Art and Society

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There is no consensus as to what art is nor, until the 1970s, had sociologists expended much energy on its study or on the development of a sociology of the arts. While in Europe art had longer been of interest to sociologists than in the United States, even there it had not developed into an identifiable field with clear and internationally accepted parameters. As recently as 1968 the term sociology of art was not indexed in the International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, which sought to sum and assess the thinking and accomplishments in the rapidly expanding social sciences of the post-World War II period. Yet by the end of the century the study of art had moved into the mainstream of sociological theory and was rapidly becoming a favored subject for empirical investigation not only in the countries of Central and Western Europe but also in the United States.

Why should art, as a subject for sociological study, have been so neglected as to have virtually disappeared from mention in American textbooks for half a century after World War I? In large part this reflected the inherent tension between sociology and art, which, as noted by Pierre Bourdieu, make an "odd couple." Artists, believing in the uniqueness of the original creator, resented the social scientist's attempt to demystify their achievements by dissecting the role of the artist in society, by questioning to what extent artists are "born" rather than "made," by conceptualizing artistic works as the products of collective rather than individual action, by anthropologically approaching art institutions, by studying the importance of networks in artistic success, and by investigating the economic correlates of artistic productivity. Many scholars in the humanities were also skeptical. For them the appeal of art is something of a mystery and best left that way; they could hardly relate to the attempts of social scientists who, in their quest for objectivity, sought to eliminate any evaluative component from their own research. This practice of disregarding one's own personal preferences and tastes hardly seemed legitimate to aestheticians. Moreover, in pursuing a rigorous methodology, many sociologists chose to study only those problems that could yield readily to statistical analysis, and art did not seem to be one of those. They also preferred to focus on subjects that were important in the solution of social problems, and, in the United States, the arts were not generally regarded as high on this list.

Nonetheless, there has been—especially since the late 1960s—a slow but steady movement toward the development of a sociology of the arts. This is due, in part, to a narrowing of the intellectual gulf between the humanistic and sociological approaches. On the one hand, art historians have legitimated the study of art within its social context, and, on the other, mainstream sociology has become more hospitable to the use of other than purely "scientistic" methodology. In part this progress resulted from the expanded contacts of American sociologists after World War II with their counterparts in other countries where art is regarded as a vital social institution and a public good. And just as art must be understood and studied within its social context, so too the growing sociological interest in the arts reflects the growing importance of the arts within American society and the recognition of this importance by the government. Despite the concerted opposition of those who believe there is no role for government in funding the arts, at every level of government—federal, state, and local—arrangements for the support of grassroots arts have become institutionalized.

A small but dedicated number of scholars can be credited with sparking this postwar advancement of theory and research in the sociology of culture and, more specifically, in the sociology of the arts. The latter term, though not unknown before then, began to surface with some frequency in the 1950s; thus, in 1954 a session on the sociology of art was listed in the program of the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. In 1957 a symposium on the arts and human behavior at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences served as a catalyst for the production of a book, based partially on papers presented there. In its preface, the editor, Robert N. Wilson, concluded that a sociology of art, though in the early stages of its development, was not yet ripe for formalization. Nonetheless, Wilson's book included a number of articles based on empirical research that attracted attention. In one, Cynthia White, an art historian, and Harrison White, a Harvard sociologist, reported on their investigation into institutional change in the French painting world and how this affected artistic careers. Later expanded and published in book form as Canvases and Careers (1965), this research provides a working example of how a changing art form might best be studied and understood within its historical and social context.

Perhaps the most important step toward the development of the field in these postwar years came with the publication of a collection of readings edited by Milton Albrecht, James Barnett, and Mason Griff (1970). Clearly titled as to subject matter—The Sociology of Art and Literature—it was intended to serve a classroom purpose but also to advance an institutional approach to its study. In one article, originally published in 1968, Albrecht oriented the reader to art as an institution, using art as a collective term for a wide variety of aesthetic products, including literature, the visual arts, and music. In another ("The Sociology of Art"), Barnett reprinted his state-of-the-field synthesis as it stood in 1959, and, in yet another, Griff published a seminal article on the recruitment and socialization of artists, drawing in some part on his earlier empirical studies of art students in Chicago. Though here, too, the editors spoke of the sociology of art as being still in its infancy, they helped it to take its first steps by including in their reader a large number of empirically grounded articles—by scholars in the humanities as well as the social sciences. Divided into six subjects—forms and styles, artists, distribution and reward systems, tastemakers and publics, methodology, history and theory—it served for many years as an exemplary resource both for those attempting to set up courses on the arts and society and those embarking on research.

Beginning in the 1970s the sociology of art moved toward formalization and started to come into its own. Speeding this development in the new age of television dominance was a growing sociological interest in the mass media, in visual communications, and in the popular arts. The debate about mass versus popular culture was revitalized by new fears about the effects of commercialization, but some scholars began to wonder about the terms in which the debate was being cast. The assumption that art forms could be categorized as "high" or "low" or, put another way, as "mass" or "elite"—an assumption that had fueled the critiques of Theodor Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School—came into question as reputable researchers looked more closely at the empirical evidence (Gans 1974). Howard S. Becker's conceptualization of art as collective action (1982) did not so much mute the debate as turn attention away from the circumstances surrounding the production of any particular work—that is, what kind of an artist produced work for what kind of audience under what system of rewards—toward the collective (cooperative) nature of the activity whereby works regarded as art are produced as well as to that collective process itself. As attention turned to the production of culture, the arts came to be widely regarded by sociologists as socially constructed entities whose symbolic meanings reside not in the objects themselves but change as circumstances change.

Recent American studies in the sociology of art have taken varied approaches, both as to subject matter and methodology. Some have focused on genres that are considered marginal to established categories of fine art, including such "outsider art" as that produced by asylum inmates, "naive artists," African primitives, and Australian aborigines. Others have researched the process whereby "outsider artists" may make the transition to being "insiders" while still others, extending their interests to the politics of art, have considered what happens to "insiders" (and the art they have produced) when shifts in the political culture recast them as "outsiders." Sociologists have also extended their inquiries to the economics of art as they have considered the influence of funding and the structure of museums on the creation, production, preservation, and dissemination of art works; case studies of "arts management" abound.

Some inquiries involving genres marginal to established categories of fine art have adopted methodologically unusual approaches. These include Wendy Griswold's studies of the social factors influencing the revival of Renaissance plays (1986); Robert Crane's study of the transformation of art styles in post-World War II New York (1987); Liah Greenfeld's study of taste, choice, and success in the Israeli art worlds (1989); Vera Zolberg's studies of art patronage and new art forms (1990); and Gladys Lang and Kurt Lang's study of the building and survival of artistic reputations (1990).

These and other empirical studies that have already appeared in print or are under way are helping to clarify what is meant by a sociology of art. While there still may be no consensus as to what art is—nor need there be—some consensus is shaping up as to the direction in which the field should be moving. Leading theoreticians—Vera Zolberg, Janet Wolff, Paul DiMaggio, Richard Peterson, and Anne Bowler among them—agree on the need to keep the art itself at the center of theoretical concern but continue to disagree on the proper methodological approach to that "centering." Essentially, this pits the case for focusing on the institutions in which aesthetic objects are produced and received—an analytical approach—against one that emphasizes criticism and textual interpretation of the objects themselves. Zolberg has voiced the need to avoid the narrowness of both social science and aesthetic disciplines, accepting the premise that art should be contextualized in terms of time and place in a general sense as well as in a specific sense, that is, in terms of institutional norms, professional training, reward, and patronage or other support. To approach art as a part of society's culture, Zolberg argues, is no more potentially reductionist than to treat it, as aestheticians do, as an activity that only restricted groups with special interests and knowledge can hope to comprehend. Literature in the field is growing at a rapid rate as intellectual barriers between humanistic and social science approaches to the study of art begin to crumble.


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Albrecht, M. C., J. H. Barnett, and M. Griff (eds.) 1970 The Sociology of Art and Literature: A Reader. New York: Praeger.

Alexander, Victoria D. 1996 Museums and Money: TheImpact of Funding on Exhibitions, Scholarship, and Management. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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——1996 "Banishing the Past: The German Avant-Garde." Qualitative Sociology 19:323–343.

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——, and Charbo, Joni M. (eds.) 1997 Outsider Art. New York: Cambridge University Press.