We are living in an age that has seen the canon, in all the arts, disputed and undermined; in which the notions of aesthetic judgment and excellence have been contested; and in which the very notion of taste, crucial to the relationship between an artist and his or her public, has been mocked and corrupted to within an inch of its life.
The work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (who died in 2002), modishly impenetrable but essentially simple in its central assertion about cultural formation, has been extraordinarily influential here. Taste, he held, "functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one's place', guiding the occupants of a given .?.?. social space .?.?. towards the practices or goods which befit the occupants of that position". His theory is based in empirical observation, and we know very well that the taste for cultural goods is socially stratified and inculcated in early childhood.
This shouldn't really make any difference to the status of the arts as sources of wisdom or enlightenment. They can be judged for what they have to offer, regardless of the origins of those who create or consume them, as natural science can. But the notion that the "high" arts can be used as a buttress for social authority has radically undermined the legitimacy of judgments of cultural value in a democratic age. It makes us uncomfortable.
Here in Britain and America, we see the effects of this most clearly in music. One can argue very strongly that classical music is not in decline, that more people are listening to classical music than ever before, that the phenomenon of the ageing audience is a mirage (classical concerts have always been grey-headed affairs). It is undeniable, though, that classical music has lost the authority, the social authority that it had in its golden age. To put it at its most cynical, people no longer have to pretend to like it, or make an effort to like it in order to qualify as "people of quality".