combine modern Western painting techniques with traditional Chinese painting themes. Among the many types of new Chinese paintings, new ink wash paintings and new Chinese realistic paintings are the most sought after. The new ink wash painting is added with modern techniques based on the ink wash painting that the Chinese are familiar with. Because many middle-class consumers prefer the combination of realism and contemporary art, the new Chinese realistic paintings perfectly fit this category. A gallery owner in Beijing thinks that the reason why the new Chinese realistic painting is so popular is that it combines traditional means of expression with Western elements. Cultural sociologists can further explore the middle class’s preference for the combination of Chinese and Western styles of new Chinese paintings in the future.

    [12]. ② Thanks for the insights of anonymous reviewers.

    [13]. ① For a more detailed discussion on the relationship between interest and cultural transformation, see Griswold’s book review (Griswold, 2001).


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This Article



Vol 33, No. 05, Pages 66-92+243-244

September 2018


Article Outline


  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Theoretical background
  • 3 Data and methods
  • 4 Number of artworks in families
  • 5 Acceptance of abstract art
  • 6 Conclusion and discussion
  • Footnote